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Gadget Bag: Extreme Telezooms

Get supertele reach and zoom versatility, plus stay cash-flow positive. We look at the pros and cons of lenses with 500mm and more.
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

Dramatic photos can be achieved with extreme focal lengths.

One of the major challenges for wildlife and sports photographers is getting close enough to the subject. We need reach. The big challenge with big reach is cost—500mm and 600mm superteles cost $10,000 and up. The solution is the extreme telephoto zoom. Sigma and Tamron offer zooms that go out to at least 500mm for around $1,000. These zooms may not perform like a $10K prime, but they’re capable of delivering sharp images of distant action.

The extreme telezooms also offer a big advantage over the prime supertelephoto lenses: They zoom. It’s hard to “find” a flying bird looking through a 500mm or 600mm lens, especially on an APS-C DSLR, with its 1.5x crop factor, which gives a 500mm lens the even narrower angle of view of a 750mm on a full-frame camera. With a zoom, you can start at the wider angle of view of the shortest focal length, then zoom in on the subject when you have it in the finder.

The $1,000 extreme telezooms weigh 4.3 pounds or less. The 500mm ƒ/4 primes weigh 7 pounds and more, and the 600mm ƒ/4 primes weigh 8.6 pounds and up. While 4.3 pounds isn’t light, it’s a lot easier to carry—and handhold when you need to—than 7 pounds and more. Of course, for optimal sharpness, any lens should be used with a tripod, especially longer ones.

Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD

Minimum Focusing Distance
Another advantage of the extreme telezooms is their relatively short minimum focusing distances. The 500mm ƒ/4 lenses have minimum focusing distances of 12 feet and more, while the $1,000 extreme telezooms focus down to 8.9 feet or closer. This doesn’t make a lot of difference in terms of maximum magnification (the optical systems used in the zooms don’t deliver as much magnification at minimum focusing distance as a prime would if it focused that close), but you’ll be able to keep shooting should a subject approach more closely. Most of the low-cost extreme telezooms focus down to 0.20x magnification (1/5 life-size at the image plane), while the supertele primes just go down to 0.14x (1/7 life-size).

Here’s where the costly prime super-telephotos have a big advantage—ƒ/4 is 1.3 stops faster than ƒ/6.3, which is the maximum aperture of the low-cost extreme telezooms at their longest focal lengths. That means you can use a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO setting with the prime than with the zoom in a given light level, and have a brighter viewfinder image to work with.

The fast 500mm and 600mm primes usually autofocus more quickly and perform better optically than the $1,000 extreme telezooms. As we’ve said, that performance comes with a $10,000 price tag. The two main contenders in the $1,000 extreme telezoom category are Sigma and Tamron.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Sigma 150-500mm F/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM; Tamron SP 200-500mm F/5-6.3 Di LD.

The Sigma 150-500mm F/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM has been popular with budget-minded wildlife photographers since its introduction in 2008, delivering lots of reach and good performance at a very good price ($1,069 estimated street price). The HSM focusing motor is quick and smooth, and the OS Optical Stabilization is effective. Sigma also offers the 50-500mm F/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, which goes much wider at the wide end, has the OS and HSM, provides about the same performance and, surprisingly, is actually 0.1 ounces lighter than the 150-500mm, but we’d opt for the 150-500mm as our budget extreme tele, as it’s considerably lower priced.

Tamron unveiled the new SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD zoom this year, and it looks like a winner for wildlife and sports-action photographers. It provides a usable 600mm for $1,069. It’s the only lens under $7,999 that can do that. The lens can deliver sharp images, and is just as fast (ƒ/6.3 at 600mm) as the zooms that go to 500mm. As with the other extreme telezooms around the $1,000 price point, sharpness falls off slightly at the extreme end of its focal-length range, but it has a 100mm advantage on the others. AF performance can handle many birds in flight. The USD focusing motor is smooth, and the VC (Vibration Compensation) is effective. You can save a little over $100 by opting for the older Tamron SP 200-500mm F/5-6.3 Di LD, but the 150-600mm is a better lens with a better AF motor, VC and 100mm more reach—we’d choose it over the 200-500mm.

Sigma 300-800mm F/5.6 EX DG APO HSM; Sigma 200-500mm F/2.8 APO EX DG

Pro Extreme Telezooms
Sigma offers a pair of unique pro extreme telezooms that should be mentioned in any discussion of long lenses. The 300-800mm F/5.6 EX DG APO HSM has the cache of giving you up to 800mm, and it costs about $7,999. Sigma also makes the world’s fastest 500mm lens, the 200-500mm F/2.8 APO EX DG. It weighs 34.6 pounds (it really takes two people just to set it up on a tripod), and costs $25,999. If your budget permits, these two zooms are well worth consideration.

Bottom Line
The extreme telephoto zooms give you the reach of the costly supertelephoto primes at a fraction of the cost. That reach means you can get wildlife shots you couldn’t with shorter lenses. You do give up some sharpness and AF performance to the pro primes, but you get wildlife shots you couldn’t get otherwise if your budget doesn’t allow for $10,000 lenses.

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Another economical way to gain focal length is to add a teleconverter to a telephoto lens you already have, but there are some caveats. If you add a 1.4x converter to a 300mm lens, it becomes a 420mm lens—not 500mm or 600mm. If you add a 2x converter, an ƒ/4 lens becomes an ƒ/8, and won’t autofocus except on the higher-end DSLRs, and there tends to be a noticeable loss of image sharpness. If you add a 2x teleconverter to an ƒ/5.6 lens, like a 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 zoom, it becomes an ƒ/11 lens, which won’t autofocus with any camera and gives a dim image in the viewfinder, making manual focusing a challenge. You could add a 2x converter to a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens and get a 600mm ƒ/5.6, but AF performance and sharpness will still suffer somewhat. Also, that 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens costs considerably more than one of the extreme telezooms. Using teleconverters—including teleconverters that are specially matched to a particular lens—are great ways to get more focal length out of lenses you already have, but they’re not perfect solutions.

Canon 2x converter; Nikon 2x converter; Kenko 2x converter