What Are Super Telephoto Lenses?
They do this by combining many lens elements together, allowing you to magnify and get closer to your subject.
There are many cases where this would be helpful. Capturing the moon, for example. It is difficult to get closer to it without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Safari photography is another area where you don’t really want to get closer to that lion licking their lips.
A telephoto lens runs from 70mm to 200mm. A super telephoto is a lens that exceeds that range. For example, the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L (prime lens) and the Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E. You can even buy a telephoto lens for iPhone.
What Can I Expect From a Super Telephoto Lens?
Minimum Focusing Distance
There are things you need to be aware of when using a super telephoto lens. Firstly, due to their magnification of distant places, they have a small minimum focusing distance (MFD).
Unlike Macro lenses, who specialize in getting you close to a subject, super telephotos aim to get to close to faraway subjects. You’ll find their MFD starts at over 2 meters or 7ft and can reach 35 meters.
This means that your subject needs to stand 2 meters from your lens to be focused. Chances are, you don’t want to do this anyway, as super telephoto lenses are built for close-up portrait shots.
The second thing is that they have (usually) in-lens image stabilization. Nikon calls this Vibration Reduction, but basically, it stops camera shake when using the lens.
Longer lenses are more sensitive to movement. This is down to their length.
Placing a super telephoto lens on a tripod is a little different than how you would with standard lenses. With the longer lenses, a grip on the lens itself attaches to the tripod. This is because of the change in the center of gravity due to the larger and heavier lens.
With super telephoto lenses, you’ll find multiple modes. These are specific to how you might want to use your lens.
It is, of course, a guide, as we don’t take into account wind or photographers who love coffee.
A 400mm super telephoto lens limits you to 1/400th of a second without a tripod.
You will also notice that the apertures of these lenses aren’t as fast as others. If you need a faster aperture/lower f/stop, you need to pay for it. And they can be incredibly expensive.
Reaching f/2.8 is possible, but due to the extra elements needed for the faster aperture, it weighs a lot more.
While we are looking at the weight of the lenses, you don’t have to go for the usual DSLR full-frame option. If you want to travel with your super telephoto, then look at the Micro Four Thirds options.
They are much smaller, lighter and give you the same focal length.
An aperture of f/5.6 is one of the most common sizes that you’ll find.
There is a benefit. If you use the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L with a full-frame camera, such as the Canon 5D Mark IV, it gives you a focal length of 400mm. Used with a crop sensor, such as the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, the focal length is multiplied by 1.6x.
This gives you a focal length of (400mm x 1.6) 640mm. This gets you a lot closer to the moon and allows you to stay further away from the lion staring at you.
All this without having to spend more money than the lens, which isn’t cheap, to begin with.
Having a super telephoto lens that can autofocus fast and correctly is beneficial. Camera manufacturers try to supply what the users demand, and add an Ultrasonic Motor (Canon) or Silent Wave Motor (Nikon).
These help the camera to focus faster while keeping the lens movements quiet.
It goes without saying that with the inclusion of all this technology, the lens is only as good as the user and the camera being used. This is important to know, as you might purchase a lens that falls to limits to your camera body.
On the lens, you will find other features. An AF lock button which forces the lens to stop refocusing. This is great for when you expect a subject to cross a particular area, such as runners crossing a finishing line.
There might also be a focus limiter, limiting the lens’ focal point to a small range.
Technology & Construction
Lens and camera manufacturers pour everything they have into telephoto and super telephoto lenses. They try hard to ensure high-quality images, taken at speed, with low light diffraction, and countering camera shake.
On the outside, you’ll find that a magnesium alloy is used. This helps to protect the lens from all sorts of situations while reducing the weight. Canon coats theirs in white, which reflects more sunlight than the black paint. The hotter the lens, the more it will expand.
On top of that, they then have to make the beasts as light as they can, without compromising the quality.
The front and rear glass could have protection against water and/or dust.
Zoom or Prime?
All lenses come in two forms; zoom or prime. Each has its benefits and drawbacks.
A zoom lens offers you versatility. You can change your focal length to a distant subject, coming towards the camera. All this without having to move.
A prime lens, however, gives you one focal length. You have to physically move to change your perspective and framing.
Prime lenses have superior quality, as they only need to work at one focal length. A zoom lens will be pin-sharp at some focal lengths, but not all of them.
If you need a 400mm focal length, the prime will have a sharper focus and higher image quality than the zoom sibling.
As zoom lenses need motors and extra elements, they tend to be heavier. If they aren’t heavier than the prime version, more money was spent making it lighter. This cost is passed to you, the buyer.
First or Third Party?
One of the biggest questions when it comes to buying lenses is where to get it from? A Canon super telephoto lens will always cost more than the third-party version of the same lens.
The competitors need to reduce their price to stay competitive.
But how do the lenses from companies such as Sigma, Tamron or Tokina compare to the first-party companies such as Canon and Nikon? The reason I bought my Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 was due to two reasons.
What I did find is that the Sigma was 50g lighter, but not weatherproof like the Canon version. Both have the 77mm filter size and removable tripod plate.
The Canon version is said to have a smoother focusing ring, but this wasn’t important for me as I capture street photography, not action or sports.
All in all, the few benefits did not necessitate a higher cost. The price was a huge factor in my choice of lens, and I feel I made the right choice for me.
The takeaway point here is that your first-party manufactured lens might not be a whole lot better than the equivalent. and if there is a difference, it might be negatable.
Research is very important here. Compare two possible lenses against each other and see if the extra price is worth it.
As with any photographic purchase, only buy what you are going to use. When I bought my second DSLR, I went ahead and bought every lens I could get my hands on. My thoughts were that every possible scenario would be covered.
This was over eight years ago, and I used my telephoto (super telephoto focal length with my Canon crop sensor) less than 30 times. I didn’t need it but spent over $1000 on it. Sure, I was grateful to have the chance to capture the moon a few times, but I could have easily rented one.
Other factors include what are you going to use it for? If you are a landscape photographer, then you don’t need fast autofocusing.
You can also get away with a lens with the fastest aperture of f/5.6. You will shoot at f/11+ anyway. You can also do without flashy Image Stabilisation, as you will use a tripod.
If, however, you capture action and sports, you’ll need the faster autofocus feature. You’ll also need the Image Stabilisation and the extra development of lighter elements. A faster aperture than f/5.6 will also be beneficial but expect to pay for it.
Enthusiasts are in a better position. The majority of us who are not professionals will have crop sensor cameras. This means you only need to purchase a telephoto lens, and still achieve the super telephoto focal length. They will be lighter and cheaper, allowing you to get your hands on one.
If money is no object, then expensive usually means best. This extra money was poured into the research and development of these lenses, so you can rest assured, they will have the best quality.
If you’re looking for the top picks, we have Best Telephoto Lens to Buy for your viewing pleasure.