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Choosing a Telephoto Zoom Lens

Along with a good mid-range zoom lens and a wide-angle zoom, a telephoto zoom will round out your collection of lenses quite nicely. A telephoto lens will zoom in further and magnify the subject more than a typical mid-range kit lens. This makes them great for "reaching" those far away subjects like wildlife, sports and even detail shots on landscapes.


This is 200mm on a full-frame camera (equiv. to 125mm on a small-frame)

When selecting a telephoto zoom lens, you'll have to consider a few things (in addition to budget). First, the higher the focal length number, the more "zoomed in" the lens can go. Meaning, a 70-200mm lens won't reach as far as a 100-400mm lens. So if you need to reach as far as possible, go for the higher focal length number.

You'll also want to look at the lens' maximum aperture. The maximum aperture is the widest the aperture can open on the lens. A wider maximum aperture will let in more light and, thus, allow the camera to use faster shutter speeds. So if you think you'll need fast shutter speeds when using the lens, you might want to consider getting the lens with a wider maximum aperture. The lens' widest maximum aperture is always indicated in the title. For instance, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens can open all the way to a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Whereas the Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS can only open to an aperture of f/4. To learn more about how to understand lens nomenclature, check out this post.

Here are the telephoto zoom lenses I recommend:


Canon 55-250mmCANON

Entry-Level
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS (buy - $255)

A great starter lens for those looking to get a little more reach out of their Canon DSLR. It's a mere $255, which shouldn't break the bank for most people, and it zooms pretty far out to 250mm. Although this isn't as far as the next lens, which reaches to 300mm, 250mm ain't half bad for a lens under $260. At this low of a price, though, the autofocus motor isn't as fast or as quiet as the more expensive lenses. But at least it has image stabilizer, which is a very nice perk on long lenses like these.

Canon 70-300mmMid-Level
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (buy - $549)

This lens has a few benefits over the 55-250mm discussed above. First, it reaches 20% further out to 300mm. When photographing wildlife or sports, that extra 50mm turns out to be quite a bit. The build quality of this lens is a little bit better over the 55-250, too. Sure, it's no magnesium-alloy tank like the professional series lenses, but it will feel a little more robust than the 55-250mm. Most importantly, this lens features Canon's Ultrasonic Motor (USM) auto focus system. That means this thing will focus much, much faster and much more quietly than the 55-250.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L ISHigh-End Option 1
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS (buy - $1,349)
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II (buy - $2,499) 

For your first high-end option, I'd recommend the Canon 70-200mm. At 200mm this lens really doesn't reach that far. Truthfully, it just isn't enough zoom for most wildlife photography. But for sports and portraits...it's phenomenal. That being said, Canon offers both a 70-200mm with a maximum aperture of f/4 and one with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Both varieties come with or without image stabilizer, too (get it with stabilizer included - no doubt about it). As part of Canon's L-series professional line of lenses, both feature Canon's top-of-the-line optics, construction, weather-sealing and ultra-fast USM auto focus motors.

But now the real question: do I get the f/4 or f/2.8 version? Here's my short, no-nonsense recommendation: If you want to shoot portraits or sports and you won't have to hike long distances with this lens, get the f/2.8. The 2.8 max aperture will let in 1 stop more light than the f/4, which may be the difference between a shutter speed that's just fast enough or one that's just a little bit too slow for sports. And as for portraits, the ultra-blurry background at f/2.8 will make you drool. But if you're planning to use this more for photographing detail shots in landscapes or if weight will be an issue for you, go with the f/4. It's over a pound-and-a-half lighter than the 2.8 and it's only 1 stop loss of light, which is usually no big deal when shooting still subjects. Oh, and it's over $1,000 cheaper.

Canon 100-400mm High-End Option 2
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS (buy - $1,699)

If wildlife is your thing, then I'd recommend the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L. It reaches over twice as far as the 70-200mm and features the same pro-level build, optics, weather-sealing and image stabilization. At 3.04 lbs, it's no lightweight, so be prepared. But hey, the 70-200mm f/2.8 discussed above still has a quarter of a pound over this baby. The extra reach here will be worth the loss of light (which is actually quite a bit). And with today's modern cameras going up to 6-digits on the ISO in some cases, the lack of light won't be much of an issue.

 

NIKON

Nikon 55-300mmEntry-Level
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR (buy - $397)

Much like the Canon 55-250mm discussed at the top of this post, this Nikon 55-300mm is a great starter lens if you're looking to zoom in a little further for sports, wildlife, portraits or kids. It has Vibration Reduction (which is Nikon's brand of image stabilizer) and has a decent auto focus motor. Truth be told, though, this thing feels pretty chintzy in your hand. The focus rings always feel loose to me. I really think this lens should run more around $275 than $397, but again, good for starting out. It'll last you a couple years or less, then you can graduate up to a more rugged lens.

Nikon 70-300mmMid-Level
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED (buy - $587)

This is a great mid-level telephoto that works perfect for those photographers looking to shoot the occasional kid's baseball game or the local air show. Like all lenses in this mid-level price range, it won't let in a ton of light, which may become an issue when photographing in dim environments, but the price and weight are just right for the casual shooter. The build quality is slightly better than the 55-300 above, but the zoom and focus rings still feel loose to me. It also has Vibration Reduction to help combat camera shake.

Nikon 70-200mmHigh-End Option 1
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (buy - $2,397)

For close-range sports, portraits and scenic details, the Nikon 70-200mm is a superb choice. Its max aperture of f/2.8 will let in a boatload of light, allowing you to use faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISOs - perfect for capturing action. The build quality is leaps and bounds above the mid-level lens discussed previously. Rugged construction and weather sealing ensure this lens will go to hell and back with you, and never miss a shot. The optics, of course, are top-notch and the Vibration Reduction will be a godsend when handholding this puppy. It's pricey, but you won't need to replace it for years and years.

Nikon 80-400mm

High-End Option 2
Nikon AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED (buy - $1,679)

If you need more reach than the 70-200mm can give you, the Nikon 80-400mm may be your best bet. It's rugged, tough and sharp - all good things when it comes to photographing wildlife. And with double the reach over the 200mm, you won't find yourself wishing for "more lens" as often. Don't get me wrong, though, you'll still want "more lens." Wildlife always leaves you wishing you could reach further. The loss of light with the smaller max aperture may be an issue when photographing in dim environments, but with ISO performance the way it is on newer cameras, it won't be a problem most of the time. Be prepared to carry the weight of this beast, though.

Choosing a Wide Angle Lens

Wide angle lenses are great. They give a view of the world that just seems to be more interesting than how we see it. They are great for a lot of different subjects, but especially as a landscape photographer, my wide angle lens puts in a ton of hours.

16mm View on a Full-FrameThis is 16mm on a full-frame camera (equiv. to 10mm on a small-frame)

In this post, I will lay out my recommendations for a super wide angle zoom. But before we get into it, let me explain that term "super wide angle zoom." First of all, the term "zoom" does not mean "zoomed in" or "magnified." A zoom lens is simply a lens that isn't stuck at a single magnification. By rotating the zoom ring, you can change how magnified your subject is.

I personally prefer zoom lenses over prime lenses (lenses that don't zoom). They are much more convenient and there is no major difference in image quality these days.

Secondly, "super wide angle" is a pretty loose term. There isn't a set cut off as to what makes something "super wide angle." But I'm going to go ahead and say anything wider than 24mm on a full-frame camera or 16mm on a small-frame camera could be considered "super wide angle." Plain old "wide angle" would be about 24-35mm on a full-frame and 16-24mm on a small-frame.

So that being said, let's look at the lenses I recommend.

Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5

For A Canon Small-Frame Camera
Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 (buy)

This lens is the widest-angle lens Canon makes for their small-frame line of cameras (excluding fisheye). At 10mm, you'll get an angle of view around 107 degrees. That's plenty wide for those sweeping vistas. It also has a USM (Ultra Sonic Motor) Auto Focus drive. That means ultra fast and ultra quiet focusing. At about $750-$800, it's not super cheap, but it gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Every serious landscape photographer using one of the Rebel series cameras, the 60D, 50D, 40D or 7D should seriously consider adding this lens to their collection.

Canon 17-40mm f/4LFor a Canon Full-Frame Camera
Canon 17-40mm f/4L (buy)

Canon offers 2 super wide angle zooms for full-frame cameras: the 17-40mm f/4L and the 16-35mm f/2.8L. Both are professional-grade lenses, delivering the finest quality optics Canon has to offer. I personally use the 16-35mm, but I'm going to recommend the 17-40mm. First of all, the 17-40mm runs about $700-$800, whereas the 16-35mm runs about $1500. That's a big difference in price. The 16-35mm obviously has a slightly wider view, but really, that loss of 1mm with the 17-40mm is no issue at all. Plus, with the 17-40, you get an additional 5mm in the long end. Yes, the max aperture is a bit smaller at f/4 vs f/2.8, but that's no big deal either because you won't often be using the widest aperture - especially not for landscapes. And lastly, the 17-40mm has a 77mm filter thread. The 16-35mm has an 82mm filter thread. 77mm filters are a little easier to come by and the Cokin P filter system (of which I'm a strong supporter) tops out at 77mm.

Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5For a Nikon Small-Frame Camera
Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G (buy)

For you Nikon small-frame shooters, I'd say go with the Nikon 10-24mm lens. 10mm on a Nikon small-frame will give you an obscenely wide angle of view (equivalent to 15mm on a full-frame camera). The Silent Wave Motor means fast, quiet focusing, and a filter thread diameter of 77mm means this lens is compatible with the Cokin P filter system. Runs about $875. Another option is the Nikon 12-24mm f/4G. The optics are a little better than the 10-24, but it's pricier at $1200 and you lose 2mm on the wide end of the lens. 2mm doesn't sound like much, but a 2mm increase on a 10mm lens is a 20% loss of focal length. I'd say stick with the 10-24mm.

Nikon 16-35mm f/4GFor a Nikon Full-Frame Camera
Nikon 16-35mm f/4G (buy)

A lot of people in the Nikon world make a big deal out of the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G. They rave about its image quality and the fact that it can zoom out ultra wide to 14mm, which gives the widest angle of view I'm aware of from a non-fisheye lens. I'm sure the image quality is great and, yes, the super wide view of 14mm is pretty cool, but this lens has one colossal flaw that few people ever address: it doesn't have front filter threads. That means you can't use any of those vital-for-landscape-photography filters like a polarizer or neutral density. Split NDs are definitely out of the question with this lens. So as far as I'm concerned, this lens is practically useless for landscape photography. Oh, and it costs $2000. Instead, I'd recommend the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G. 16mm is as wide as you'll ever need, it has excellent optics and, best of all, it has a front filter thread for 77mm filters. Plus, you'll save almost $900 over the 14-24mm.

DSLR Camera Recommendations

With the holidays upon us, you may be in the market for a DSLR camera to give as a gift (or keep for yourself), so I thought I'd write up a blog post summarizing my thoughts on what to buy according to your budget.

Let me tell you up front that although there is a mix of Canon and Nikon here, I almost always urge people to go with Canon cameras. I've taught well over 200 students on just about every single DSLR Canon and Nikon have to offer. Both manufacturers make excellent cameras and you'd surely be happy with either, but I just find Canon's controls to be quite a bit more user friendly. Also, Nikon cameras have a few quirks that I'm not too crazy about. But really, it's the photographer, not the camera, and truth be told, I find the whole Nikon vs. Canon debate about as useless as arguing over who's dad would win in a fist fight. So please, no letters, Nikon guys.

Let's start first with camera and lens kits:

Canon Rebel T3Under $600
Canon EOS Rebel T3 with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy)

Canon's Rebel line of DSLR cameras is their "entry level" series aimed at novices, but that certainly doesn't mean these cameras are incapable of even the most advanced photography. They contain all the features an aspiring or intermediate photographer would need, and the Rebel T3 is a great choice at about $500 including the lens. Its 12.2 megapixel sensor gives a lot of bang for your buck and will allow for big prints. A high max ISO of 6400 and a built-in flash will make shooting in low light a breeze. The 18-55mm image stabilized lens isn't a super long range, but it's a good all-around starter lens, nonetheless.

Canon Rebel T3i$600-$1,000
Canon EOS Rebel T3i with EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy)

The T3i is a decent upgrade to the T3 mentioned above with a more robust 18 megapixels and a nice articulating LCD screen to help with those shots where you just can't get your eye to the viewfinder. It also has a slightly faster frame rate of 3.7 frames per second (compared to 3 fps on the T3). Add to that an image stabilized lens with a longer zoom range and you've got yourself a winning combination. Priced around $1000.

Canon EOS 60D$1,000-$1,500
Canon EOS 60D with EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy) --OR-- Nikon D7000 with 18-105mm DX VR Lens (buy)

The EOS 60D is the first upgrade out of the Rebel series cameras from Canon. Its controls are far more convenient to use than the Rebels and it has a much higher max ISO of 12800. You get the same 18 megapixels that the T3i has to offer, but a much faster frame rate of 5.3 fps, which makes the 60D way more capable when it comes to photographing action. You still get that sweet articulating LCD screen, too. The kit 18-200mm lens is a super long range, good for everything from landscapes to portraits to sports. Price is around $1300-$1400. In my opinion, the extra $300-$400 over the T3i is worth every penny.

Nikon D7000Although the Nikon D7000 has a few less megapixels at 16.2, its 39-point auto focus system blows the 60D's 9-point AF out of the water. The 3D Tracking Auto Focus feature is unbelievable, too. It's a major boon when shooting action. The D7000 also has a much more professional build and feel to it that the 60D can't match. The 18-105mm lens doesn't reach quite as far as Canon's, but the auto focus system alone on this Nikon makes the extra $100 or so over the 60D totally worth it. Priced around $1400-$1500.

Canon EOS &D$1,500-$2,500
Canon EOS 7D with EF-S 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Lens (buy)

In my opinion, the EOS 7D is the best camera in Canon's lineup right now. A built-in electronic level, electronic viewfinder, an insanely advanced 19-point auto focus system, a blazing fast 8 fps frame rate, a high max ISO of 12800 and a gorgeous 18 megapixels - it's all top-tier on this camera. This thing is designed for wildlife, sports and other action, but it's just as comfortable in the hands of a landscape or portrait shooter. And don't worry about that digital crop sensor. You don't need a full-frame camera. Priced around $1600-$1700 with a versatile 28-135mm lens. Worth every penny.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II$2,500+
Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 24-105mm f/4L IS USM (buy)

The 5D Mark II is Canon's update to the industry-changing 5D. I currently use a 5D (the older one, not the Mark II) and I love it. The Mark II has a huge 21.1 megapixel full-frame sensor with an obnoxiously high max ISO of 25600. Works great in low-light and it's an excellent landscape camera. The auto focus system on the 5D, though, is out-dated and may have a hard time keeping up with action. Also, the 5D Mark II is due for an update. It's been around for awhile now and will most likely see a refresh early next year. The kit 24-105mm f/4L lens is top-notch. It's actually a lens I wish I had. Priced around $3100-$3200.

 

If you're looking at getting just a camera body, check out these recommendations:

Canon EOS 60D$600-$1,000
Canon EOS 60D (buy)

If you already have some lenses or maybe you're thinking of upgrading your Canon Rebel, the 60D is a perfect choice. See the notes above for details on what makes this camera great. Priced around $875-$975.

 

$1,000-$1,500
Nikon D7000 (buy)

An awesome camera with a superb auto focus system. The D7000 would be an excellent upgrade for you Nikon shooters. Runs about $1100-$1200.

Nikon D300s

$1,500-$2,000
Canon EOS 7D (buy) --OR-- Nikon D300s (buy)

Either of these cameras would be a great upgrade to someone who already has a budding collection of Canon or Nikon lenses. The 7D runs about $1500-$1600 and the D300s is around $1700. The D300s has a mind-blowing 51-point auto focus system and an impressive 7 fps frame rate. Much like the Canon 7D, this thing is designed for shooting action. Great build quality, too, but a max ISO of only 6400 isn't too impressive for a camera at this price range. Also, its 12.3 megapixel sensor leaves a little bit to be desired these days.

$2,000+
Canon EOS 5D Mark II (buy)

See the notes and disclaimers above regarding this camera. The body by itself runs about $2300-$2400.