Their use of rare materials and complex construction means they command premium prices. All the same, long fast lenses are almost obligatory for action photographers. David Kilpatrick provides a guide to the exotic glass.
Long fast lenses (big glass) are vital for sports and news photography, and the 2012 Olympics provides a deadline for the release of new lenses and the revision of existing designs. However, the Japanese earthquake may have changed the design and production cycle, for Canon in particular.
Where regular interchangeable lenses can be mass-produced optically, even if hand-assembled for best quality, big fast lenses use glass elements of a size and composition that can only be produced in batches with a limited run. Some, including the latest designs from Canon, use fluorite crystal instead of glass, despite its softness and fragility.
The design cycle for lenses in the 300mm f/2.8 and above class involves a first computer and mechanical design, based on target values for the glass. The glass is then produced, and its refraction and dispersion figures measured. These will be very close to the target values, but hardly ever a perfect match. The design will be adjusted to compensate, including small changes to the curvature, thickness and spacing of individual elements. Both the elements and the mechanical parts of the lens body may be adjusted, using shims and spacers internally.
Because of this, long fast lenses are released in batches, even if the assembly happens over a period of months or years. A hundred or thousand units of a particular complete set of elements may be produced. In the case of Zeiss, details have been released in the past showing that 100 units of production lenses will be backed up by 10 sets of glass held as repair components. Because the same glass cannot be repeated exactly, these high-end apochromatic telephotos can only be repaired while this stock lasts.
This is also the reason lenses of this type are updated regularly. Unlike some basic designs – such as Canon’s 50mm f/1.8, which has run for decades – each new batch might as well be accompanied by improvements in optical design and features. For 2012, the critical improvements in these lenses are that all should incorporate image stabilisation, with provision for panning and tripod mounting; that they should have the quietest and fastest focusing mechanisms; and that the design should allow follow focus during video capture without apparent changes in angle of view.
For Canon, there is a further requirement. So much video is now shot using Canon DSLR bodies that the stepped adjustment of Canon EF electronically controlled aperture has become an issue. We’re still awaiting Canon’s solution to this, but its L-series lens production and R&D facilities were badly hit by the events of March. All current camera makes control lens aperture in discrete steps, no finer than a 1/3 stop, but for video it’s desirable to have a true continuous adjustment. Some advances in this were expected in time for the Olympics. The issue of focus is now pretty much sorted, with features like the full-time manual override of Nikon AF-S and the latest Canon ring-drive USM connecting to the controls of filming rigs. Aperture control has not been brought into the DSLR-video era – yet.
Of all the lens makers, Sigma has updated designs frequently and rapidly. With a new reputation for quality rather than cost savings, it also specialises in pushing the limits for long lenses, including the longest telephoto zooms. It has been helped by the effective withdrawal from the market for long fast lenses of rivals Tamron and Tokina.
All eyes remain on Samyang, the Korean maker that built its business making low-cost long telephotos and zooms before launching high-quality manual “boutique” glass from 8mm fisheye to 85mm f/1.4. It is the most likely company to introduce faster long lenses with manual focus and aperture control, now preferred for video rigs.
If you need lenses in the 300mm to 2000mm range for 2012 or any other event, it’s worth buying – new or used – whatever you can find and afford. Even before the earthquake, there was a worldwide shortage, and prices are rising.
Sigma lenses are available in Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Sony, Micro Four Thirds and Pentax fit, depending on the lens type. The first to be updated are generally Canon and Nikon. Sigma has chosen to retain in-lens OS (optical stabilisation) for systems that use in-body stabilisation for most Sigma long tele zooms. This improves the viewing experience and the speed of autofocus.
Sigma EX DG Apo 300mm f/2.8 HSM
Sigma’s classic 300mm was revised to add HSM, with a minimum focus distance of 2.5m, making it acceptable for use in busy environments. Even so, most zooms at two or three stops slower can focus to between 1m and 1.5m at 300mm and also have stabilisation.
For around £2800, the main benefit over second-hand classics is the ultrasonic HSM focus and its compatibility with lower-end Nikon bodies. The HSM is not guaranteed to work with contrast-detection autofocus, as used for live view and video in the latest DSLRs, even where the maker’s own equivalent (AF-S, SSM, USM) does work. This comment applies to all Sigma HSM lenses; test one with your camera before buying as focusing behaviour will depend on the combination. The Sony and Pentax versions have not been updated to HSM and remain focused by in-body motor coupling.
Sigma EX DG 120-300mm f/2.8 OS HSM
This has been one of the best-kept secrets of a decade. Constant aperture, the same tele reach at the plain 300mm, and a performance only slightly inferior towards the edges and corners are combined with a lower price. The penalty is extra weight and size, but the new version gains from OS (up to four stops advantage) and a varifocal design with minimum focus from 1.5m at 120mm to 2.5m at 300mm. The internal focus design achieves a slightly smaller image scale.
For around £2500, this lens is only available in Nikon, Canon and Sigma fit. This is typical for a new design and other mounts may be added later. One point worth noting is that Sigma says the 120-300mm retains AF functions when used with its 2× teleconverter, as well as the 1.4×, unlike the plain 300mm, which officially reverts to MF with the 2×. A 240-600mm f/5.6 OS HSM AF has considerable appeal.
Sigma EX DG Apo 500mm f/4.5 HSM
Missing out the popular 400mm focal length (covered by Sigma tele superzooms of lesser aperture, currently 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6, 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 and 150-500mm f/4.5-6.3), Sigma’s next fast tele offering balances maximum aperture carefully against focal length. There’s a big difference between this 500mm f/4.5 and, for example, a 600mm f/4. Half a stop and 100mm save pounds in price as well as weight.
The lens comes in at around £4800, in HSM for Sigma, Canon and Nikon, but body-drive focus for Sony and Pentax. Both variants focus to 4m, giving about the same subject size as the 300mm but restricting practical use to subjects that are unlikely to move towards the camera. Both 1.4× and 2× matched converters can be used, but only with manual focusing. Like all the Sigmas in this group, the lens comes with a fitted case and detachable tripod grip, and accepts 46mm drop-in rear filters.
Sigma EX DG Apo 800mm f/5.6 HSM
It’s surprising to find that the 800mm only costs a small amount more than the 500mm. It is not super-fast, but could not be expected to be and still retain its price of £5000. The f/5.6 maximum aperture is the smallest that can still allow autofocus with every existing camera system. (See, however, the next item, which has exactly the same maximum focal length and aperture.)
The 800mm is only made in HSM – no mechanically driven focus – and only for Nikon, Canon and Sigma mounts. Second-hand examples may be found with mechanical drive and other mounts. The HSM focusing has transformed the performance of long lenses like this, but the minimum focus becomes very restricting. Any subject that moves closer than 7m to the camera enters a no-focus zone and, depending on camera settings, may also lock out shutter release. 1.4× and 2× converters can be used for MF only.
Sigma EX DG 300-800mm f/5.6 HSM
Although the technical performance is inferior (as with the 120-300mm versus the prime 300mm) the “Bigma” is unique and has clear advantages. It is a true zoom, not a varifocal, and can focus down to 6m across the range. It’s only a little bigger than the plain 800mm, if much heavier and costing £2000 more. There is little loss of quality with the dedicated converters despite the total of 24 elements when using the 2×.
The 300-800mm has its combo handgrip and tripod mount near the front, positioned to support the heavy front group, and it must be carried by this or an attached strap. Manual focusing override is placed forward, with the frequently used zoom accessible near the camera. The most expensive Sigma on open sale, it’s also a rarity, available in Sigma, Canon, Nikon or Four Thirds fit.
Sigma EX DG 200-500mm f/2.8
Not designated as Apo or as HSM, in fact this £16,000 superlens is both – it uses two very expensive large ELD elements, and achieves a constant maximum aperture. A 500mm f/2.8 fixed focal length would be desirable enough; a varifocal that can pull back to 200mm is unique. AF is essential, as the minimum focus changes from 5m at 500mm to 2m at 200mm. It is not a parfocal design.
Interesting features of this military-looking monster include an LCD panel on the side to display the focus distance and focal length, a rechargeable Lith-Ion battery in the lens to run the AF motor, and a dedicated attachment for 2× conversion to a 400-1000mm f/5.6 with autofocus. This lens is to order only, in Sigma, Canon or Nikon fit. It uses 72mm rear filters, with a rotating polariser option. Round the world there are a few for hire, and no doubt some used models will reach the market ex-Government…
Canon’s big fast lenses are famous for being white (now changed to “off-white”), where Nikon and Sigma prefer black. Recently it has seen Sony, inheriting Minolta’s switch to “white Apo” in the 1990s, joining this trend. The theory is that big fast lenses are sensitive to temperature: light barrel casings reflect heat. In practice, there is a suspicion that white lenses are associated with professionalism, so it’s just a way of showing off. Recently, most teles have been upgraded to IS (image stabilisation) and of course USM (ultrasonic motor) focusing, which arrived earlier.
Canon EF 200mm f/2 L IS USM
Although not a super-long tele, the new Canon 200mm f/2 is very fast, and when combined with a teleconverter can make a fast 280mm f/5.6 or 400mm f/4. For this reason it’s worth classing it in the big lens category, as many users will take this option while valuing it most for relatively close quarters indoor sports like basketball.
It uses a fluorite element to gain optimum performance, and it has a glass front protector. The cost of £7350 reflects this, although street prices are considerable lower. With stabilisation and ring USM, this apochromatic L-series glass focuses down to 1.9m (with or without converter) and uses 52mm rear drop-in filters. It is very fast-focusing and ideal for use on APS-C and for video with wide aperture effects. The lens comes with case, caps, dust cover, gelatin filter holder and lens hood.
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM
The IS II version of the 300mm offers a better action and panning performance, and overall stabilisation, than the original IS. This focal length and aperture was one of the first lenses to get stabilisation; the new system has three selectable modes including one that only activates IS during the actual exposure and thus avoids the “floating image” effect.
The RRP is £7500 – high when the street price of its heavier, lower-specification predecessor can be well under £3000. It’s important to know exactly which model you are buying as not all dealers make it clear. The new model uses magnesium and titanium construction, is weather sealed, focuses down to 2m, has a fluorite element, and weighs only 2400g (as does the Sigma, but that has a plastic and metal construction). Physically it’s a fairly large lens at 128mm diameter and 248mm length.
Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM
The 400mm f/4 uses Diffractive Optics (DO). A DO element looks like a flat piece of glass – rather like a Fresnel lens, but the lines are invisible and created by layer coating methods. A DO element can replace spherical or aspherical glass and has no chromatic aberration, but may result in slightly lower contrast, so the use is restricted to a single one. With a fluorite element, this apochromat only has first-generation stabilisation (two stops advantage). Even so, it’s an £8000 lens. It is also extremely small and light for such a long reach, shorter physically than the 300mm.
Close focus is a bit limited at 3.5m, but converters can be used for a better magnification in wildlife photography.
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM
Updated in exactly the same way as the latest 300mm, to IS II specification and superior sealing, the 400mm f/2.8 is the longest focal length you can get in f/2.8 maximum aperture. This is important if tele-extenders are used, with both the 1.4× and 2× retaining AF. The focal length is considered better on full frame from many track and field events, where 300mm works well on APS-C, and the f/2.8 aperture helps with AF under floodlight conditions.
This lens will focus down to 2.7m and, like the 300mm IS II, has a special coating to resist grease and other marks. Canon’s UK website doesn’t state a price, but dealers state £11,500 – and a saving, typically around £1,600 off RRP.
Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS II USM
This lens, similarly streamlined and improved, was supposed to hit the shelves this June, but there were indications that supplies would be delayed. It is one of the new IS II, SWC and fluorine-coated, weather sealed, improved long lenses designed to be the front line at the Olympics, so there is still plenty of time.
While Canon has yet to address the auto iris aperture setting issue, this is the first lens to be fitted with Power Focus for video. This function allows a smooth focus transition between two set points, at a choice of two speeds. It focuses to 3.7m, and includes two fluorite elements. It costs 40 percent more than the older model, but at £9000 (pre-order prices so far), it’s not bad compared to the other new lenses.
Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM
A slightly longer version of the new 500mm, the 600mm f/4 has the same features, including the optical design, cam-based focus with the video Power Focus feature, along with the June target release date.
One feature of both lenses is that when the new Canon EF Tele Extender 2x III is added, autofocus is retained despite the combination of an f/8 maximum aperture (on EOS-1 series bodies only). It’s not retained on the 5D Mk II, 7D and so on. The 600mm lens is considered ideal for cricket photography, based on the size of the pitch and the scale of players at the crease. The 600mm focuses to 4.5m, weighs 3920g, and is 168mm diameter × 448mm long, priced at around £11,300.
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM
The longest lens in Canon’s armoury matches Sigma’s limit, and has the same maximum aperture too. Although it is not labelled as IS II, it only lacks the third mode, and claims four stops advantage. Power Focus is not included. It also has weather sealing and a magnesium alloy build, making it lighter than the previous 600mm f/4, plus two fluorite elements and the ability to autofocus on EOS-1 type bodies if used with the 1.4× type III extender.
It belongs to the new “off-white” lens series. The optical performance of this lens is good. The minimum focus is 6m, one metre closer than the Sigma, which has an RRP of about a third. The Canon is officially a £15,260 lens but can be found for a little over £10,000.
Nikon’s long lenses have not been subject to the same overall revision process as Canon’s, partly because advances in barrel design, coatings and weather sealing were introduced a little earlier. Nikon does not use fluorite in the same way as Canon, preferring glass Extra-Low Dispersion and Super ED instead. New designs include a three-mode manual to autofocus setting that can prioritise one over the other, and VRII stabilisation with a four-stop advantage and “active” mode, which means handling situations like shooting from a moving vehicle.
AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2 G ED VRII
The latest Nikkor in this class, priced at £5413, competes with Canon, a 200mm f/2.8 with low-light performance for indoor sports, and potential to use teleconverters with AF (in Nikon bodies compatible with the G lens type).
The 200mm has a magnesium lens barrel, is weather sealed, uses Nano Crystal coating for very fine detail contrast and has a meniscus ghosting-free clear protective front glass. It will focus to 1.9m (like the Canon) and similarly takes 52mm rear drop-in filters. It’s amazing how closely the companies have tracked each other. Nikon’s feels more solid thanks to its extra weight. The tripod mount is connected to the front of the lens, and is not a handgrip.
AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 ED VRII
What was VR on its predecessor is now labelled VRII, adding an active mode. Like the 200mm, its front element is protected from dirt and damage by a sacrificial meniscus glass (like a curved and coated lens protector filter). This costs little to replace and doesn’t have to be matched to a particular lens.
It focuses down to 2.2m (internal focus) in manual mode, or 2.3m under Silent Wave Motor AF. The internal design of the new lens changes the way its angle view adapts with focus distance, to make it more video-friendly, and improves flatness of field for close-ups along with corner and edge sharpness generally. The RRP is just over £5000.
AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 ED VR
The 400mm Nikkor is also available in an ED-IF non-VR version. We will only look at the latest versions here. This lens is actually the same generation as the original, earlier 300mm VR, which may also be found new in some outlets, but there is no VRII update so far. It has Nano Crystal coating, weather-proof design, a protective meniscus front glass, and a Focus Preset function that can be useful for video work. The tripod mount doubles as a hand grip with good clearance. It focuses down to 2.9m resulting in an impressive image scale of 1:6.3 (compared to figures around 1:8 for most teles in the 300mm to 500mm range).
The recommended price is around £7700 and, in common with other Nikon professional lenses, it can be hard to track down in stock. It can be used in AF mode with Nikon 1.4×, 1.7× or 2× converters on all G-compatible Nikon bodies.
AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/4 ED VR
Although labelled as VR, this lens includes VRII and is usually advertised as such. Beware the continued existence of non-VR versions as with the 400mm. The significant advances of the Nano Crystal coating, new weather-proof barrel design, protective front meniscus, auto A/M focus switching protecting from accident errors, and a close focus at 4m compared to the older model’s 5m are worth the higher price commanded by the new model.
Local demand seems to have exceeded supply, so it’s common now for stock to be moved from one region to another to solve this. In manual focus mode this lens will focus even closer for a 1:6.9 subject scale. At £7500 the lens comes with the hard trunk case it deserves.
AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 ED VR
Again, fitted with VRII even though named as VR. This lens follows the design rules of the 500mm f/4 including an ability to focus closer in manual mode than using AF-S, to 4.8m rather than 5m. There is little to say about this above the 500mm – all details are similar, down to the 52mm drop-in rear filter holder and alloy trunk case.
All the Nikon lenses in this class come with lens hoods, straps (needed for carrying your kit by the lens, never by the body) and the detachable “monopod collar” as the handgrip and tripod bush assembly are described. Remember, there’s an older non-VR version around that lacks this protection. All these lenses are likely to be found in hire stock, old and new versions alike.
Olympus might not seem to have many big fast lenses, but it does. The Four Thirds system uses lenses with exactly half the focal length of full frame 35mm, for which all the other lenses are listed. Therefore 150mm equals 300mm – and that brings several of its Top Pro range lenses into the picture. Sigma has recently issued some long lenses in Four Thirds mount, notably the 300-800mm to create a uniquely powerful tele.
Zuiko Digital ED 90-250mm f/2.8
This long-range zoom is small enough to work with handheld. Consider, then, that on the E-5 camera or any other Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds model it actually rivals the massive £15,000+ Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8. Its equivalent range is 180-500mm f/2.8.
Using three ED elements, it is a near-apochromat, and is dust and splash-proof. Focusing down to 2.5m, it gives a 1:12.5 image scale, which seems impressive when you double it to 1:6.25, thanks to the format crop. Unlike the full-frame lenses, this one takes front-mounted filters – in 105mm, the largest commonly made size. It works with the matching 1.4× and 2× teleconverters, with AF. But it’s no lightweight at £5300 RRP, 3270g weight, and a size of 124mm diameter × 276mm.
Zuiko Digital ED 150mm f/2.0
Equivalent to a 300mm f/2 lens on full frame, this lens can also be seen as similar to using one of the 200mm f/2 designs on an APS-C camera. That at least exists, which a 300mm f/2 does not. Olympus does not use terms like Apo; it includes one ED and one Super ED element.
The internal focusing includes a floating group mechanism to improve close distance quality. This gives the equivalent of around a quarter life size, at 1.4m. Although the aperture of f/2 might seem impractical for a lens with an 8.2° angle of view, the small format means its depth of field is slightly more than a 300mm f/2.8 on full frame. The 82mm front filter fitting is a practical size to deal with, and has considerable weight and size savings – the RRP is only £2250. This lens is fast-focusing and rugged.
Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/2.8
You might think that Olympus would have gone for a full-format 300mm f/2.8 adapted for the quarter-size sensor. But instead, it has made its own unique design with three ED elements and very close minimum focusing at 2.4m giving an equivalent of 0.3× life size. A 2× teleconverter and a short extension tube (for 0.25× actual) are options and can be used combined to match 1:1 full frame.
This splashproof, tough lens is expensive at nearly £7000 but must be compared to 600mm costs on full frame, and no 600mm f/2.8 has ever been made for general sale. A unique 43mm drop-in rear filter size is used, with a rotating polariser option. It’s huge: 3290g and 129mm diameter × 281mm.
The current Pentax system (unlike Canon, Nikon and Sony) has left behind the legacy of full-frame film, with no plans for full-frame digital. Compatibility of today’s APS-C format Pentax “KB” system bodies with older lenses remains excellent and most older Pentax lenses still have a use. The DA and DA* lenses, newly developed, have advanced specifications and are limited to the smaller format.
Pentax is renewing support for its 645 system, with the possibility of long fast lenses in future, which could also be used on the KB bodies. A 600mm f/4 manual lens is still made for the Pentax 67 rollfilm system and this can also be used on the smaller formats with an adapter. But right now there’s a limited choice within the KB range.
Pentax SMC DA* 200mm f/2.8 ED(IF) SDM
The only lens that currently meets the definition of a fast, long tele is equivalent to a 300mm f/2.8 after allowing for the 1.5× format factor. Its most likely companion body is the K-5, as this lens is water and dust-sealed to the same standards as the body, and matches it in compact styling. The front element has a special SP coating to resist dirt and moisture.
The SDM focusing is silent and, while not as fast as some ultrasonic systems, has excellent continuous tracking ability for action subjects. It focuses right down to 1.2m using internal focusing, achieving a 0.2× image scale that is equal to 0.4× on full frame. Front filters are the industry-standard 77mm. The weight and size of this lens show that by cutting down the circle of coverage, Pentax achieves what the Four Thirds format set out to do – a compact pro DSLR system. The RRP is just over £1200.
Pentax SMC DA* 60-250mm f/4 ED(IF) SDM
Equivalent to a full frame 90‑375mm f/4, this new design is another water and dust-sealed professional-grade choice with the silent, accurate SDM focusing motor backed up by optional screw drive focus operation. No other system has a lens quite like this in its APS-C only range (Nikon DX, Canon EF-S or Sony DT); they tend to reserve top optical quality and build for their full-frame lenses.
This Pentax focuses internally, without extending, to a remarkable 1.1m but has a substantial focal length shift when doing so, resulting in a 0.15× maximum image scale. It has the SP front element coating, a non-linear zoom/focus mechanism, takes economical 67mm filters and has a detachable tripod/hand grip. It costs £1430.
Pentax SMA DA* 300mm f/4
As this lens is equivalent to 450mm f/4 with Pentax’s positioning as an APS-C-only system, it can be compared to either 400mm or 500mm full-framers, or the 200mm for Olympus. The f/4 maximum aperture would be considered fast for the former, slow for the latter.
This new-series Pentax lens has water and dust sealing, the dirt-resistant SP coating on the front element, and the SDM ultrasonic focus motor. It takes standard 77mm filters, focuses down to a commendable 1.4m and achieves 0.24×, 1:4.2 image scale. It has a tripod mount in a rotating collar, and as with the 200mm, packs all this into a smaller and lighter lens than a typical 300mm f/4 designed for 24 × 36mm format. Compare its £1200 cost with £4000 for the same maker’s 300mm f/4 to cover 645, restricted to 3m focus, weighing 1490g and 208mm long. This one weighs 1070g, and is 83mm diameter × 184mm long.
Before 2006, Konica Minolta had inherited a series of big fast full-frame G-series “white” telephotos – 300mm f/4 and f/2.8, 400mm f/4.5, and 600mm f/4 Apo. After Sony took over, only the newest 300mm f/2.8 ultrasonic motor SSM was carried through to the new range, along with a similarly updated 70-200mm f/2.8 and two third-generation SSM compatible converters, 1.4× and 2×. The 400mm and 600mm, body-drive focus designs, had not been updated and were discontinued. In 2010, Sony previewed a 500mm f/4.5 SSM G lens that should go on sale this year.
Sony SAL 300mm f/2.8 G SSM
As the single big fast tele in Sony’s Alpha system, it was first designed 25 years ago by Minolta’s Sakai top-level optical team, and revised for faster focus in the early 1990s, then for the new Super Sonic Motor AF in 1999. The latest Sony version is one of the lightest 300mm f/2.8 lenses made for full frame and comes with a deep carbon-fibre separate lens hood that adds to an already long barrel. It uses 42mm rear drop-in filters and (unusually) is supplied with a rotating polariser as well as a plain UV.
Close focus is a reasonable but not great 2m, magnification 0.18×. It is compatible with Alpha system contrast detection AF. A strong alloy fitted case completes the kit for £5609. But one fast tele is not enough for potential pro users.
Although in the past there have been fast long teles for medium format systems, such as Mamiya’s manual focus 300mm f/2.8, there are no such lenses today. The closest would be Hasselblad’s 300mm f/4.5 for the H-system, at £3000.
There are also a few other fast telephoto lenses on the market, ranging from a Russian 300mm f/2.8 manual lens in Nikon mount, to specialised TV and video lenses at the top end of the cost scale. For HD video shooters, where the control of aperture and focus by the camera may be redundant as the video rig provides better functions, there remains the affordable option of many excellent manual focus fast apo teles.
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