The Best Nikon Telephoto Lens: An Ultimate Guide

Are you struggling to choose the best Nikon telephoto lens for your needs?

Don’t worry.

Because in this guide, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about purchasing a Nikon telephoto lens. I’m going to show you the eight best telephoto lenses for Nikon out there–including lenses for every genre of photography and every budget.

Ultimately, you’re going to discover which lens is right for you.

Sound good?

Let’s get started.

Choosing the Best Nikon Telephoto Lens

When it comes to purchasing a telephoto lens for Nikon cameras, there are a few factors you need to consider:

  • Focal length
  • Optical quality
  • Size and weight
  • Image stabilization
  • Price

Focal Length

Before you purchase a Nikon telephoto lens, you should be able to pinpoint exactly what it is you want to shoot. Telephoto lenses have many uses, and different telephoto focal length ranges are better for different subjects.

Do you want an all-purpose, walkaround telephoto lens? If so, then I recommend choosing a lens with a large zoom range–one that starts wide, at around 20mm, and goes all the way to 200mm or 300mm. This will ensure you’re prepared for every situation.

Do you want to capture photos of birds and wildlife? Then you’re going to need a telephoto lens that stretches into the super-telephoto range. Unless your wildlife is big and comfortable around humans, even 300mm is going to frequently fall short, so 400mm is probably the minimum you’ll need. If you’re looking to shoot small birds, then 500mm would definitely be welcome.

Do you want to capture tight portraits? Then you should grab a lens that starts with a standard focal length (i.e., 50mm) and zooms to 200mm or so. This will give you a nice range for shooting headshots without overdoing it.

Do you want to shoot action sports? If so, then a midrange telephoto lens will probably be best, from around 70mm to 200mm. This focal length range can handle pretty much any sport needs, unless you’re shooting from extreme distances, in which case a longer telephoto lens might be helpful.

Do you want to photograph tight landscapes? Then you’ll want to stick with a lens in the 70-200mm range. This will get you tight shots when you need it, without forcing you to deal with an excess 100mm or so.

Of course, while you should choose your lens based on your anticipated subjects, you can shoot other subjects once you have the lens. But you should always start by making sure the lens fits your main purpose. That way, you won’t have to buy another lens a few months down the line.

Related Post: Best Nikon Tele Macro Lenses

Optical Quality

This one might seem obvious, but you absolutely want to make sure you purchase a lens of acceptable optical quality. There are some questionable lenses out there, and if you buy one without thinking it through, you may find yourself with blurry photos and unpleasant fringing.

The best lenses are sharp at every focal length, from the widest part of their range all the way to the end. However, it’s rare to find telephoto zooms that are truly this impressive. Most telephoto lenses will lose sharpness toward the end of their focal length range, so you should always be on the lookout for the possibility. This is especially problematic if you plan to use the lens for small, distant subjects, where the 300mm end is going to be your most used focal length.

So just be careful.

You’ll also want to keep an eye out for lenses with color fringing (also known as chromatic aberration). Most lenses have a bit of fringing, but cheap lenses can sometimes cover your images with unpleasant colors, especially in high-contrast areas.

Size and Weight

As a general rule, telephoto lenses are larger than their wide-angle counterparts. But telephoto zooms do vary in size and can be pretty compact relative to telephotos such as 200mm or 300mm primes.

So I recommend you ask yourself: Do I need a lens that’s lightweight so I can carry it around with me all the time? Or am I okay with a longer, heavier lens?

If you’re looking for a walkaround option, a light, compact lens is an absolute must. But if you’ll be shooting birds with a tripod, you may not mind something a little bit (or a lot) heavier.

Note that heavier lenses tend to have better build-quality; this is important if you plan to go all-out when using your Nikon telephoto lens. Outdoor photographers, in particular, should be aware of the importance of rugged equipment. You don’t want to get caught in a downpour and return home only to find your lens has stopped working.

Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction

These days, many telephoto lenses come with image stabilization or, as Nikon labels it, vibration reduction (VR).

Vibration reduction uses technology to stabilize your lens, which allows you to handhold at slow shutter speeds and still capture sharp photos.

So if you plan to shoot in low light without a tripod, vibration reduction is a great feature to have. It’s especially important if you’re using a big lens at its greatest focal length. The bigger the lens, the more prone it’ll be to camera shake. And the longer the focal length, the more it will magnify camera shake.

Price

One last thing you should always consider is the price of your different options.

If you’re willing to spend a huge chunk of change, you might want to pay more for a few extra features, such as slightly better optical quality and a more rugged lens body.

But for those who prefer to spend less, there are plenty of great options for you, as well. I definitely recommend looking at some of the third-party lenses (which are included in this list). While third-party brands such as Tamron and Sigma may not have the Nikon name, they are able to go toe-to-toe in terms of quality–at a much lower price.

Related Post: When to Use DSLR Telephoto Lenses?

Best Nikon Telephoto Lens: The List

Now that you know how to pick the right telephoto lens for your needs…

…it’s time to look at the best telephoto lenses for Nikon out there.

Starting with our absolute favorite:

1. Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II

nikon 18-200mm telephoto lens

The Nikon 18-200mm VR is a workhorse of a lens, perfect for anyone looking for a walkaround telephoto. It’ll perform well in pretty much any genre that uses wide to telephoto lenses: street photography, portrait photography, event photography, even landscape photography.

Note that the 18-200mm is a DX lens, which means it only works on crop-sensor (APS-C) cameras. You won’t be able to mount the 18-200mm on your full-frame Nikon D850, so if you’re a full-frame Nikon shooter, I suggest you consider other lenses on this list.

Optical quality is strong up until 130mm or so, at which point sharpness decreases, especially at the lens corners. However, images between 135mm and 200mm are still very usable and are still good if you stop down to around f/8. Fringing can be a problem at the extremes of the focal length range, but shouldn’t be an issue elsewhere.

nikon 18-200mm

The vibration reduction on the 18-200mm is a nice touch. It can be tough to work with a 200mm lens, especially in low light, but the VR will help you handhold in tough situations.

And the price is excellent for such a high-quality zoom lens.

So if you’re looking for a Nikon telephoto lens that you can slap on your camera and use all the time, the Nikon 18-200mm VR is an excellent option.

AF-S DX Nkr 18-200mm F/3.5-5.6G ED VR II
  • One-lens solution adept in a wide variety of situations
  • Focal length range: 18 -200 mm, minimum focus Distance: 1.6 ft.
  • Two extra-low Dispersion (ED) elements; three aspherical lens elements
  • Exclusive Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM), Nikon VR II (vibration reduction) image stabilization
  • Focus to 20 inches for extended versatility, filter thread: 72 mm.Maximum angle of view (dx-format)76°.minimum angle of view...

2. Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G VR II

The Nikon 55-200mm offers a classic telephoto focal length for a fantastic price. It’s a walkaround lens, through and through, one that you can count on while shooting portraits, events, or street scenes.

What makes the 55-200mm a good option?

First, the optical quality is impressive for the price. No, it’s not the sharpest lens out there, but it’ll give you decent performance, especially at its wider end. And you can always improve sharpness by stopping down to f/7.1 or f/8.

nikon 55-200mm

Second, autofocus is fairly fast. You won’t be afraid to use the Nikon 55-200mm in action-packed situations. I don’t recommend it as a serious sports lens, but it should be okay for fast-paced street photography or event photography.

The Nikon 55-200mm also sports Nikon’s vibration reduction technology, which allows you to handhold in low light. Combine that with the lens’s light body, and you’ll appreciate this lens in all situations–hence the reason it’s so great as a telephoto walkaround.

Like the 18-200mm described above, the Nikon 55-200mm is a DX lens, which restricts it to APS-C cameras. This means that the effective focal length will reach 300mm, giving you a bit more reach in case you need it.

All in all, this is a lens for shooters looking for their first telephoto zoom lens. It won’t get you top-of-the-line image quality, but it’ll do a good job for a great price.

Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED IF AF-S DX VR [Vibration Reduction] Nikkor Zoom Lens Bulk...
  • 55-200mm zoom Nikon lens with f/4-5.6 maximum aperture for Nikon digital SLR cameras
  • 2 extra-low-dispersion (ED) glass elements for minimized chromatic aberration and superior optics
  • Silent Wave Motor produces quick and quiet high-speed autofocusing; weighs 9 ounces
  • Measures 2.7 inches in diameter and 3.1 inches long; 1-year warranty
  • White box(bulk packaging)

Related Post: The Ultimate DLSR Lens Guide

3. Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR

nikon 70-300mm

Up until this point, we’ve been talking about some of Nikon’s best walkaround telephoto lenses.

But what about the more specialized telephoto options? The kind that are aimed at photographers looking for longer telephoto zooms?

That’s where the Nikon 70-300mm VR comes in.

You see, the Nikon 70-300mm VR is not a walkaround lens. It’s a bit too big for that and a bit too heavy. Instead, it’s what you want to have on your camera when doing more serious long-distance shooting–for instance, when shooting large wildlife or distant sports photos.

The 70-300mm offers excellent image quality for the price. It’s very sharp on the wide end (from 70-200mm), and even past 200mm it manages to perform well, especially when stopped down. Color fringing is present in high-contrast situations, especially on the long end, but manageable.

nikon 70-300mm telephoto lens

Autofocus isn’t lightning-fast, but it’s not slow, either; you won’t have difficulties with focusing in most situations. And the vibration reduction is a nice touch, one that you’ll appreciate in low light situations.

Now, this lens isn’t the cheapest telephoto zoom in the 70-300mm area. But it’s probably the sharpest in this price range, easily outclassing its lower-priced Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G.

Nikon AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR f/34-8 Fixed Zoom Digital SLR Camera...
  • Capture sports, wildlife, concerts, landmarks and more with phenomenal clarity and precision
  • Maximum angle of view (DX-format): 22°50', minimum angle of view (DX-format): 5°20', maximum angle of view (FX-format):...
  • Ultra-fast, near silent autofocus powered by a stepping motor (AF-P)
  • Vr image stabilization ensures Sharp photos, steady videos and enhances low-light capabilities

4. Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Macro

The Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 is an unbelievably cheap lens, coming in at just over $100 USD.

But is it anything more than a low-quality, budget zoom?

Actually, yes.

tamron 70-300mm

First of all, image quality is impressive, especially from around 70mm to 200mm. The lens is never tack-sharp, but it’s not a poor performer by any means. It does struggle around 300mm, producing soft photos with noticeable color fringing.

For that reason, I wouldn’t purchase this lens as a wildlife workhorse option. But for those who want a telephoto zoom that will get them distant shots at an amazing price, the Tamron 70-300mm is a great option.

One really cool thing about this lens is its macro capability: The Tamron 70-300mm offers 1:2 magnification, which means you can capture ultra-close up shots of insects, flowers, and other small details. While 1:2 magnification isn’t quite as good as a dedicated macro lens, it’s definitely a great way to start shooting close-ups.

The Tamron’s main weakness is its autofocus speed, which is slow. I wouldn’t recommend using this lens for action photography.

But for the price, it’s hard to beat.

Tamron Auto Focus 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Di LD Macro Zoom Lens with Built in Motor for...
  • The popular Tamron AF 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6 Di LD Macro features a built in motor to ensure fast accurate focusing
  • Close-focusing ability - 0.95m (3.1 feet ), focal lengths between 180 and 300mm. Compatible with the d40, d40x and d60 in the...
  • This telephoto zoom will crop in tight or bring distant subjects in close. Angle of view: 34-8
  • There is also an incredible macro mode for photographing small objects up close giving a magnification ratio of 1:2
  • This phenomenal lens comes with a 6 year warranty. Lens hood included for maximum glare protection and increased contrast

5. Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC G2

tamron 70-200mm telephoto lens

No list of best telephoto lenses would be complete without a 70-200mm f/2.8 or f/4 lens. These are the best of the best telephoto lenses, created for quality, not for convenience.

And the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC G2 is no exception. It’s a superb performer in pretty much every way.

First, sharpness is professional–yes, professional–quality. This lens is tack-sharp at every focal length, and you can achieve great results even at f/2.8. I wouldn’t hesitate to use this lens for tight landscape photography, where I demand the absolute best from my equipment.

The focal length range doesn’t offer the convenience of a wide-to-telephoto zoom like the Nikon 18-200mm VR, but that’s not the point; this is a specialist lens, made for photographers who don’t mind sacrificing convenience for amazing optical quality. Personally, I’d recommend this lens for landscape shooting and portrait shooting. You could also use it for sports, especially with the fast (f/2.8) maximum aperture, which allows you to crank up the shutter speed for action shots.

tamron 70-200mm

What are the cons of this lens?

There are two:

It’s somewhat bulky (you wouldn’t want to carry it around your neck on casual outings), and it’s somewhat pricey.

But this size is what you get when you work with a fast zoom, and you won’t find a better telephoto zoom in this price range, and this lens can go toe-to-toe with its much higher-priced competitors.

Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC G2 for Nikon FX Digital SLR Camera (6 Year Tamron...
  • VC performance is 5 stops (VC mode 3) and offers three modes optimized for different shooting situations
  • MOD reduced to 37.4" (1:6.1 max. mag. Ratio). Angle of view (diagonal): 34°21' - 12°21'(for full-frame format), 22°33' -...
  • Lightweight and easy-to-hold tripod mount is compatible with an Arca-Swiss style quick release plate
  • Compatible with TAMRON TAP-in Console, an optional accessory product; The front surface of the lens element is coated with a...
  • Teleconverters (optional) compatible with this new Tamron lens.Aperture Blades:9 (circular diaphragm)

6. Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 VC

tamron 100-400mm

The Tamron 100-400mm VC is a long telephoto zoom, covering more ground than any other lens on this list. Generally speaking, greater zoom ranges make for lower-performing lenses, which is why the Tamron 100-400mm VC is such a delight.

Optically, the 100-400mm is consistently impressive. At its extremes (100mm and 400mm) it performs well, giving sharp images, even wide open. Toward the middle of its range, performance is even better; the 100-400mm is tack-sharp, getting you a high level of crispness and clarity, especially at the center of the frame.

tamron 100-400mm telephoto lens

Now, if you’re a fan of the 100-400mm focal length, then you’re likely interested in shooting birds, wildlife, or sports. You’ll appreciate the fast autofocus; this will ensure you produce a high keeper rate, even in fast-paced situations.

The vibration compensation is another welcome addition. While the f/4.5-6.3 maximum aperture doesn’t make for the best low-light shooting, a bit of vibration compensation should help keep your images sharp, even if you handhold at the long end.

Here’s the bottom line:

The Tamron 100-400mm isn’t a walkaround lens by any means, but that’s not really the goal of any 100-400mm kit. Instead, the Tamron is a great lens for photographers in need of the 400mm focal length, but who don’t want to spend a huge sum of money on a super-telephoto lens.

Tamron 100-400mm F/4.5-6.3 VC USD Telephoto Zoom Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras...
  • Front and Rear Lens Caps
  • Lens Hood
  • Limited 6-Year Warranty
  • Fits all Canon EOS mount SLR
  • VC Image stabilization

7. Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR

nikon 200-500mm telephoto lens

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR is a specialist lens, made for bird photographers, wildlife photographers, sports photographers, and pretty much nobody else.

This means that it’s not a walkaround lens: It’s heavy, and it’s a bit unwieldy. You may want to use it with a tripod, though the vibration reduction will make handholding possible, even at 500mm.

Now, a bird/wildlife/sport photography lens needs to perform well in the autofocus department, and the Nikon 200-500mm comes through. It’s fast and accurate; it even does a pretty good job of tracking objects in flight (though it’s not perfect).

Related Post: Nikon 200-500mm Review

nikon 200-500mm telephoto lens

In terms of image quality, the Nikon 200-500mm does well–surprisingly well, in fact, given the huge focal length range and reasonable price. The lens is very sharp in the middle of its range, falling off toward the 500mm end, but still providing decently usable photos. It’s not as sharp as a 500mm prime, but no telephoto zoom is, and its performance is good for the price.

All in all, the Nikon 200-500mm is a strong option for photographers looking for a 500mm focal length at a decent price point.

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens with Auto...
  • Compact super telephoto zoom lens for birding, wildlife, motorsports, events and more
  • 500mm of zoom power on FX format DSLRs; 750millimeter equivalent on DX format DSLRS, Minimum Focus Distance: 7.2 feet ( 2.2...
  • Fast f/5.6 constant aperture for beautiful out of focus backgrounds and low light performance
  • 4.5 stops of Vibration Reduction with Sports mode. Approx. Weight 81.2 ounce. Approx. Dimensions(Diameter x Length) 4.2...
  • AF compatible with optional TC 14E series teleconverters and DSLRs that offer f/8 support.Mount Type:Nikon F Bayonet

8. Nikon 300mm f/4D

I’ll say it upfront:

The Nikon 300mm f/4D isn’t a versatile lens. It’s a 300mm prime, which means that you only get 300mm–there’s no changing focal lengths, no zooming.

But the Nikon 300mm f/4D is on this list for a reason, and that’s because its performance is simply incredible; you’ll love the 300mm f/4D if you’re in need of a fast-focusing 300mm lens, and you don’t want to break the bank.

nikon 300mm telephoto lens

So who is this lens for?

The Nikon 300mm is for outdoor action shooters, plain and simple. The f/4 maximum aperture just isn’t wide enough for indoor sports photography. But for outdoor sports, the 300mm is a great focal length, plus it offers lightning-fast autofocus for those split-second shots.

The same goes for bird and wildlife photographers–the Nikon 300mm f/4D isn’t your best low light option, but its extremely fast autofocus makes it a great candidate for shooting birds in flight.

Note that while this 300mm lens is small for its class (300mm, prime, f/4), it’s not lightweight. You won’t want to carry it with you in the field unless bird, wildlife, or sport photography is your only objective.

And as for this lens’s optics: It’s sharp. Really, really sharp. You’ll be able to capture tack-sharp photos at f/4 (assuming you can prevent camera shake, which is harder without any vibration reduction technology).

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR F/4D IF-ED 300mm Fixed Zoom Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR...
  • Lens not zoomable
  • Compact super-telephoto lens for travel, sports, wildlife, and stock photography
  • Super-fast, super-quiet lens using Silent Wave motor technology
  • ED glass elements for high-resolution and high-contrast images
  • M/A mode allows rapid switching between autofocus and manual operation

The Best Nikon Telephoto Lens: Conclusion

You should now have a good sense of the best Nikon telephoto lenses out there–and the best Nikon telephoto lens for your needs.

So go purchase your telephoto lens. You’ll love what it can do–and you’ll love the photos you create!

Related Post: Best Nikon FX DSLR Lenses (The Ultimate Full-Frame Selection)

What is the best Nikon telephoto lens?

The best Nikon telephoto lens varies depending on your needs. For a casual, walkaround telephoto lens, you’ll do well with the Nikon 18-200mm VR or the Nikon 55-200mm VR. For a portrait and landscape photography telephoto lens, I’d recommend the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8. And for sports, birds, and wildlife photography, I suggest the Tamron 100-400mm, the Nikon 300mm f/4, or the Nikon 200-500mm lens.

What is the best Nikon telephoto lens for full-frame cameras?

Full-frame cameras do bring out the optical flaws in telephoto lenses because they don’t crop the image. That’s why I recommend getting ultra-sharp lenses for full-frame photography, either the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8, the Nikon 300mm f/4D, the Tamron 100-400mm VC, or even the Nikon 70-300mm VR.

What is the best Nikon telephoto lens for crop-sensor cameras?

The best Nikon telephoto lens for crop-sensor cameras depends on your needs–but the Nikon 55-200mm or the Nikon 18-200mm are both made specifically for crop-sensor cameras and both perform well as walkaround telephoto lenses.

What is the best telephoto lens for Nikon on a budget?

If you’re on a budget, you should look at the Tamron 70-300mm, which performs very well for its circa-$100 USD price tag.

What is the best Nikon telephoto zoom lens?

The best Nikon telephoto zoom lens is the Nikon 18-200mm VR, which combines versatility with a good optical performance. The 18-200mm VR is a DX lens, which makes it suitable for APS-C cameras only. So for full-frame cameras, I recommend the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8.

 


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