Always a popular category for both professional and enthusiast photographers, telephoto lenses can range hugely in price and quality. We round round up the best on the market for you
The term ‘telephoto’ applies to a lens longer than the standard focal length for a particular system, and for a DSLR this covers an exhaustive range of optics, from short telephoto objectives around the 60-70mm mark to super telephoto lenses that have four-figure asking prices to go with their three-figure focal lengths. The cost and inaccessibility of the latter confines them to professional use; the lenses that feature below occupy the more popular part of the spectrum up to around 135mm.
This range also includes many macro lenses, but as these are designed and bought for specialist use, and as they have been covered separately, they have been omitted from the below. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to use macro lenses for more conventional photography, although non-macro lenses hold many advantages, particularly when used for portraiture as so many of these lenses end up being used.
Their apertures will typically be wider than those on macro optics, which makes them better for handheld use and also allows you to separate the subject from its background to a greater extent, and manufacturers often endeavor to make the diaphragms as rounded as possible for pleasingly circular bokeh. The wider aperture also means that some of these lenses suffer from spherical aberration at their widest apertures, although correction for this isn’t exactly a priority as many photographers embrace the flattering softness this lends portraits.
Many basic versions of these lenses are fairly inexpensive, although spending a little more typically gets you a more refined focusing motor, superior lens coatings and potentially weather sealing too. The main reason photographers will be willing to spend a little more, however, is to take advantage of a wider maximum aperture. The category is also notable for being one that attracts particular innovation from third parties, with manual-focus, wide-aperture options from Samyang at the budget end to high-quality designs from Zeiss at the other.
Budget (up to £500)
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
This venerable, budget optic has been a portrait photographer’s favourite for many years. While it may lack modern advances, it combines a “virtually circular” diaphragm with a USM motor, and the front also stays still while focusing so that you can use filters with ease.
Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM
Very similar to the above lens, save for a slightly longer focal length – and with it a longer focusing distance – and a slightly narrower, but still respectably wide maximum aperture of f/2. As with the above lens it also offers full-time manual focus override for quick fine-tuning.
Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G AF-S
This moderate telephoto combines a Silent Wave Motor with internal focusing, and full-time manual- focus override. The lens further benefits from Super Integrated Coating on the elements to keep light transmission high.
Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM
Compatible with both full-frame and APS-C-based Sony Alpha bodies and featuring Sony’s Smooth Autofocus Motor, this lens can be had for less than £200 although this is perhaps partly explained by its slightly narrow maximum f/2.8 aperture, which gives it a disadvantage with regards to background blur next to the other options here.
Pentax 70mm f/2.4 DA Limited
This lens may not have the widest maximum aperture available on such an optic, but it does have a low-profile design and a sturdy aluminum build to recommend it. Its effective focal length on the APS-C bodies for which it is designed is approximately 107mm.
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 IF MC
An ultra-wide f/1.4 aperture and a very appealing price tag, but with the caveat of no autofocus system, those not put off by this combination on this lens will also benefit from an internal focusing system and and multi-layered coatings.
Samyang 135mm f/2 ED UMC
This lens follows the above in being solely a manual-focus affair, although a nine-bladed diaphragm is on hand to keep out-of-focus highlights nice and round and a floating element helps to keep spherical aberration and distortion to a minimum. At almost half the price of Canon’s EF 135mm f/2L USM, it certainly has a lot of appeal.
Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM
In addition to portraits, Canon cites this L-series optic as an appropriate choice for indoor sports photography. Together with the promise of circular bokeh, the lens features a ring-type USM motor for speedy focusing and a dust- and moisture-resistant casing.
Lomography 85mm f/2.2 Petzval Art
The trippy blur associated with Lomography lenses combined with a solid and undeniably handsome brass body, this manual-focus lens stands out from all the others here. It’s available for Canon and Nikon users and compatible across full-frame and cropped-sensor models, and also comes in a black finish to complement typical DSLR bodies.
Nikon 105mm f/2 D AF DC
Somewhat aging but still very respected, this 105mm optic has been specifically designed for portraits, with a Defocus Image Control feature that allows you control the degree of softness in the foreground and background of the image.
Pentax 77mm f/1.8 SMC FA Limited
Designed specifically for portraits, this aluminium-bodied option from Pentax works across APS-C bodies and the full-frame K-1, with a respectably wide f/1.8 aperture and a focused-distance scale. It also features a Fixed Rear Element Extension focusing system to keep aberrations low and image quality high, wherever you happen to be focused.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
Billed as the ultimate wedding and portrait lens by Sigma, this lens has the advantage of being available in Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Sony and Pentax mounts, and offers an aperture that’s wider than most others at this price. Sigma has also equipped it with a Hyper Sonic Motor for prompt autofocus performance.
Sony 135mm f/2.8 STF
This moderately long option from Sony is marked Smooth Transition Focus (STF), which makes use of an apodization optical element to deliver particularly smooth gradations between sharp and focused areas and “creamy” defocused ones. It’s compatible with both full-frame and APS-C bodies, with an effective focal length of around 202mm on the latter.
Pro (over £1000)
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
One of only two EF lenses to offer an f/1.2 aperture, this pricey and heavy second-generation 85mm lens boasts L-series and optics and construction, together with a “virtually circular” diaphragm. It’s very much designed for full-frame, but offers an effective focal length closer to 136mm when used in conjunction with an APS-C body.
Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G AF-S
This six-year-old optic has been equipped with both Super Integrated Coating and Nano Crystal Coat technology for excellent light transmission, together with a nine-bladed aperture for circular bokeh and internal focusing. Furthermore, with an effective focal length of around 127mm in 35mm terms on a DX-format body, it appeals to both FX- and (admittedly well-heeled) DX-format users shooting portraits.
Sony 85mm f/1.4 ZA Planar T*
This smartly designed, short telephoto lens has been fashioned with a tactile focusing ring and focused-distance window. There’s a nine-bladed diaphragm on the inside and an effective focal length of around 128mm on an APS-C body, although it’s perhaps most likely to appeal to full-frame users after its natural focal length.
Sony 135mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar T*
Not too dissimilar from the above lens, with a pleasingly deep focusing ring and compatibility with full-frame and APS-C bodies in Sony’s Alpha SLT stable. At just over 1kg this is a fairly weighty optic, but T* coatings, ED glass and a nine-bladed aperture should give it the performance expected at this level.
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Otus ZE / ZF.2
Marketed by Zeiss as having optical correction “that completely eliminates almost all possible forms of aberration”, this relatively new, wide-aperture lens is far from cheap but has already proved to be the ultimate object of desire for portrait photographers. Available in Canon EF and Nikon F mounts, with an aperture ring on the latter version.
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus ZE / ZF.2
This manual-focus Zeiss lens boasts a beautifully minimal, metal body, together with T* coatings and a nine-bladed aperture for circular bokeh. Given its significantly cheaper price tag than its Otus cousin above, it’s potentially a more viable option for the Canon EF and Nikon F mount users for which it is designed.