What’s the right lens?… Part 1

Originally posted on Roberts Camera’s Blog

Hello there and welcome to what I have promised to be a 3 part series on choices for different lenses.  Robert’s camera has asked me to contribute a bit to help answer some questions they get sometimes A LOT from people coming into the store.  It turns out that when people are shopping for gear they have trouble deciding what to buy.  If this surprises you then you must be the best shopper ever, and you shouldn’t read anymore.  If you do wonder though, what you should buy with your hard earned money than keep reading because in this three part series, I’m going to talk about the different lenses out there with pro’s and Con’s for each depending on what you want to do.  Sounds complicated, but no more than Rocket Surgery eating Girl Scout Cookies, I promise.  This is part one of this 3 part series.  The three parts of the series will include Lenses for Shooting Sports/wildlife, Lenses for Portraiture, and Lenses for every day shooting.  There are TONS of choices out there, and only you can decide what is right for you.  I am just going to try to provide you with information that you might be curious about, OR may have not thought about.  We’ll go from The “bargain lenses”, to the “Cream of the Crop be sure to rent before you buy and make sure it’s actually for you” kind of lenses.  Lets get started shall we?


It’s summertime.  In summertime Sports get played, birds start flying around and squirrels start eating the bird out of your bird feeder.  When sports and birds appear, budding photographers aren’t far behind.  So if you’re looking to get started shooting sports and Birds, this post should have some information for you to help you along with your quest.  Whether you are photographing your kid playing a sport, or you are photographing Andrew Luck on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium you need the right lens to do it.  I’ve shot lots of sports over the years, with a wide variety of lenses, and all of those lenses serve a purpose.  Some are better than others, but if you’re just getting started it’s tough to justify the expense of a 400mmF2.8 IS or VR lens at a staggering almost $9,000.  400mm is kind of a staple for shooting sports though, and to me it’s really it’s the minimum recommended focal length when out on a field.  There are LOTS of ways to get yourself to 400mm, and there is more to it than just money in your bank account.  There is what you’re trying to shoot, what you CAN do vs what you NEED to do and even details such as your camera can come into play here.  So lets get started shall we? How many ways can we get to or close to 400mm?


(Nikon D7000, 4000ISO, Nikon 70-300F4.5-5.6@270mm.  1/4000th@F10 405mm in full frame mm’s)

So first up if you’re in either the Nikon or Canon camp, a lens to be aware of is either brand’s 70-300F4.5-5.6.  Sigma and Tamron make those too, but we’ll get back to them later.  It is hands down the best place to start if you have no idea what’s going on and just want to buy a lens, or you only have $400-$600 to spend.  My wife Shannon has a D7000 and last year I bought her a Nikon 70-300F4.5-5.6VR so she could take pictures of the birds at the bird feeder in our front yard.  If you have a EF-S or DX camera like the Canon 7D, Canon 70D, any of the Rebels, OR a Nikon D7100, D5000 series, D3000 Series, or D300 series cameras, the 70-300 is actually a 105-450mm!  Whoa!  Not bad for less than $400 refurbished, or $600 brand new!  Little confused?  maybe this Article by Robert’s Jarrid Spicer about Sensor sizes will help.  If not that, then how about this article/video from Petapixel?  Anyway; I’ve never used the Canon 70-300F4-5.6IS lens, but I’ve heard it’s somewhat equivalent to the Nikon 70-300F4.5-5.6VR.  What do I think about the Nikon one?  IT’S GREAT!  As a full time pro, honestly I didn’t expect much out of Nikon’s 70-300.  I own the 70-200F2.8VR2, the 200-400F4VR, and the 400F2.8VR (more on all those in a bit), so what was I possibly going to get out of a 70-300F4.5-5.6VR that I paid $400ish refurbished?  Honestly for something that I figured would be made out of Ash Tray glass, the thing is awesome.  It’s super sharp (except right at 300mm it seems where it’s just a little soft but not bad), it’s reasonably fast, and the VR/IS is first class.  I am blown away by this lens every time I pick up Shannon’s D7000, which for the record sits on our dining room table with the 70-300 ready to go for when birds are at the feeder.  When we went to the Zoo earlier this year, this lens was awesome because it took the camera out to 450mm, and it was small enough that I could take the lens off the camera and put it in my jacket pocket if I wanted.  Not only that, as a full frame lens if I wanted to put it on my Nikon D4s and have a walk around lens at 300mm; I totally could.  The one and only weak point to this lens that I can think of (other than being slightly soft at 300mm) is that you need a lot of light for the Autofocus to track well.  When shooting things outside, like birds, zoo animals, or even your kids running around playing soccer possibly; the Autofocus will work surprisingly well. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’ll be damn close which in most cases is close enough.  It’s not lightning fast, but it’s far superior to any previous generation, or any, read ANY less expensive options.  So if you’re looking for that first Forray into a long lens, spend the money on the Canon or Nikon 70-300F4.5-5.6.  It’ll get you that range you need until you decide to step up to one of the lens possibilities.


(Nikon D7000, 1000ISO, Nikon 70-300F4.5-5.6VR@165mm.  1/2500th@F5)

So you’re looking for something a little faster aye?  I kind of thought you might, and I may have something here that fits that want.  As I explained to my students in a class that I teach at Ivy Tech Community College, with everything in life there is a trade off.  A faster lens, would be a 70-200F2.8, but you also notice it’s a little shorter.  Nikon makes a 70-200F2.8VR2 and Canon makes a 70-200F2.8IS2 and both are incredible.  Both brands make a 70-200F4VR/IS, but I have no personal Experience with those.  I’ve heard they are very fast, but you just don’t have that F2.8 Aperture vs the F4.  Will you really miss that stop of light?  Only you can answer that question.  Anyway, as compared to the 70-300’s price of $600 the 70-200F2.8 is a steep 4 times that at $2500!  But you get 4x the performance and sharpness.  Spending $2500 on a lens like this would be for a purpose, not just to take photos of your cats.  On a EF-S or DX camera it goes from 105-300mm F2.8 which for sports is a fantastic range! That’s not 400mm, but we’ll get to that.  Sigma and Tamron also throw their hats into the 70-200F2.8 range and their models are very acceptable  in this range for usually what is half the price of the Nikon and Canon Counterparts.  A good friend of mine has a Sigma 70-200F2.8 and while he wants the Nikon version, the $700 he paid for the Sigma used, gives him more than 85% the performance for 1/4th the price!  He just can’t figure out why he would sell it, to pay a ton of money for that last 15% right?  When it is all said and done, as of this writing I FEEL as though the Canon and Nikon branded lenses are faster, sharper and better than the Sigma and Tamron Counterparts; but not by much.  That is NOT saying the Sigma and Tamron lenses are bad, but with photography equipment you get what you pay for.  It’s up to you to decide if that extra 10% in sharpness and performance is worth the premium price.  Check out this review I did on the Newest Tamron 70-200 to see what I mean.  It’s super sharp, but not quite as fast.  But at 1/2 the price how much is that little bit of speed going to affect you?  Only you can answer that with what you’re shooting.  Remember, I own a 400F2.8 but I like shooting birds with my Wife’s 70-300…   Again I digress as the 70-200F2.8 lenses are the cream of the crop in that range.  They are the fastest and the sharpest too which is what you pay for.  The 70-300F4.5-5.6 is what is called a Variable aperture lens, which means that the widest aperture you can get at 70mm is F4.5, and at 300mm it’s F5.6.  This changes your exposure while zooming, which while not the end of the world also means you have to be very conscious when shooting; or do what I do and set your camera to F5.6 all the time.  The 70-200 is a constant aperture lens, which means that you’re at F2.8 no matter where you are.  88mm?  F2.8.  177mm?  F2.8.  It’s fast.  This is an advantage because the more light you let into the camera the faster and better the Autofocus can be.  This is why you see a lot of Pro’s with a 70-200 on the sidelines for sports and not a 70-300.  The 70-300 does an awesome job as getting started, and can/will definitely produce great images, but the 70-200F2.8 is really the king of that range, and if you don’t own one and can afford it?  You should get one and not look back.  When I was 16 I spent all my financial aid money in school on one as the first F2.8 Pro lens I ever bought.  I felt unstoppable when mounted to a Nikon F4s, or the D70s.  I still get that feeling today.

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Notre Dame

(Nikon D4, 3200ISO, 1/640th@F4.  Nikon 70-200F2.8VR2@70mm)

Further?  You want further? Alright, alright, we can do further.  Nikon, Canon and Sigma all make outstanding zoom lenses that go even further than the 70-200 with outstanding quality.  Sigma makes a 120-300mmF2.8OS lens that I know Jody Grober swears by.  It’s a great range, especially on a EF-S or DX camera in that it’s essentially a 180mm-450mmF2.8 lens.  Wow, 450mm? F2.8?  Sign me up!  Canon and Nikon have NOTHING LIKE THAT in their lineup.  The closest things they have in their lineups are the 200-400F4 lenses, which aren’t F2.8 but get you to 400mm on a full frame camera.  Sigma’s 120-300F2.8 also doesn’t cost that much more than a 70-200 at $3599 brand new.  While it’s not quite as long as Nikon or Canon’s 200-400, it costs about half as much as the Nikon, and almost an entire Car less than the Canon…. ($8200 less, no joke).  In Canon’s defense their lens does come with a 1.4 extender built in.  Is it worth an extra 4 digits over any of it’s competitors?  Only your accountant can tell you that.  I personally own a Nikon 200-400F4 which I love.  I swear by it, but then again I am working with D4 and D4s camera bodies and that extra little bit of reach is worth it for me.  The Sigma 120-300F2.8 is super tempting though, and I may end up with one yet.  Sigma has really stepped up their game in the last couple years and their lenses have started to become very desirable among pro’s as well as aspiring photographers.  Check out what I wrote about their 35F1.4 last year.  Again I digress though, as with the 120-300F2.8 you have a great range with a very fast aperture.  Not only that, but it’s incredible sharp as any of Jody’s Bird Photos Show!


(Photo by Jody Grober.  Canon 7D, Sigma 120-300F2.8 with Sigma 2x Extender for a wicked 900mm)

Wow did I just really recommend a Sigma Lens over a Nikon and Canon lens?  Yea, I think I did.  Full Disclosure should say that I’ve never personally used the Sigma 120-300F2.8, but I have heard Jody Rave about it quite a bit.  I tried to get a loaner form them to shoot something last year, but never heard back.  Even after they offered.  I do have a friend who rented one and basically gave me the review of it that I expected in that while it’s sharp and fast it’s not quite as fast as the 200-400 counterparts.  Lets face it though, at half the price of the Nikon and at $8200 less than the Canon (not kidding) I’ll again ask how much that extra bit of length and that 15% of performance is worth to you?


(Nikon D4, 1250ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@240mm.  1/1000th@F4)

Too Far?  No?  Oh, so you’re stuck on the Canon and Nikon brand and you don’t want to spend $7k-12k? Yea I get that. Nikon and Canon also make longer lenses in the vein of the 70-300F4.5-5.6.  Canon’s is known as the 100-400F4.5-5.6 and it’s an awesome range, but autofocuses a bit on the slower side even against Canon’s own 70-300F4.5-5.6.  They just haven’t updated the 100-400 in forever, and it’s due.  Nikon however has a brand new 80-400F4.5-5.6VR3 out on the market and while I’ve never used one on a job I know several wildlife photographers are dumping some of their big, heavy, long glass for it.  It’s sharp, fast, and it even takes a 1.4x teleconverter which is unheard of since most of the Variable Aperture lenses don’t….. You lose some doing it since the lens ends up being an F8 lens at 400mm, but for $4k (including teleconverter) you can shoot at almost 600mm on a full frame.  You need a lot of light to operate well at F8 minimum, but you can do it, and both the 100-400 at $1699, and the Nikon 80-400 at $2696 they save you quite a bit in comparison to either Nikon or Canon’s 200-400mm lenses. I should mention that Nikon Does have a older version of the 80-400 that is $1699.  If you are shooting up in the mountains hiking, it’s a great alternative to help you save a thousand bucks, but I wouldn’t try shooting any sports with it.  I say this from experience in that it’s too slow.  The new 80-200F4.5-F5.6VR3 though is shockingly fast.  Shockingly as in when I was looking to buy my 200-400F4 I almost bought this instead because it was so fast.  In the end, as a full time pro, the extra light I got out of the 200-400F4 won, but to be quite honest I still sometimes wonder how I would have done with the 80-400VR3 in it’s place.  This lens is a welcome, welcome update.


Ok so now there is only one things left to do and that’s state the obvious.  We’ve talked about the starter lenses for sports (the 70-300, 100-400, and 80-400).   We have talked about the next level up in stepping up your game if you will (the 70-200, 120-300 and 200-400).  What about the cream of the crop?  What about the absolute bomb diggity of sports lenses?  That’s easy.  We’re going to talk about the 400mm F2.8.  At almost $10,000 for the Nikon and $11,000 for the Canon it better be the best of the best yea?  This is easily the best, fastest, sharpest lens for Sports.  You get what you pay for.  Not only is it in tolerantly the fastest and sharpest, but it performs better than any of the other lenses with teleconverters.  This includes my 2x teleconverter.  The 400mm F2.8 lens is the ultimate for sports and if you’re a pro you need one.  I went for a long time without and it was tough.


(Fill the Frame.  Nikon D4, 2200ISO, Nikon 400mmF2.8VR with Nikon TC20eIII making 800mm.  1/1000th@F5.6)

So there you have it.  From $400 to $11,000 there is a breakdown of all the most common lenses and ways to get yourself to 400mm.  Yea, sure, the 70-300 or 80-400 aren’t the “best” lenses for shooting sports, but they do a really great job.  A surprisingly great job in fact.  Plus if you’re getting started and are not looking to break the bank they are wonderful.  If you’re a pro, and you’re looking for that next level up, the 70-200F2.8, Sigma 120-300F2.8, and of course the 400F2.8 are the obvious choices.  Hopefully that helps clear up some confusion between all the lenses out there.  Also just remember there’s nothing to say you can’t buy one and upgrade later, OR even own more than one.  As my friend Bob once said joking around.  Camera Lense are like Pokemon; Gotta catch them all!  More Soon.

Here are some direct links to all the lenses in the article.  When I buy my gear, I tend to buy it used, so make sure to check out Robert’s used department where all items get a 6 month warranty and are usually a lot less than buying brand new!

Canoo 70-300

Nikon 70-300

Sigma 120-300F2.8

Nikon 70-200F2.8

Nikon 70-200F4

Sigma 70-200F2.8

Tamron 70-200F2.8

Canon 70-200F2.8

Canon 70-200F4

Nikon 80-400VR3

Canon 100-400

Nikon 200-400F4

Canon 200-400F4

Nikon 400mm F2.8VR

Canon 400mm F2.8IS