Saturday, November 12, 2016

Comparing 3 very Long Teles for your Nikon

My comparative reviews are very popular - see ultra-wide angle lenses for DX, 3 super zooms, 3 budget macros for DX, and 5 budget normal primes. As I've said before, this is no surprise. People need an overview of the lenses they have their eyes on, as for most of us it isn't possible to just buy the latest and greatest.

Today I've put together a short list with the plus and minuses of 3 long tele lenses for your Nikon camera. The self-imposed requirements I've set for this comparison are these:
  1. Full compatibility also with entry-level Nikons (in other words, the lens needs to have a focus motor)
  2. A focal length reaching at least 500mm
  3. A price below $1500 (as I said, most of us need to factor in budget in the equation)
When you need reach, you need reach!

At the end of this comparison I'll also talk a bit about other solutions to reach or pass 400mm: teleconverters and using a smaller-sensor camera

So, without further delay, let's see the lenses I've picked for this comparison.

Sigma HSM OS 150-500mm f/5-6.3
This is the lens I recently reviewed - and let me remind you it is the older version. There are two newer sigma 150-600mm versions. The reason I don't choose the newer version for this comparison is simple: price. This older Sigma 150-500 is a screaming deal, as with only a few hundred dollars you get a long tele zoom with a focus motor and optical stabilization. It might not be as supreme as the more expensive offerings, but if you're budget-minded this is an awesome deal (which will gradually become harder and harder to find, as the new version displaces the older one).

+ very useful range
+ very competitive price
+ good build quality

- 500mm is somewhat weak though still usable
- OS not as efficient as newer offerings
- slightly inconsistent autofocus, especially in lower light (it's an f/5-f/6.3 lens, remember)

Tamron 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC
This is a direct competitor to Sigma's newer version of the lens above. This lens, too, has image stabilization and it is in fact somewhat more efficient than Sigma's (older). Unlike the Sigma I haven't tested this extensively, but based on my somewhat controlled-environment experience (indoors, in other words) I think the price surcharge is probably worth it.

+ very good image quality, definitely better than the Sigma at 500mm and usable at 600mm
+ efficient stabilization
+ although more expensive, still competitive

- this Tamron uses the newer autofocus motor (ultrasonic sound drive), but it's sadly still somewhat slow...
- ... and, more crucially, it seems to be unreliable. On occasion it even stopped responding altogether
- Sigma is plastic too, but Tamron's plastic looks cheaper

Nikon AF-S VR NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E
This is Nikon's own option in this budget-friendly category of long lenses. Having said that, the Nikkor is the most expensive of the three.

+ superb stabilization, I was able to get sharp results at 1/30
+ clearly better optical quality than the competition
+ faster in terms of aperture at the long end

- ... but bit slower at the short end
- more limited range compared to the competition
- more expensive

What about other options?
I spoke of teleconverters and smaller-sensor cameras at the beginning of this article. Are they viable solutions? They are clearly cheaper, of course. It's probably cheaper to get a Nikon 1 camera and an adapter and a 70-300 lens than it is to buy one of the more expensive options above. But your experience will be a very different one. Personally I would not recommend it, but for some people it might be the right choice (particularly if they already own the lens or the camera).

As for teleconverters? In order to get comparable results to the options above you would need to pair a 1.4x teleconverter to a 300mm lens (for a maximum focal length of 450mm) or a 2x teleconverter to a 300mm lens (for a maximum focal length of 600mm). Doing the math you'll realize that, short of getting a 300mm f/2.8 lens, there's no way getting a 600mm lens with an aperture faster than f/8 - and even then you'd have to get the expensive 300mm f/4 prime. So, to spare you the long explanations and arguments:
if you care about optical quality, ergonomics, and focus speed (or indeed, focus at all), forget about teleconverters

 So, bottom line, what should you do? I can't of course answer that for you, but I can sum it up:
- Money the most crucial factor? Get the Sigma.
- Image quality and performance the most crucial factor? Get the Nikkor
- A balanced solution, especially if focus speed/reliability is not a top priority? Get the Tamron

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