So you bought a new digital Nikon camera. Perhaps a D5300 or even a D7200. Great choice! Odds are it came bundled with an AF-S Nikkor 18-55 mm 1:3.5~5.6G lens, which is another great choice. The lens zooms from a moderate wide angle to a short telephoto and is versatile and easy to use.
But at some point – whether you are shooting your daughter on the soccer field or trying to get a great shot of an exotic bird in the tropics – you realize that you just can’t get quite close enough with the one lens you’ve got. That’s when you decide it’s time to expand your horizons with a telephoto.
But what to buy? We’ll look at some options, with the realistic budget constraint of $500 or less in mind. But first, a mini-lesson on telephotos.
Nikon Telephoto Lens Basics
Nikon DX Format
The DX Format is Nikon’s APS-C sensor (24x16mm). In the Nikon DX format, the focal length that is closest to what we see with the unaided eye is around 36 mm. (Camera lens focal lengths are all measured in millimeters). So your standard lens, when set at 36 mm, catches approximately what your eye would see. Any setting beyond that is considered telephoto. So you want a lens that goes beyond the 55 mm your standard lens can muster. But how long a lens do you need?
A quick word on teleconverters if you aren’t familiar with what they do. A teleconverter is a device that is essentially a magnifying lens that fits between your lens and the camera body. A 2X teleconverter doubles the focal length of the lens but at a cost of reduced picture quality and a doubling of the maximum F-stop. Speaking of trade-offs, a teleconverter is a relatively cheap way to increase your zoom power but at a cost.
A second word, this one about F-stops. The F-stop is the measure of how wide the lens opens to get light to the image sensor. The smaller the number, the better the lens will be in low light. The longer the lens the harder it gets to build with a small F-stop. The higher the F-stop number the harder the lens is to use in low light situations, with fast-moving subjects, or in situations where a tripod isn’t practical.
An extremely fast lens might open as wide as f/1.2, but you won’t find an f-stop that wide open on a long telephoto. Many inexpensive telephoto lenses are either f/8 or f/16. That’s slow. Some of the better lenses open up to f/4.5 and that gives them the edge when shooting in low light situations.
Telephoto Lens Tradeoffs
So what’s the best lens? To answer that question, we have to talk about trade-offs. There are many factors that affect the cost of the lens, such as zoom range, minimum f-stop, lens quality, autofocus and image stabilization among others.
As you might expect, the longer the lens the greater the price, unless you are willing to give up some quality. The upper ranges are real budget busters. For example, Nikon makes a gem of a lens that zooms from 200 to 500 mm, but it is almost 3 times our budget.
It’s a great lens if you can stretch your budget, but let’s rule that one out for this roundup.
Factors to consider when selecting a budget telephoto lens
- Price: Pick a lens that fits your budget. Consider the performance tradeoffs.
- Focal Length: pick a zoom range that fits the subjects you expect to shoot.
- Aperture: If shooting in low light is a priority, choose a lens with a lower F-stop in the f/4-5.6 range.
- Vibration Reduction: Important if shooting handheld, at longer focal lengths, or lower light scenes.
- Autofocus: Important depending on the type of subjects you shoot. Autofocus makes it easier to capture scenes with a lot of motion like sports or wildlife.
Budget Nikon Telephoto Lenses
Vivitar 500mm F/8 Telephoto Lens for Nikon
Let’s start with one example of a very long lens that will get you very close to your subject at a reasonable price but compromises on quality. There are a number of choices in this category but the Vivitar 500mm F/8 Telephoto Lens is a strong choice. It is a fixed focal length (i.e. not a zoom) at 500 mm that comes bundled with a 2X teleconverter that brings the focal length up to 1000 mm. That is a lot of bang for the buck!
So what’s the catch? The biggest problem is that it is manual focus. If you are used to autofocus cameras and lenses (most of us are these days), this will take some getting used to. And even when you do master it you will find that your camera’s computer can bring subjects into focus faster and better than you can.
That’s not all you will give up: to get to 1000 mm you need to detach the lens from your body, attach the teleconverter and then reattach the lens. In addition, using the teleconverter hurts your picture quality and also cuts your low light capability in half. In other words, at 500 mm the lens only opens to f/8 and at 1000 mm it only opens to f/16. That being said, the lens will only work well in bright light conditions. Even then, you will probably need a tripod.
Reviewers generally focused (pun intended) on the fact that the Vivitar lens’ quality was surprisingly high for the price, but noted that you need to learn how to manually focus and that the f/8 aperture limits the lens to well-lit situations.
Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II AF-S DX Lens
So, next, let’s take a look at a reasonably priced genuine Nikon lens that won’t break the bank but gives you exceptional quality and a lot of zoom power: the Nikkor 55-200 mm, which is a solid contender in the budget category.
A few points about why this is a great choice. First of all, because its zoom range starts at 55 mm, so it is a great complement to the standard 18-55 mm lens that comes with many Nikon camera kits. With that lens pair, you will now have continuous zoom capability from 18 to 200 mm with this two-lens combo. Plus, as we already mentioned, with a maximum f/stop of 4-5.6 (depending on zoom), this lens will work well in lower light situations. Also, at a maximum focal length of 200 mm, you have enough reach for most shooting situations.
Finally, note that the lens’ lengthy title includes the initials “VR.” What does that stand for? It stands for “Vibration Reduction,”, which is Nikon’s image stabilization technology. Nikkor lenses with this designation have a computerized system that compensates for your shaky hand when you are hand-holding a shot. Effectively, this means that you can successfully pull off a razor-sharp shot in lower light or at a lower shutter speed than you otherwise could.
Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX NIKKOR VR
Finally, I’ve got one more lens to discuss. If you don’t mind, I’m going to dip a little bit deeper into your checkbook for a Nikkor lens that zooms out an additional 100 mm to 300 mm yet is still within our budget: the Nikon 55-300 f/4.5-5.6 NIKKOR VR.
With the VR function, you can handhold this lens at 300 mm in most situations and you will find that it is long enough for sports, wildlife, and other situations. Everything I said about the plusses of the 55-200 mm applies to this lens as well. It’s also a f/4.5-5.6 lens for good low light capability, with a greater telephoto spec.
As we discussed, buying a telephoto requires balancing trade-offs. The three lenses I discussed gives you options in terms of both functionality and price.
The Vivitar is probably the most budget-friendly, but has a few downsides: its manual focus only, and is not great in low light. It’s a good choice if you are just getting started or don’t need telephoto capability very often. It’s also one of the most inexpensive 500mm zoom lenses. If you need a long telephoto lens on a budget and can live with its drawbacks, it just might fit the bill.
A step up is the Nikon 55-200mm. It has a good zoom range and low light performance. It also includes Nikon’s image stabilizations (VR), which is important at longer focal lengths.
The best choice, if your budget allows and you need the extra zoom, is the Nikon 55-300mm. Similar to the 55-200mm, it’s a f/4.5-5.6, good for shooting in low light. It also has Nikon’s vibration reduction, which is essential for hand shooting at higher zoom levels.
Grab one and get shooting!
Product images courtesy of Adorama.