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I am looking for a good amateur telephoto lens for Nikon DSLR. It's main purpose will be sport shots.

Back when I learned photography with film SLR, a fixed focal lens was significantly better than a zoom, and costed less. I took my best shots with a crystal clear Yashica 135mm.

Now I recently bought a Nikon D3100 with two cheap zoom (18-55mm and 55-200mm) and when I came back to the store to upgrade it I only found very wide range zooms (18-200, 70-300, 28-300 and even 18-300 !) I found a few good reviews on these wide range products, but a lot of bad ones too (distortions and soft image if light is not perfect).

I am surprised not to find any 135mm or 200mm around anymore, except as an high end product in the pro shops. So, has the quality of lenses improve so much that a 18-200 or a 70-300 is not a big trade-off anymore ?

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marked as duplicate by Itai, John Cavan, mattdm, whuber, MikeW Mar 28 '13 at 1:17

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

More or less, today's lenses are better than yesterdays. Historically, yes, primes have been substantially better than zoom lenses. Most modern primes are still outstanding. Zoom lenses, however, have steadily improved -- better coatings, lens formulas, and more precise glass grinding has allowed zooms to improve substantially. Pro level f2.8 zooms are typically the best and often rival prime quality. Lower end zooms are often still great, though a clear step below in all but the best circumstances.

One piece on zoom range worth mentioning: in general, a smaller zoom range results in a higher quality lens. Your 18-55 is a 3x zoom, and the 55-200 is about 3.6x. The 18-200 is about 11x and the 18-300 is 16.5x. Those are big jumps and fitting such a wide range does require some compromise. All lens choices are a matter of compromise -- size, weight, optical quality, and cost are all determining factors, after all.

It's true, you won't find many modern primes in the 135-200 mm range. In that range, I think you'll find most people recommend a 70-200 mm f2.8 zoom -- yes, it's so good that the primes in that range have fallen out of favor. However, I have a suggestion: remember that your D3100 is a crop sensor body; Nikon's 85 mm 1.8 becomes about 130 mm on your D3100, right around the focal length you prefer.

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And 135s weren't exactly thick on the ground in the old days either. Among the camera brands, a 135 pretty much had to do tricks to sell (Minolta's STF, Canon's soft focus, Nikon's defocus control) toward the end of film's day (80s on). They were considered an awkward length—too long for portraiture/head shots, and too short for sports/wildlife. (The idea that flattening faces and emphasizing jowls is "beautifying" is new and, frankly, inexplicable to me. Models can take it, yes, but ordinary folks tends to look fatter.) –  user2719 Mar 25 '13 at 3:12
@StanRogers Funny that you say that, because I was just going to edit my answer on the Pentax K1000 to note that a common two-lens kit sold in the 80s included a 50mm f/2.0 and a 135mm f/2.5. –  mattdm Mar 25 '13 at 3:56
Pentax was always the odd one out, @mattdm -- only Fuji ever came close on the weirdness scale. I mean, look at the "Texas Nikon" (the old nick for the Pentax 67). –  user2719 Mar 25 '13 at 4:36
@StanRogers - Now I need to see if I can find some old Shutterbugs, but, yeah. 135mm were very common in the '70s and '80s, as they were much cheaper than zooms and 180mm primes. Budget lenses, typically. Also, as the longest focal length that would work with Leica frame lines, it had the "Well, if it's all a Leica owner needs..." cachet as well. Zooms were cheap enough and good enough in the '90s, almost all of the telephoto primes in the 70-300mm range fell out of favor - 85mm possibly excepted, and only popular with discerning portraitists. –  RI Swamp Yankee Mar 25 '13 at 11:31
135s certainly were common in the used market (usually in near-mint condition). It's not that nobody ever bought them, but that nearly nobody kept and used them. The step down from the 70-210 to 80-200 made "tele" zooms work; 3x was just too wide for the state of the art at the time. –  user2719 Mar 25 '13 at 14:25

The 18-200 "all-in-one" type lenses and to a lesser extent the 70-300 type of lenses still involve a tradeoff for all of that focal range. The reason these are what you are seeing in the stores has less to do with their optical quality and more to do with the perception among the majority of consumer grade lens purchasers that a wider focal length range is more desirable than a wide, constant aperture.

The big improvement in lens design over the last decade or so has been in the area of high end zoom lenses. The mind-boggling capability of the computers used to aid in the design of lenses has led to the ability to test new design ideas using simulation programs in a matter of hours instead of the weeks or even months it took to construct and test physical prototypes. As a result, some of the latest zooms approach and sometimes equal the quality of prime lenses. They do this not only at the "sweet spot" of the lens' design, but across most, if not all, of the focal length and aperture settings.

The standard bearer of this new generation of zooms was the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II that was released in early 2010. Canon followed in 2012 with the long awaited redesign of their other workhorse zoom, the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L. The new EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II is one of the most impressive zoom lenses ever produced. Nikon has followed suite with their own greatly improved 70-200 f/2.8 and other zoom lenses.

All of these premium quality zooms have around a 3x ratio between the widest and longest focal lengths. If you want top optical quality in a zoom, stay away from the 5x and even 10x and beyond zoom lenses. While they are also much better than similar designs from even a few years ago, they are still inferior to the quality you can get with primes. The design compromises in the consumer grade zooms like the 18-200 and 18-300 are readily apparent when viewing images taken with them.

For the most part, local big box retailers that sell all kinds of electronics in addition to cameras don't stock any of the high end lenses or bodies. That market has pretty much moved online. Even the large specialty stores that carry that kind of inventory do more of their business online than on the showroom floor.

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2 decades ago when I was doing film, had there even been a 18-300, I'm sure it would have been a miserable lens. They may not be so great today, but the improvements in lens design overall at least make these reasonable for low end consumers that want a wider range, and a "I'm not working today" convenience lens for pros out with the family. –  Skaperen Mar 25 '13 at 6:54
Actually, two decades ago (1993) Canon introduced a 35-350 mm L lens with quality that really was good. For a princely sum of about $2500 (if memory serves; I can't quickly find the original price), you could have a well-performing superzoom. –  Dan Wolfgang Mar 25 '13 at 16:59
Try shooting that 35-350mm L on one of today's high resolution bodies like the 5DIII. There's a reason Canon replaced it with the EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM. Pixel peeping has raised the expectations for premium lenses. And a 10X 30-300mm is a far cry from the 17X 18-300mm. Moving wider than around 24mm really starts to force design compromises on zooms that go all the way to telephoto. –  Michael Clark Mar 25 '13 at 17:33

I've in my bag a 70mm and 105mm fixed (short) tele. 150mm, 180mm, 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, and 500mm I know exist from Nikon and/or other brands. So to claim that fixed focal length teles no longer exist is patently false.
To think that just because zooms have gotten better means they're now as good as or better than fixed lenses is a flawed argument, as it assumes no technical development has gone on to improve those. The falsity of that argument should be instantly apparent by comparing a current model 300mm (e.g.) with one built 20-30 years ago, the difference is huge.
Sure, a modern 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom will outperform a 30 year old 135mm f/3.5 (which was about the best you'd get back then), but it won't outperform a modern 180mm f/2.8 which will have been constructed with the same or superior materials and design skills as that zoom.

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But the differences between the primes and the wide aperture 3x zooms that fall somewhere in the moderate focal lengths between about 24mm and 200mm are getting much smaller than in the past. Prime lens design has been very close to theoretical optimal performance for a long time. The main improvements for primes have been in the area of manufacturing consistency and materials technology. These, in addition to better design (partly made possible by the advanced materials custom engineered for a specific zoom range), have also improved the quality of the new zooms. –  Michael Clark Mar 25 '13 at 11:14
@MichaelClark maybe, but that doesn't mean they'll ever catch up and be as good or (as sometimes claimed) even better than primes. I've seen articles years ago proclaiming first generation Tamron hyperzooms as being "superior" to Nikkor primes, then going on to ignore any and all optical qualities and focusing solely on the fact that 1) hyperzooms are cheaper, 2) hyperzooms are smaller, and 3) hyperzooms don't require changing lenses (compared to a collection of professional grade primes). Turned out the magazine was heavily sponsored by Tamron :) –  jwenting Mar 25 '13 at 12:43
Ah, but zooms are getting that much better: Nikon's 14-24 is widely accepted a better than any of the primes in its range. I suspect it's only a matter of time before more zooms can make that claim. –  Dan Wolfgang Mar 25 '13 at 13:38
@jwenting: " So to claim that fixed focal length teles no longer exist is patently false." The OP didn't claim they didn't exist, he said he didn't see them in the stores he visited. Most brick and mortar electronics stores do not carry such prime lenses. They rarely carry high quality zooms either. They carry consumer grade zooms because that is what their customers typically want to buy. –  Michael Clark Mar 25 '13 at 15:03
Canon's 24-70 f/2.8 II is considered to be the sharpest 24mm lens in Canon's lineup, sharper than even the 24mm TS-E lens. The 70-200 f/2.8 is sharper than the 200 f/2.8 as well, though the 200 f/2 is still the king of the hill at 200mm. –  Chinmay Kanchi Mar 25 '13 at 15:09

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