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by Bart Arondson

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Currently I have a 7D and 2 lenses: a 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS - which I use as a general purpose / go around lens - and a prime Sigma 30mm f/1.4 - mostly for concerts: indoor, low light scenarios (given the crop I prefer having a 30mm to a 50mm).

However, lately I've been doing some hiking and I've been meaning to buy a longer range lens - the problem is which one?

I've considered these:

  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 IS USM Lens - ~380 GBP
  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens - ~1300 GBP
  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM - ~1000 GBP
  • Canon EF 75-300mm f/4.0-5.6 III Lens - ~100 GBP
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L USM Lens - ~510 GBP
  • Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS - ~150 GBP

I'd also like to buy and play around with a polarizer filter (I've never had one) but I understand that for I'd need a lens with a front element that doesn't rotate (and on this list that's only the DO IS USM and L lenses). I'd also consider high end sigma lenses since I've had good experiences with their EX lenses (and not so much with the rest).

Regarding the rotation of the front element, is it a huge problem with the filter? Also the 70-300 IS USM rotates only a little bit while the 55-250 rotates alot - how aligned does the filter have to be? I'd also prefer an EF lens since I also own a non digital Canon SLR.

Any tips? What would you buy?

Thanks for the input :)

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I've the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 IS USM Lens, and have not been happy with its performance –  Rowland Shaw Dec 11 '10 at 16:14
    
There is 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS? Isn't that 100-400mm? –  che Dec 11 '10 at 23:22
    
@che - it's the brand new L lens –  Daniel O Dec 12 '10 at 0:25
    
@Daniel: Oh, good to know, looks nice :-) –  che Dec 13 '10 at 21:24

5 Answers 5

If you are looking for a lens to shoot wildlife and birds, I highly recommend the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS telephoto zoom lens. This is a superb lens, decently fast, and provides a great focal range for capturing wildlife and birds on the perch. It is not quite fast enough at 400mm to really help you capture birds in flight, however with good lighting and hand-held technique it can serve that role as well. The optical clarity of this lens is excellent as well. It does have IS, which can provide up to 3 stops of slower shutter if you use a good hand-held technique, and that offsets the slower aperture a bit.

This particular lens uses a push-pull zoom, which some find a little odd. After using it for a bit, I have come to love that design for telephoto zoom lenses, as it allows much quicker adjustment of your focal length than a ring-style zoom. The 100-400mm does not rotate when focusing or zooming, so it is easy to use with filters.

When it comes to telephoto lenses, a key thing to understand is that even with 400-500mm worth of focal length, you still need to get fairly close to capture a good shot with nice bokeh. With wildlife, you can be up to a couple hundred feet and still get a decent shot. Frame-filling shots still usually require you to be within 50-100 feet of your subjects. With birds, you need to be within 10-15 feet usually to get a frame-filling shot, so the technique you use to sneak up on your subjects without scaring them away is critical.

The difference between 400-500mm is small, but in the case of birds, useful. You get maybe 20% tighter framing and a little more reach. Sigma makes a couple lenses that reach 500mm, one of which is the 150-500mm OS lens. This lens has a pretty slow aperture, with the maximum being f/5 at 150mm, and f/6.3 at 500mm. Even with the image stabilization (OS), a maximum apertyre of f/5 is not ideal for working with birds. For wildlife, with good hand-held technique, this lens should be a decent lens. At its price point, some $2400 (cheaper street, probably around $2000-$2200), I would stick with the Canon EF 100-400mm, which lists for $1800 (street price is around $1600.) In almost every way, the Canon 100-400 is a better lens.

Another alternative would be the Sigma 120-400mm OS lens. This is a very competitive lens, and compares very well with the Canon 100-400mm. It is a bit cheaper than the Canon, and uses rings for both focus and zoom (in case you don't like push-pull zoom.) It costs a bit less, as well, at around $1300.

EDIT:

Regarding filters, like a polarizer. You can indeed buy screw-on filters for your lenses. However, if you begin to invest in a wide variety of lenses (which is ultimately inevitable if you stick with photography), you should look into a flexible filtration system. Both Lee and Cokin make great multi-filter holder systems that use adapter rings to connect to just about any lens with filter sizes from about 40mm up to about 100mm. The quality and versatility of filters available for a filter system like this are much higher than your average screw-on filter, and given that they can be used with multiple lenses, despite their higher up-front cost, they are much cheaper in the long run.

I recommend Lee myself, as their quality is unsurpassed. They do have some supply problems, and it can be difficult to find their filters and kits at times. Cokin seems to be much more readily available, however the quality of their gear is a little lower. It is also possible to use third-party filters in both of these systems. An example would be the very high quality Singh Ray filters.

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1  
The 100-400 is a good lens for this situation. I use it for about 90% of my wildlife shots. –  chuqui Dec 11 '10 at 18:53
    
Aye, the 100-400 is definitely my go-to lens for wildlife and birds. I should also note that it also seconds as my second-most-used landscape lens. Telephoto landscape is great fun, and you can get some very intriguing shots that are just not possible with a wide-angle lens. –  jrista Dec 11 '10 at 23:36
    
I think you forgot the L in the lens name. That's a critical distinction. –  Fake Name Dec 14 '10 at 6:00

The problem with the front end rotating is that you have to realign the polarizer every time you focus. This is annoying, but not a fundamental limitation. It depends how often you use the polarizer and what for.

The better lenses tend to have rear focussing mechanisms for speed, I would look into the highly regarded Sigma big rooms, especially the 50-500, I believe it has rear focussing.

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If you want something nicer than the budget canon zooms, but aren't quite ready for the outlay of the longer canon glass, I recommend the Sigma 150-500.

I have one, and I have been quite happy with it. The advantage of the 150-500 over the 50-500 is that the 150 has stabilization, which helps make up for the fact that it is a bit slow (6.3 at the long end). Anyways, it's certainly not cut out for sports photography, but I find it quite nice for nature photography.

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Plus, (and it's incidental), the tripod foot is excellent, and actually makes a really nice way to carry the lens when hiking. I attach a monopod, and for walking you flip it over and tuck the extended monopod under your arm, while still attached.

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Same experience here with the Sigma 120-400mm. –  CSharpRocks Dec 12 '10 at 18:57

Got already some good suggestions but one of the very best long range lens is the Sigma 100-300mm F/4. It is ultra-sharp and optically excellent.

It is on the heavy side, more than the Canon 70-200 F4 which is a shorter but excellent lens as well.

The rest of the lenses you mentioned are variable-aperture ones which means you will lose at least a stop of light at the long end and you have to stop down further to get the its optimum quality. Since your existing lenses are like that too, you may not mind the difference but you should probably know that these are a class above.

The Sigma 50-500mm that someone mentioned is extremely popular due to its versatility but optically, particularly at the long end it does noticeably soft. I noticed it is the most popular lens among birders since it saves them from needing more lenses on treks to find all those bird.

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Since nobody else has mentioned it (and I personally prefer prime lenses) you should look at the Canon 400mm L f5.6. It will annihilate all the zooms you're currently looking at in terms of sharpness and focusing speed which are important for wildlife.

The drawbacks are it doesn't have IS and it doesn't zoom but IS isn't always necessary (esp at high shutter speeds, moving targets or using a tripod) and zooming, well, thats a personal preference (and a different discussion :)).

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an alternative is the 300 F4 with a 1.4x. I use that combo. An advantage over the 400 F5.6 is that you get both focal lengths, AND you get IS. WhenI'm shooting handheld, I use the 100-400. when I'm shoting on a tripod, I tend to use the 300 + 1.4x.and you're right, the prime is sharper, but less flexible. –  chuqui Dec 12 '10 at 7:41
    
It is nice that you get both focal lengths and IS but you lose a noticeable amount of sharpness and a dramatic amount of focusing speed, at that point I'd suggest just getting the 100-400. The 400 is sharper (slightly) and focuses faster (slightly) than the 300 by itself let alone w/the 1.4x TC, its scary how sharp/fast the 400 is. And yes, I own both and did side by side measurebation :) –  Shizam Dec 12 '10 at 21:19

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