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I have a Nikon D3000 with a Nikkor AF 18-55mm lens and a manual Nikkor 28-200mm lens that I use zoomed-in more than 90% of the time.

I love, love, love close-ups of horses, especially athletic ones. For example, if they are jumping, I shoot for part of the head, neck, and front legs. Since I don't always shoot the entire body, getting close enough isn't always an option — plus I like the shallow depth-of-field look with a higher zoom.

I'd like to improve my options for this type of photography. What am I looking for in a lens to get the pictures I want? AF, VR, G.....what? And focal lenth, I'm thinking a 300mm but a 70-300mm, a 50-300mm? I don't know... help this horse lover get her next big shot.

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    Have you considered renting lenses to help defining your needs ? – Olivier Mar 10 '17 at 17:52
  • Welcome to Photo.SE. Product recommendation requests are generally off topic for a variety of reasons, but perhaps you can edit your question to ask about the things that would help you make a purchase decision on your own. Is there something about zoom lenses that's a mystery and that's preventing you from making a choice? What would you need to know to feel comfortable buying a zoom lens? – Caleb Mar 10 '17 at 17:54
  • Does the information at What do all those cryptic number and letter codes in a lens name mean? help? – Michael C Mar 10 '17 at 17:59
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    I think the fairly specific use case plus question about what to look for rather than asking for a specific shopping recommendation makes this a good question. – mattdm Mar 10 '17 at 20:57
  • Not saying it is a duplicate, just a good starting place for someone to learn the differences between various lenses based on their identification. It should help, even if it doesn't completely answer the question. – Michael C Mar 10 '17 at 22:03
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Like a lot of things associated with photography, a lot depends on how much you are willing and/or able to spend to get that "next big shot." A lot also depends upon the conditions under which you'll be trying to get that shot. There's a big difference between what you need to shoot moving horses under bright sunlight and shooting the same activities under artificial lighting at night or at an indoor arena.

At the top of the heap would be a 300mm f/2.8 or even a 400mm f/2.8, 400mm f/4, or an even longer focal length Super Telephoto prime lens. That's what you see the top pros shooting outdoor sports using. The 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 offerings from Nikon and Canon are some of the best performing lenses in the world. But most Super Telephoto lenses are certainly not cheap!

In exchange for a lower price than the Super Telephoto prime lenses, you need to decide what you are willing to give up for that lower price. (Generally a telephoto lens with a focal length 300mm or longer is considered a Super Telephoto, but many people use the term in a more restricted way to indicate wide aperture primes that are 300mm or longer. Zoom lenses that end at 300mm are usually considered "telephoto", rather than "Super Telephoto.") Which can you do without and still get "the shot?" Large aperture? Absolute image quality? Longer focal length? The Nikon name plate on the lens?

Sigma's latest in their series of 120-300mm f/2.8 zoom lenses is highly regarded by some as a good compromise between the absolute image quality of the Super Telephoto prime lenses and the flexibility of the variable aperture zooms. It's a bit pricey but is still the cheapest way into the 300mm @ f/2.8 club.

If you are shooting in bright daylight an option a lot of shooters like is one of the recent 150-600mm f/5-6.3 offerings from Sigma or Tamron. At the long end of their focal length range they're not quite as good as the high end primes, but they're still pretty good. They're also nowhere near as expensive. And while they are very usable in bright daylight, they're not so usable for shooting action under dimmer artificial lighting.

There are many cheaper options that have focal lengths in the range of 70-300mm and variable apertures in the f/4-5.6 range. One thing to remember with variable aperture lenses is that the longest focal length also has the narrowest maximum aperture. At 300mm the 150-600mm lenses are at f/5.6 compared to the 70-300mm lenses that are 1/3 stop narrower at f/6.3.

Lenses with even wider focal length ranges, such a 55-300mm or even 28-300mm or 18-300mm sacrifice image quality, particularly at the longest focal lengths in exchange for their versatility as an "all-in-one" lens. Although it concerns specific lenses for the Canon EF mount rather than the Nikon F mount, the issues are the same at Why prefer the 18-55mm and 55-250mm lenses vs 18-200mm?

If you are shooting in lower light then you probably need the wider aperture of an f/2.8 lens or even f/4 constant aperture zoom more than you need the focal length of a zoom that is f/6.3 at the 300mm end. f/2.8 and wider lenses are called "fast glass" because using the wider aperture allows a faster shutter speed for the same amount of light and the same ISO setting. At f/2.8 you can use a shutter speed five times shorter than at f/6.3 for the same ISO. Even at f/4 you can use a shutter time 2.5X shorter than at f/6.3. Nikon offers several stabilized and non-stabilized versions of 70-200 f/2.8 and f/4 zooms. There are also some very good older 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikon zoom lenses on the used market. (The 80-200mm lenses are capable of autofocus, but only with a Nikon body that has an autofocus motor built into the body. Your D3000 requires lenses with AF motors in the lens in order to autofocus.)

Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization isn't a key consideration when shooting sports/action such as leaping horses. Image stabilization can be helpful to minimize the effects of camera shake when shooting handheld at slower shutter speeds. By the time they reach 300mm and beyond most pros are using monopods to help support the weight of the lens. They do it as much from a consideration of endurance during a several hours long sporting event or shooting session but it also helps with reducing camera movement. Image stabilization does nothing to reduce the effects of subject motion on a captured image. It can sometimes come in handy when doing a panning shot to help keep the subject sharp as the background blurs behind the subject you are following with your lens as the shutter is open. It can also make the scene through the viewfinder more stable at longer focal lengths.

What am I looking for in a lens to get the pictures I want? AF, VR, G.....what?

For help in understanding what all of the numbers and letters in a lens' name mean, please see: What do all those cryptic number and letter codes in a lens name mean?

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What am I looking for in a lens to get the pictures I want?

You're probably looking for a longer lens (100mm or longer focal length) with a big maximum aperture (f/2.8 or bigger; that is, has a max. aperture with an f-number of 2.8 or smaller). The longer the lens the more "zooming in" you can do, and the faster the lens, the less light you need, so the faster shutter speeds you can use (to freeze action) and the more out of focus blur you can get.

However. Either of these factors is expensive past a certain point. With telephoto, going past 300mm gets very expensive. With zoom lenses, f/2.8 is the most expensive and biggest you're likely to find, and with prime (non-zooming) lenses, going past f/2 usually gets expensive. Trying to get both in combination can get astronomically expensive (e.g., a Nikkor 300mm f/4 lens is US$1350 on B&H at the time of this writing; a 300mm f/2.8 is $5500).

AF, VR, G.....what?

  • AF is probably not good if you want autofocus. You're looking for a lens with AF-S.

  • G doesn't much matter, although most D lenses won't have AF-S, and most G lenses will--it's basically an indicator of the age of the lens. The G series is pretty much equivalent with Nikon's current digital-age lenses.

  • VR is "vibration reduction" and will be useful on a longer telephoto lens, to help reduce the possibility of camera shake blur if you are handholding, but you could, alternatively, use a tripod or monopod.

See also: What do all those cryptic number and letter codes in a lens name mean?

And focal length, I'm thinking a 300mm but a 70-300mm, a 50-300mm? I don't know...

Consider playing with the Nikkor lens simulator for a bit to get a sense of what 200mm vs. 300mm means. In addition, renting a lens to try it out without having to purchase it, may be worthwhile to find out whether a longer lens is a useful tool for you or not.

A 55-300mm or 70-300 is probably the longest lens you can get for a modest price. Going past that to 400mm or so is going to cost quite a bit more (in the $1000+ to OMFG!! price range), so you're really gonna have to want it bad. Past that point, some folks will go to Sigma's lenses for 400mm and 500mm just from cost, compared to Nikon's lenses at those focal lengths.

However, understand that supertelephoto (≥400mm) lenses will by their very nature be big and heavy and will probably be slower (have smaller maximum apertures), so won't be suitable for shooting indoors or at night, so if your horse shooting is mainly done in barns or stadiums, this might not work, and you'll have to choose between maximum aperture and focal length on the lens as to which is your priority.

Also, be aware that longer lenses are more demanding of technique. How you hold the camera and lens can radically change your stability and how fast a shutter speed you need. The 1/focal_length (*crop_factor) rule is something you need to learn. And you may have to get used to using higher ISO settings to achieve good shutter speeds.

Frankly, finding a way to get closer and have better access might be a better choice than getting a longer lens. But everybody has different comfort levels on these types of things.

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You want to use greater than 50mm on the small end and 300mm or less on the long end to keep the cost down and the choices open. See: http://lenshero.com/lenses/Nikon-D3000-wide-69mm-telephoto-300mm-lens-less-than-11200 . Note how the longest zoom range doubles the cost just like going outside of 55-300mm.

You want fast AF, low Aperture (constant is advantageous for Video), and Image Stabilization in the Lens. You can't see one in that List for $2K nor would you want one, just swap to the other lenses you already own. Based on what LensHero says I'd lean towards paying less than $700.

Reduce to 180mm on the long end and you get twice as many Lenses to choose from, see this: http://lenshero.com/lenses/Nikon-D3000-wide-69mm-telephoto-180mm-lens-less-than-14400 .

You don't have to buy from there, just use the Tool to narrow it down and if you have a more specific question or need for more information then let us know.

You are also not limited to the Lenshero Site and can use a different Tool instead; this is simply the easiest means to see what effect your choices make on Features and cost. Afterwards you want to read Reviews (plural) for the Lens you think you might want.

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