Best Telephoto Options in the Z Mount

A very common question I get has to do with what's the right lens choice for some common telephoto focal lengths when using a Z System camera. I've answered that question a couple of times before with brief, casual articles, but I've been working on a more detailed, useful summary. That’s this article, and yes, it will be tl;dr.

Don’t want to read the whole article? The good news is that even the worst case choices (e.g. 70-200mm f/2.8 with a 2x teleconverter to get to 400mm) are all usable. You can obsess about low level differences, but I’d tend to suggest that a 70-200mm f/2.8, 100-400mm f/4-5.6, and a 1.4x teleconverter are more than enough telephoto capability for most people. Other points:

  • The F-mount PFs (and exotics, which I didn’t test here) are excellent choices for their focal length
  • The 400mm f/4.5 VR S is much closer to the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S than you might think, and 1/4 the price
  • It’s easy to amass more lenses than you’ll in practice use

You probably have the need to get to one of the following telephoto focal lengths (I've included all Z-mount lens options current as of my test, plus two F-mount lens options that are smaller and lighter, and thus consistent with the move to mirrorless; the bolded entry is what I consider the "best"):

  • 180/200mm — seven ways exist in the Z-mount itself (24-200mm, 28-400mm, 70-180mm, 70-200mm, 100-400mm, 180-600mm, and Tamron 70-300mm and 150-500mm)
  • 280/300mm — six ways exist if you include the 300mm PF on an FTZ (28-400mm, 100-400mm, 180-600mm, Tamron 70-300mm and 150-500mm, and the 300mm on the FTZ)
  • 400/420mm — seven ways exist, again including the 300mm PF (28-400mm, 100-400mm, 180-600mm, 400mm f/2.8 and f/4.5, Tamron 150-500mm, and 300mm+1.4x on the FTZ)
  • 500/560/600mm — nine ways exist (!), including both the 300mm and 500mm PF (100-400mm+1.4x, 180-600mm, 400mm f/2.8, 400mm f/4.5+1.4x, 600mm f/4 and f/6.3, Tamron 150-500, 300mm PF+2x on FTZ, 500mm PF on FTZ)
  • 700/800mm — eight ways exist, including the 500mm PF (100-400mm+2x, 180-600mm+1.4x, 400mm f/2.8 and f/4.5+2x, 600mm f/4 with embedded TC, 600mm f/6.3+1.4x, 800mm f/6.3, and 500mm PF+1.4x on FTZ)

Before we get started, I have a few comments about each of these focal lengths. For example, I’ve grouped some focal lengths that are “close,” as they come from different options (lens-only versus lens+teleconverter). The angle of view thus varies slightly, but not significantly in my opinion. Heck, even the two 400mm lenses varied slightly in angle of view (CIPA allows a small rounding in presenting focal length, and lenses can have focal length breathing when not focused at infinity).

Most people can hand hold 200mm reasonably well. Perhaps even well enough that VR doesn’t even need to be on. (And to repeat something I’ve written before: at shutter speeds above 1/1000 consider turning VR off for the most edge acuity the lens is capable of, though that might destabilize the viewfinder if you’re shaky.) 

At one point in the not too distant past, the highest resolving telephoto lens I tested was the Nikon 200mm f/2G. That lens could be wickedly sharp when handled well (not a given; it wasn’t called the Fat Boy for nothing). But it also could throw backgrounds into bokeh beauteousness. (Yes, that’s a word; look it up.) I'm pretty sure that it's still the reigning champion, though I've moved on from my copy.

  • Even the 70-200mm f/2.8 at 200mm f/2.8 tends towards nice backgrounds when used properly. But note that the 100-400mm when zoomed to 200mm is a maximum of f/5, which makes for a big difference to backgrounds. Sometimes telephoto lens choice is not just about focal length, but about subject sharpness versus background blur. Don’t forget that.
  • Right now, the Nikon Z-mount choices don’t have a direct, natural 300mm prime option. We can only get that focal length by mounting a 300mm F-mount lens on an FTZ, or by using a zoom.
  • As I’ve noted, we have plenty of native 400mm options now. None of them suck, which makes figuring out which to get tougher than usual. 
  • At the 500/560mm/600mm lengths we plenty of current options, plus we know we’ll be getting two lenses soon (200-600mm and 600mm), so, that focal length, too, is complicated to figure out. 
  • 700/800mm certainly lets you get more pixels on small subjects at a distance, but I see people saying that they’ll use an 800mm for birds in flight (BIF). Just a word of warning about that: if the bird is filling even half the frame, keeping it in frame and in focus requires plenty of practice. You’re at a maximum of 2.6° horizontal angle of view and you’re waving many pounds of weight in front of your face probably braced by one hand (if on a gimbal, increase the practice time by 2x). 

If you're not familiar with the lenses involved, here are the individual choices I've tested (links are to my reviews; reviews of the two non-linked lenses are coming soon):

Why am I not including other F-mount lenses, such as the 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, 800mm f/5.6, 120-300mm f/2.8, and 180-400mm f/4 TC? Simple: these are all bigger, heavier lenses and they're all well-known to be excellent. They’ll perform just as well on a Z-mount camera, but you’re bulking up size and weight on an additional mount in doing so, which is a bit inconsistent with the switch to mirrorless. What we're looking for in this article are the Z-friendly lens choices; lenses that are smaller, lighter, yet still perform at the high levels of Nikon's traditional exotics, if possible. 

So let me state one thing before we get going: any of the F-mount exotics I mentioned in the last paragraph work fine on the Z System and provide top-level image quality. Many (most?) of them will seem front heavy and too large on bodies such as the Zf, Z5, Z6, Z7, and even Z8. In all focal lengths, these F-mount holdovers are bigger and heavier than what I'm dealing with in this article. If that extra weight and mount is something you don’t mind, you’ll find a lot of excellent exotics on the used market for incredibly good prices at the moment. 

Now let me surprise you: every one of the Z-friendly options in the bulleted list above work acceptably well. Actually: typically better than acceptably well. Better than the 80-400mm f/4-5.6G did in the F-mount. For those of you who don't know what that means, the AF-S 80-400mm was regarded as a very decent lens, and provided optics that were very good out to about 300mm. At 400mm, that older lens shows some clear reduction in contrast and acuity, though. It's still a good lens to use on a DSLR, even a 45mp one, and I used it quite often in Africa over the years in order to save weight. But what I just wrote is essentially this: all of the Z-mount friendly options I'm about to talk about will do at least slightly better in the center of the frame in terms of contrast and acuity at maximum focal length wide open than the 80-400mm does on the best DSLR. All of them. 

I've written it before, and I'll write it again: Nikon has upped their optical standards with the Z System, and has done so fairly dramatically. 

At this point we have to stop for a moment. I'm pretty sure that I'll get hit with all the "but I don't see the difference" type comments. Coupled with the expense of selling F-mount lenses and then buying Z-mount ones, those folk will balk at buying Z-mount lenses. I'm going to be blunt: if you don't see the difference between, say, the 80-400mm in the F-mount and the 400mm f/4.5 in the Z-mount at 400mm, then you haven't progressed as a photographer to the level that current equipment is capable of. I see this a lot these days. Some waste pixels with poor handling and poor lenses. Some waste dynamic range with poor exposure. Some just were never trained to see aberrations, or they just ignore them. Many of these same folk often say "my smartphone takes as good an image as my dedicated camera." They are wrong. A violin digital sample doesn't sound like a Stradivarius. A Ford Escort doesn't run like a Ferrari. 

That aside brings me to something that's going to prove extremely difficult to show here on a Web site that uses an Imaging engine to resize compressed JPEGs: as you move up the ladder in quality of anything, the differences in quality become smaller and smaller, and tougher to see. When my teaching assistant and I first pulled up the sample images from our testing, the initial impressions were that they were all remarkably similar (and across the board good). Only by very close examination did we start to see differences. 

Here's how we tested: all lenses were mounted to a Z9 on a sturdy support system. We weren't testing focus speed, so we used AF-S Single point for focus. The target was a LensAlign stand that has the visual confirmation for alignment (to prove that the target is square to the image sensor); yes, I aligned it as close as we could get over this distance to parallel (see red dots). Alongside the focus target was a stuffed bear, with lots of hair detail positioned at the same distance as the target. I use the bear because it gives me an approximation of what happens with animal hides in the wild.

As another aside: I saw a bit more difference in the hair rendering than I did with the LensAlign target. That’s of course because the hair is extremely fine detail and random, while the test chart detail is really just some hard black/white edges, not specifically detail.

For the longest focal lengths, the target was 94 feet (28.65m) from the camera, and the garage door you'll see behind the target is 25 feet (7.6m) in back of the target. When we got down below 400mm, we moved the camera forward to 64 feet (19.5m) to the target. For each lens, we took one image with the target in the center, and another image with the target just outside the DX corners.

Yes, these distances are probably shorter than you may encounter in the wild. However, there's a limit to how far you want to really do targeted lens tests, as alignment, atmospherics, and a whole host of other factors start to come into play and obfuscate results. Not to mention the fact that if you need to adjust the target and it's a quarter of a mile away, that's a bit of a hassle. Let me just say that I've now taken all these lenses out into the nearby wildlife preserve (and many to Africa, for that matter), and used them at longer distances. I've not seen any result from "wild" testing that counters what I saw in the fixed distance testing.

So what's 800mm look like at our 94' distance? Here's a sample full frame:

And what does 200mm look like at our shorter distance? Here's another sample, this time including myself so you get a human scale sense. 

Rather than bog you down in image after image, detail after detail, I'm going to cut to the chase and keep this article to mild tl;dr standards.

First, what do the best and worst results look like in comparison? We'll see if the imaging engine on this Web site can do them justice. Here's 400mm at outside the DX corners (where the differences start to become more visible):

bythom US PA TelephotoTests 5317bestworst

As I hinted above, both those results are quite usable. Sure, I'd prefer the best case (left), but I can live with worst case. Note the clarity of the small letters in the lower right of each individual target (A, B, C). It's sort of like an eye test: can you read those small letters clearly?. 

Let's examine why you might live with the worst case. Two primary reasons pop up: (1) you can't afford the best case; or (2) you needed something smaller and lighter because you are hiking and handholding. Plus you may also say "but wait a minute, I will sharpen my results." Okay, here's the same thing sharpened using my normal deconvolution routine:

bythom US PA TelephotoTests 5317deconvolution

And here it is again using Topaz Sharpen AI (Standard, no adjustments):

bythom US PA TelephotoTests 5317topazai

Since you’re tired of reading, let me give you a chart so you can go back to whatever you were doing before you started consuming my words (plus you'll be able to figure out which lenses those were I just showed ;~):

Note that while I use the word "worst," that doesn't mean "bad." It means that it provided the worst results in my testing. Likewise, "good/acceptable" doesn't mean the lens is just fair, it means that I'm perfectly happy with using it at that focal length. "Worst" simply means that this lens produced the worst results at that focal length of those I've tested. Technically, I would (and have) use(d) any of the telephoto options, as they all can create solid, usable results with care and a bit of careful sharpening. This chart merely shows the order in which I'd choose them. 

If you want the very best image a Z9 can create at a focal length, simply pick the lens with a solid green box at that focal length. If you want to avoid the worst possible results—again, still very usable—then don’t use a lens with a solid red box at that focal length. Simple as that. 

Here are my assessments of each lens in more detail:

  • Nikon 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR — I included this lens in the test because, well, it's the least expensive way to get to 200mm in the Z-mount right now. And it shows. It definitely was the worst way to get to 200mm of the four possible options, and it can't go beyond that focal length because it doesn't accept teleconverters. You're also at f/6.3, which is a pretty restricted aperture for 200mm, and an aperture that also tends to let backgrounds get busy and often distracting. That said, the results are acceptable, though not at S-line level. Low level detail (hair) is getting compromised and not so easy to distinguish between hairs, there's edge blur on the test chart, and there's a chance that the camera will not be as precise with focus due to the DOF possibly fooling the focus system to stop. Still, in the image center I’d judge that the results are clearly acceptable. Corners generally aren't as important at telephoto focal lengths, so even though those definitely aren’t nearly as good as the center, I’d still tend to find them acceptable for most sports and wildlife use. If you’re using this lens for landscape work where you want edge to edge performance, well, you’ve got the wrong lens. Even the Tamron 70-300mm at 200mm would be  better.
  • Nikon 28-400mm f/4-8 VR — From a focal length viewpoint, this is a very versatile lens. Optically, it does really well, particularly at the focal lengths out to about 250mm. The big drawback to this lens is the maximum aperture, which will already be f/8 even at 200mm. This presents a problem in low light, both because you'll be boosting ISO to hold shutter speed, but also because you may start seeing focus speed/accuracy issues in really low light, particularly with the older cameras. The secondary issue is that the field curvature means that corners can often be problematic, especially for things like city architectural work. I'd judge this lens to be better than the Tamron choice (below), but only if you can tolerate the slower aperture.
  • Nikon 70-180mm f/2.8 — An oft-overlooked lens, partly because it's based on a first generation Tamron optical design and the fact that it doesn't have VR. Both those supposed flaws are not worth worrying about. The Nikon sensor-VR does a fine enough job at 180mm, and this lens is perfectly good at 180mm f/2.8. The benefit of choosing this lens over the next one is simple: smaller and lighter, so easier to carry and pack. If all you're looking for is something good "around 200mm", this is probably your best choice.
  • Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S — As you might expect, a really excellent performer at f/2.8, the best result I could get at 200mm, and clearly so. Clarity of hair detail was quite good. Contrast stayed high. While putting the 1.4x or 2x teleconverter may make this lens the worst performer at 280/300mm or 400mm, that "worst" is still remarkably decent (as you might have noticed, above). There's edge blur, but not enough to obscure the smallest details, particularly with proper sharpening. I had noted that performance from the day the teleconverters first came out. Before the 100-400mm appeared, I often used the 2x teleconverter on my 70-200mm to (mostly) duplicate that zoom’s focal length. The 1.4x probably doesn't reduce the acuity enough that you'd see it against some of the other options—indeed at 280mm, the 70-200mm with teleconverter and 100-400mm look remarkably alike—but with a 2x teleconverter the 70-200mm is definitely is the worst way to get to 400mm today. Again, that produces acceptable results, but not the best. I’d strongly suggest you find a good deconvolution sharpener if you want to use this lens at 400mm.
  • Tamron 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 — This new Tamron surprised me in the side-by-side testing. The lens has other minor issues I'll need to deal with in my upcoming review, but simply looking at contrast and acuity, it held up quite well, even to just outside the DX corners. Tamron has definitely upped their optical game since the early DSLR era, and this lens shows a very practical result for a very good price. Other options clearly exceeded its ability at 200-300mm, but surprisingly it didn't put in the "worst" performance, either. At the moment, the Tamron is the bargain-friendly option for Z-System telephoto. However, note that as you look out to the far corners of the image, things do get worse. You want your subject in the DX frame with this lens or perhaps just beyond.
  • Nikon 100-400mm f/4-5.6 VR S — This lens continues to amaze me, with only a few exceptions. One such exception is that I'm finding it a little "duller" in focal range near 300mm, which in this test put it towards the bottom of the 300mm options. Yet at 200mm, 400mm, and even 560mm (with the 1.4x teleconverter), it actually tends to be closer to the top of the options. I'd go so far as to say that I have no qualms putting the 1.4x teleconverter on it, as it has consistently produced results that are near the best I've seen from a lens+teleconverter. Note, however, that you're at 560mm f/8 wide open, so focus system performance might not be quite as good as you're used to (don’t underexpose what’s under the focus bracket), and you’re at the edge of diffraction impacts. For me, the 2x teleconverter on this zoom is a boost too far, though from purely a contrast and (diffracted) acuity standpoint the results aren't truly bad. The 100-400mm with a 2x teleconverter is the worst way to get to 800mm, though, and you're at f/11 so you'd better have plenty of light, and not care about the near background. On a Z7 or Z9 body, f/11 is definitely diffraction impacted, too. One thing overlooked by many is just how close this lens focuses: it is a reliable quasi-macro-at-distance lens.
  • Nikon 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR — A real surprise considering its very affordable price. In the overlapping 180-400mm focal lengths, this lens is optically a bit better than the previous one at 400mm and it is less flare prone. Plus it goes to 600 ;~). As it turns out, this combination makes for a very flexible choice that produces results well above what you expect. However, while some seem to think that it's "just as good" as the 600mm f/6.3 PF at 600mm, the test results say otherwise. This zoom is good, but not quite that good. Still, this lens should be considered a bargain for what it is able to achieve. Much like the 200-500mm f/5.6E before it, this lens is going to remain very popular and well-regarded in the lineup for a very long time. And yes, it's better than the Sony 200-600mm. 
  • Nikon 300mm f/4E PF — Even with the FTZ adapter on it, this makes for a light, small 300mm option. It's the best 300mm option for the Z-mount at the moment. Acuity and contrast are somewhat better than your other options at this focal length, and the f/4 aperture is better for focus performance and throwing backgrounds out of focus. You have to use F-mount teleconverters with this lens, and that compromises the 420mm result some. While the 420mm combo wasn't the worst result I saw at the focal length, I could also see some clear degradation from the best options. I no longer have an F-mount TC-20E, so didn’t test this lens at 600mm. My expectations, however, wouldn’t be high based on previous experience.
  • Nikon 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S — I received the first unit to enter the US, and no one is going to pry it out of my hands. Not a chance. It's the best option, and clearly so, at 400mm and 560mm (built-in teleconverter), while it gets close to the 800mm PF when you put a 2x teleconverter on it. It's a subtle thing, but with this lens the blacks in the test target tend to be blacker with clear edges, while the hairs on the bear are clearly well-defined individual hairs. So, with one large, expensive lens and one extra teleconverter, you've got 400mm, 560mm, and 800mm covered really, really well. This lens has never failed to impress me. Too bad the controls are scattered from front to back, and that you’ll be waiting at the camera store to get it along with Vladimir and Estragon. 
  • Nikon 400mm f/4.5 VR S — The poor man's f/2.8, basically. It doesn't quite hit the same high levels of performance as the f/2.8, but it stays within clear sight of those results, across the board. It’s smaller, lighter, and far less expensive, yet not giving up as much of the performance as you might expect. This lens was not even close to the worst option at any focal length, which should tell you something. For most people needing 400-800mm, this lens and two teleconverters gets you there without giving up too much. 
  • Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF — A word of warning: I've seen this lens need AF Fine-tuning on the Z cameras, though my lens/cameras seem close to perfect, so we did not adjust AF Fine-tuning options. This lens is possibly the best way to get to 500mm (the 400mm f/2.8 is arguably a little better, but that produces a slightly longer 560mm with the teleconverter engaged). The 500mm PF is also a very acceptable way to get to 700mm (using an F-mount 1.4x teleconverter), though you're at f/8 and starting to hit the diffraction zone on the 45mp cameras.
  • Nikon 600mm f/4 TC VR S — Like the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S, if you get this lens and start using it, you probably won't stop using it or singing its praises. In the initial testing I thought I had seen the "best" 560/600mm possible in the Z-mount, but I was wrong. This lens is every bit the big brother that the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S should have: exceptional optics, with the versatility of flipping in a matched 1.4x teleconverter to provide 840mm when necessary. The one thing you need to consider here, though, is the size and the weight of the 600mm f/4 TC VR S; this is the biggest and heaviest lens in the lineup, and not by a small margin.
  • Nikon 600mm f/6.3 PF VR SFor some reason a lot of folk overlook this lens. They shouldn't. It's the second-best 600mm option out there (the above lens is the best), and my only real issue with it is that the background isolation can get busy and distracting in some circumstances. The benefit of this lens, though, is its smaller and lighter nature than most of the other ways you can get to 600mm. I spent several days with this lens before I realized that 600mm shouldn't be that manageable when handholding. Using a 1.4x teleconverter gives you a more-than-acceptable way to get to 840mm, too.
  • Nikon 800mm f/6.3 PF VR S (accepts teleconverters, though we didn’t test them as that would have put us out of bounds of the focal lengths being tested) — Arguably the second best “native” result in the testing (400mm f/2.8 being best). I just couldn’t find any significant issues in this test. Top notch contrast and really good acuity. This lens is the best way to get to 800mm on the Z cameras. But it, too, is a Waiting for Godot option.

You have may noticed that I cautioned a bit against slow apertures in some of my comments. You have to get enough exposure (light) to the image sensor for good focus performance in the Z System, even though there’s no distinct cut-off for that as there was in the DSLRs (typically f/5.6). Exposure = Light filtered by aperture filtered by shutter speed. 

What often happens for sports and wildlife photography is that you're restricting the exposure because you're using a fast shutter speed in order to stop motion. That, coupled with a slow aperture means that less light gets to the focus-detecting pixels. The difference between f/2.8 and 1/125 and f/5.6 and 1/2000 is 6EV. Thus, if you're already in challenging light—say 8EV, a common value at edge of day or in poor lighting conditions—you may be getting down close to the EV values that the Z focus system can work reliably at. Add some additional underexposure to the subject under the selected focus bracket, and focus performance will start to suffer. Because this degradation occurs gradually as light lowers, you might not at first notice that your camera is focusing a bit more sluggishly or inconsistently on your subject. Do not underexpose the thing being focused on!

My observation with all these lenses on a Z9 is that I pretty much don’t see focus performance issues at f/5.6 or even f/6.3, even in edge-of-day light. If you focus on something really dark (my bear’s hair in shadow, for instance), adjust that by a stop or two (f/2.8 to f/4.5) due to the dark subject. I would caution against low light work and really dark subjects with f/8 and higher apertures, though: the focus system will still (eventually) work, but with significantly reduced performance. 

Okay, so that’s optics under controlled conditions. At some point I also need to further evaluate focus speed and accuracy with all these options. With the Z9, we didn't see anything in terms of speed or accuracy issues. So the next test is more likely to be to take an aperture constricted lens and test it with multiple bodies, from the Z50 to the Z9.


Bonus: The 800mm focal length deserves a bit more comment. Here's the thing: if you need 800mm but photograph with a 400-560mm lens, on the big megapixel count cameras you can just crop and get the framing you need (with fewer pixels, obviously). But you can't "un-crop" an 800mm focal length if it turns out to be too much lens for the situation you're in. 

Many people are using 800mm as a crutch to "get closer." While some situations exist where you can't always get closer (surfing, for instance), moving nearer to a subject is my preferred choice over increasing focal length for several reasons: (1) I like near perspectives; (2) it can help throw backgrounds into a better blur; (3) it helps dealing with atmospheric issues. However, as I've noted elsewhere, with the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S on my camera, I have 400mm, 560mm, and 840mm at my fingertips (560mm via the built-in teleconverter, 840mm by further using FX/DX switch on a button, though this only gives me 19mp on the subject).

If you're using 800mm and a subject approaches closer than expected, you need to be ready to frame the subject differently. Every body (human, animal, bird) and every subject (car, train, plane) has different "best" crop points, and you need to know what those are so you can frame accordingly on "too close" approaches with an 800mm. 

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