Wildlife Lenses: telephoto-zoom round up

By Kevin Carter - Wednesday February 13 2013

Lens Recommendations
Wildlife photography: what do I need? | Wildlife lens image quality overview | Image quality ranking | Lenses delivered overview

Top 5 wildlife zoom (full frame)

LensDxOMark Score
1Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM18
2Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G IF ED17
3Nikon AF Zoom Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6 D ED17
4Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO DG MACRO Nikon16
5Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS Nikon16

With a DxOMark Score of 18.6 on a full frame Canon EOS-1Ds Mk III, the $1,600 Canon EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM is the best performing full-frame telephoto zoom in our database, closely followed by the more affordably priced $600 Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IFED VR with a score of 17.1 when tested on a D3X. In third position is the direct predecessor to G-series Nikon lens that’s ranked second in our scores. Unfortunately, it is no longer available to buy new although it can be picked up secondhand at around $150 (note this is a Japanese made ED version – a non ED version was also made).


At maximum aperture and set to 300mm, the Acutance map (above) reveals the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L is sharper across the image field than either Nikon model. In fact, the older AF-D-type Nikon lens is sharper at 300mm than the AF-S (G-type) version that replaced it. That’s all fine and well, but most wildlife photographers won’t be using full-frame bodies with full frame lenses, they want the intrinsic advantage of a narrower field of view that APS-C cropped cameras give.


Although APS-C cameras use the sweet spot of full frame lenses, the acutance is influenced by the sensor and is slightly lower for each model. When measured with an 18-Mpix EOS 7D, the acutance of the Canon L-series zoom is still ahead of the two Nikkor lenses when paired with either the 12-Mpix D300s, or 16.2Mpix D7000.


When we compare the Acutance maps for the two Sigma lenses on the Nikon D300s to the Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6L IS USM, tested on the Canon EOS 7D, the drop is quite apparent. However, the Sigma results can be improved slightly with the higher-resolution Canon EOS 7D, though not to the same level as the Canon optic. At this point, it’s worth bearing in mind the price difference between these.

While we’ve no hesitation in recommending the L-series Canon as a long-term investment, the Sigma APO Macro can be picked up for around one 1/8th of the price at $200, while the DG OS version is dearer at around $360, because of the Optical Stabilization function. Both Sigma lenses appear to be a good value proposition, although the sharpness isn’t that great at 300mm on either. One other lens that is intriging is the $200 Canon EF 75-300mm f/4.5.6 III USM. Like the Sigma APO Macro version, it lacks image stabilization but it has above average image quality for this type of lens.

Image quality vs money  – 3 cheap lenses that provide an interesting image quality

Value for money ranking (in yellow above): 1 - Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM, 2 - Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG MACRO Canon, 3 - Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS Nikon