Cheap vs. Professional Telephoto Lenses: What Do You Get For Your Money?

2012-04-17 by . 3 comments

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Inspired by thousands of beautiful wildlife shots, many amateur photographers, myself included, eventually look for a ‘long’ lens at some point. Unfortunately, many of us are also on a fairly tight budget, and can’t afford professional quality lenses, or don’t want to splash out without dipping our toe in the telephoto water first.

My telephoto lens is a Tamron 70-300mm f4-5.6 with no stabilisation, bought for just £100 two years ago.

Tamron 70-300mm, fairly representative of a budget telephoto lens

Thanks to the good folks at Stack Exchange, I recently had the opportunity to try out an entirely different beast – the Nikkor 300mm f4 IF-ED, which comes in at £1100.

Nikon 300m f4 IF-ED, a professional quality telephoto prime lens

In this article, I’m going to compare and contrast the two, from a purely amateur standpoint, to give you an idea of what you pay all that extra cash for.

Build Quality

The first thing you notice about a professional lens is the build quality. Cheap lenses are usually plastic and can sometimes feel a little ‘loose’. The Nikkor, in contrast, feels absolutely rock solid, with all-metal construction. This of course means it will survive the wear and tear of daily professional use, but it also has a drawback – it weighs a ton, or rather, 2.5kg, which not only is a lot of weight in the bag, but means it’s extremely tricky to hand hold steadily.

As well as the actual physical construction of the lens, professional lenses also make use of higher quality optics and coatings, which reduce distortion and glare. One final point is that pro lenses usually have much better seals to protect them from the elements.

Aperture, Configuration and Sharpness

The Tamron lens I use is a zoom with a variable aperture of f4 at the 70mm end, and f5.6 at the 300mm end – a fairly common setup. In contrast, the Nikkor is a prime lens – it’s fixed at 300mm. Prime lenses of any focal length almost always give better quality images than zooms because their parts are optimised for one focal length. There are, as far as I know, no budget prime lenses over 100mm.

The Nikkor’s maximum aperture is f4 – a whole stop of extra shutter speed to work with over f5.6 lenses. Another important point is that cheaper lenses are rarely at their best when shooting at their maximum aperture and focal length. In contrast, a pro lens like the Nikkor has no problem shooting wide open, and as I mentioned before, they’re designed with one focal length in mind.

All these features add up to amazing image quality – sharpness, even when viewing an unmodified raw file is noticeably far, far better than with a cheap lens. When photographing birds with a cheap lens, chromatic aberration is often very noticeable as it usually occurs where dark and light areas coincide, and many birds have bands of such colours. My Tamron in particular is prone to green or purple fringing, especially when shooting wide open:

Shot on the Tamron at 300mm wide open, green fringing is obvious

In contrast, the Nikkor exhibited little aberration that I could see in over 400 shots I took with it:

Wide open, the pro lens exhibits little aberration even on a heavily cropped shot

Focusing Speed

As one of a telephoto lens’ main uses is wildlife photography, it’s important that the AF system should be as quick as possible to react – it might be the difference between getting The Shot or not.

One of the first things I noticed when using the Nikkor is the speed of the autofocus system. My cheaper lens is prone to ‘hunting’ – having to focus back and forth before hitting the spot – and is slow (and noisy) while doing it. The Nikkor, in contrast, snaps in to focus incredibly quickly with little hunting. I haven’t done objective tests, but having used my Tamron for a couple of years, it was striking how much faster the pro lens was. This was even true when attaching a 1.4x teleconverter. The silent wave motor technology in the Nikkor also meant that focusing was virtually silent.

Capturing small, fast-moving birds like this requires a long lens with a fast, accurate autofocus system


A common phrase floating around photography websites and forums is ‘Invest in lenses, not bodies’. This is less true now than in the days of film, when cameras were basically light-proof boxes and the lenses did most of the work. After using a professional-quality lens for a few days however, it is clear to me that good glass still makes a world of difference to the final image.

There is definitely an argument to be made for saving up to buy a professional lens – the old adage about buying cheap, buying twice is as true here as anywhere. Image quality aside, the build quality and environmental sealing alone means that a pro lens will last for many years longer than a cheap one. The price-tag is perhaps the biggest barrier for most people when it comes to using a professional quality lens. But if you have a special trip or unique opportunity, I would definitely recommend renting one – the difference in image quality is astounding.





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  • Nice article! Could you maybe include the full size image that you started with for the green fringing example? Since the two pictures are of a slightly different subject, it is hard to see what exactly is going on.

    • ElendilTheTall says:

      Sorry for the delay, I don’t get notified of comments. I’ll try and dig out the full-size image at some point and upload it here.

  • Itai says:

    Great article! It confirms I did the right thing by selling my cheap lenses 🙂

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