Practically every manufacturer has its own lineup of fast zoom lenses. These lenses have apertures of f/2.8 or larger, making them useful even in low-light conditions. They also feature fixed apertures and will maintain their speed through the entire zoom range. In the photographer’s hands, they have the potential for superb image quality in a variety of scenarios.
Mid-Range Zoom Lenses
The staple lens would be the mid-range zoom lens. It covers focal lengths from slightly wide-angle to short telephoto, useful as a walkabout or everyday lens, something that you can leave on your camera for general-purpose shooting. The most notable of these is the 24-70mm f/2.8; it provides the quality and versatility that makes it the lens that everyone wants in their gear bag.
Canon’s second version of their 24-70mm f/2.8 lens improved upon the previous in all ways. The major advancement of the EF 24-70m f/2.8L II USM Zoom Lens is the inclusion of two UD elements and a Super UD element. UD is short for Ultra-low Dispersion glass; this minimizes chromatic aberrations that are common when shooting with large apertures. Additionally, this lens uses two types of aspherical glass for controlling distortion at both the wide and telephoto ends of the zoom range. And, as with all Canon’s L series lenses, it features a USM, or Ultrasonic Motor for fast, silent autofocusing.
Of course, Nikon also offers its own version in the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED Lens. It offers many of the same features as Canon’s model, three Extra-low Dispersion glass elements, aspherical elements, and a Silent Wave Motor for quick, quiet focusing. This is to be expected from the two major brands.
One point to note about these lenses is the presence of nano-coatings. These coatings are optimized for use with high-resolution digital sensors and minimize ghosting and other artifacts, ensuring that your glass will still have the resolving power necessary to be compatible with a higher pixel-count camera, should you upgrade in the future.
Next, we have an interesting selection from Sony, who offers two lenses, the 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss T* Alpha A-Mount Zoom Lens and the 28-75mm f/2.8 Alpha A-Mount Zoom Lens. These lenses offer the same maximum aperture, practically the same zoom range, but vary greatly in terms of price.
To start, the 24-70mm was made in a partnership with Zeiss. It even features the Zeiss T* coating, which provides excellent control over flare and increases contrast. It also utilizes a Super Sonic Wave motor and more specialized optics than the 28-75mm. However, the 28-75mm is a great budget option for Sony shooters. It may lack some of the finer characteristics of the Zeiss lens, such as special coatings and the Super Sonic Wave motor, with a slightly less durable build, but it increases the availability of a fast mid-range zoom. One thing worth mentioning is that Sony features their image stabilization in the camera body, and not the lenses, which should help you when it comes time to purchase a new lens.
Heading into the third-party-manufacturer options, we have Sigma, who produces the 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM Lens for the Canon EOS mount. It offers a few low-dispersion and aspherical glass elements and covers the same standard range of the other manufacturers’ lenses, albeit with less solid construction and slightly slower autofocusing.
The only lens in this section with internal optical image stabilization is the Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VS USD Lens, available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony lens mounts. The inclusion of Vibration Reduction in this lens puts it in its own league when comparing it to other mid-range zooms. The usefulness of stabilization is not to be understated and can seriously assist DSLR video shooters.
Format Image Stabilized Field of View Minimum Focusing Distance Filter Size Weight Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Zoom Lens Full frame/APS-C No 84° – 34° 1.25′ (38 cm) 82mm 1.77 lb (803 g) Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED Autofocus Lens Full frame/APS-C No 84° – 34° 1.25′ (38 cm) 77mm 1.98 lb (900 g) Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss T* Alpha A-Mount Standard Zoom Lens Full frame/APS-C No 84° – 34° 1.12′ (34 cm) 77mm 2.17 lb (980 g) Sony 28-75mm f/2.8 Alpha A-Mount Standard Zoom Lens Full frame/APS-C No 75° – 32° 1.25′ (38 cm) 67mm 1.24 lb (565 g) Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM Autofocus Lens Full frame/APS-C No 84° – 34° 1.25′ (38 cm) 82mm 1.74 lb (790 g) Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD Lens Full frame/APS-C Yes 84° – 34° 1.25′ (38 cm) 82mm 1.82 lb (825 g)
Mid-Range Zoom Lenses for APS-C Sensors
A major factor to consider when buying a lens is the sensor size of the camera with which it will be coupled. By using APS-C sensors, you will encounter a crop factor that will multiply the focal length of the lens. Crop factor, in the case of digital cameras, is based on the ratio of the diagonal dimensions of a camera sensor’s imaging area compared to a 35mm film frame. This ratio can be calculated and then applied as a focal length multiplier—in other words, if the crop factor of an APS-C sensor is 1.5x, then a 35mm lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor (1.5 x 35) will have the equivalent focal length of 52.5mm on a 35mm or full-frame DSLR camera.
However, the availability of lenses specifically for these cameras means that you can find the focal lengths you need in relation to the smaller sensor size and in consideration of the crop factor. Check the manufacturer’s specs if you want to use the same lens for multiple-format cameras—these lenses are not always compatible with cameras that have full-frame sensors.
One brand I have yet to mention is Pentax. This is because all of their cameras use cropped sensors. They decided to utilize an all APS-C approach to their DSLR lineup. Their SMCP-DA* 16-50mm f/2.8 ED AL (IF) SDM Lens features a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-76mm. This gives you practically the same field of view as the standard mid-range zoom lenses because of the 1.5x crop factor.
Fortunately, Pentax treats these as their top-end models and gives them Super Protective coatings, low-dispersion elements, and weather-resistant construction. The durable construction ties into their well-sealed DSLR lineup.
Nikon shares a similar crop factor to Pentax in its DX-series cameras, at around 1.5x. They have produced the Nikon AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens. While not designed for their FX series, this lens will still operate in DX crop mode on compatible Nikon DSLR cameras. Your FX camera will only use a DX-sized portion of the sensor while using this lens.
Th 17-55mm f/2.8 provides an approximate 26-83mm range in a 35mm equivalent. It is a little bit longer than Nikon’s FX 24-70mm option, and if you are in need of a fast zoom lens for your DX camera, this is a great lens for a much better price. It even features ED and aspherical elements.
From Canon is the EF-S line for pairing with their APS-C sensors. The mid-range zoom lens for crop sensors would be the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Zoom Lens. Canon’s 1.6x crop factor makes this a 27-88mm equivalent zoom range. The huge addition to this lens is the inclusion of image stabilization.
Also, Canon’s 17-55mm f/2.8 lens includes all the features you would want in a mid-range zoom: a USM motor, special glass elements, Super Spectra coatings, constant f/2.8 aperture, and image stabilization, all at a relatively modest cost.
With third-party manufacturers, we have Sigma and Tamron, who each produce their own 17-50mm f/2.8 zoom lens. The crop factor will vary, depending on your camera, but it will be around the same range as the previously mentioned mid-range zooms. Both of their lenses feature optical image stabilization, also known as vibration compensation, along with specialized coatings and elements.
Tamron has two versions of this lens, one of which does not have Vibration Compensation. If you decide to purchase this lens make sure you are getting the lens you want, although VC is definitely worth having.
Format 35mm Equivalent Image Stabilized Minimum Focusing Distance Filter Size Weight Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Zoom Lens APS-C 27-88mm Yes 1.2′ (36.58 cm) 77mm 1.40 lb (635 g) Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX Lens APS-C 25.5-82.5mm No 1.2′ (36 cm) 77mm 1.66 lb (755 g) Pentax SMCP-DA* 16-50mm f/2.8 ED AL (IF) SDM Autofocus Lens APS-C 24-76mm No 11.90″ (30.23 cm) 77mm 1.24 lb (565 g) Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM Zoom Lens APS-C 25.5-75mm Yes 11″ (27.94 cm) 77mm 1.24 lb (565 g) Tamron SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di-II VC LD Aspherical (IF) Lens APS-C 25.5-75mm Yes 11.4″ (28.96 cm) 72mm 1.25 lb (570 g)
Wide-Angle Zoom Lenses
Moving on, we will tackle the fast wide-angle zoom lens. It is one of the more difficult lenses to make well, due to the tendency for distortion, flaring, and softness in fast wide-angle shots.
Surprisingly, the only lens faster than 2.8 on this list is also featured here. The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Lens is faster than every other fast zoom by an impressive 1-1/3 stops and has a 35mm equivalent range of 27-53mm with a 1.5x crop. It comes from Sigma’s new ART series of lenses, which also adds the benefit of allowing for the recalibration of focusing.
It is a really incredible feat for Sigma to produce this lens. It is unbeatable in terms of speed for zoom lenses and features a number of aspherical and low-dispersion glass elements. Also, the price of this lens is significantly lower than those from other manufacturers.
On the theme of APS-C lenses, there is also the Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX-II 11-16mm f/2.8 Lens. This lens is the widest of the fast zoom lenses, ideal for crop sensors, providing a 17-24mm equivalent with a 1.5x crop. The second version of this lens provides excellent image quality due to newer optical elements, and it is a very popular lens.
Lingering on Tokina for a moment, they also offer a 16-28mm f/2.8 lens for full-frame sensors. This lens offers a super wide angle with specialized optics and a fast aperture at a relatively inexpensive price. It also still maintains the quick, silent motor found in nearly all the lenses here.
Canon and Sony each have their own standard offering for the super wide-angle zoom lens, a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. Canon released a second version of their lens, designed to offer more distortion control and limit chromatic aberrations that are common in fast wide-angle lenses.
Chromatic aberrations occur in areas of high contrast—namely at edges—while shooting wide open, and usually display a green or magenta tint. In order to avoid this, manufacturers must put a lot of high-quality glass into the lenses.
Sony produced their 16-35mm f/2.8 in a partnership with Zeiss in order to ensure quality optics and construction. It does deliver, as it is the only offering from Sony in this range with a constant f/2.8 aperture. And, it features the excellent T* coating.
In Nikon’s range we have two fast ultra wide-angle zoom lenses: the 14-24mm f/2.8 and the 17-35mm f/2.8. The 17-35mm lens offers a wider range, and those who prefer to shoot on the wider side may find this satisfies a majority of their shooting needs.
On the other hand, Nikon’s 14-24mm lens provides a little better optical construction and will pair perfectly with a 24-70mm. But, it will limit you to only super-wide images, especially on a full-frame camera. It depends entirely on what you need.
Format Image Stabilized Field of View Minimum Focusing Distance Filter Size Weight Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Autofocus Lens Full frame/APS-C No 108° – 63° 11.02″ (28 cm) 82mm 1.4 lb(635 g) Nikon AF-S Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF Autofocus Lens Full frame/APS-C No 104° – 62° 11.02″ (28 cm) 77mm 1.64 lb (745 g) Nikon AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF Lens Full frame/APS-C No 114° – 84° 11.02″ (28 cm) None 2.13 lb (969 g) Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss T* Wide-Angle Zoom Lens Full frame/APS-C No 107° – 63° 12″ (30.5 cm) 77mm 1.89 lb (860 g) Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM (APS-C/DX) APS-C No 76.5° – 44.2° 11″ (27.9 cm) 72mm 1.78 lb (811 g) Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX-II 11-16mm f/2.8 Lens (APS-C/DX) APS-C No 108° – 82° 11.81″ (30 cm) 77mm 1.23 lb (560 g) Tokina AT-X 16-28mm f/2.8 Pro FX Lens Full frame/APS-C No 107° – 76° 11″ (27.9 cm) None 2.09 lb (950 g)
Telephoto Zoom Lenses
If you already own wide and mid-range zooms, or if you are looking for a little bit more reach, then the telephoto zoom should be a great addition to your gear bag.
Telephoto zoom lenses line the sidelines of numerous sporting events and also are at home with portraiture. They are among the most well-designed lenses available and are extremely popular for this reason.
Canon’s offering is the famed off-white-color 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. They offer one version with IS, and one without for budget shooters. But, image stabilization is vital to getting sharp images while shooting action at telephoto ranges or slower shutter speeds. Each lens is equally sharp, however, and this should be considered. The usefulness of this lens derives from its f/2.8 aperture and speedy autofocus. It makes it easy to get close up, even while shooting events or weddings in dimly lit interiors.
Heading into Nikon territory, we have two very different offerings. There is the newer 70-200mm f/2.8 and the older 80-200mm f/2.8. The major difference between the two is the addition of Vibration Reduction on the newer AF-S 70-200mm, along with newer glass elements.
The Nikon AF 80-200mm is an older design, and that shows in its solid construction. However, it lacks VR and a newer autofocus system. Having the older AF system means that it can still be used effectively on older Nikon cameras, like their 35mm film cameras. The choice between each lens comes down to what gear you have and what you want from a lens. But the 70-200mm’s offer of vibration reduction is still an important consideration for tack-sharp images.
Sony also offers a 70-200mm f/2.8 G Alpha A-Mount Telephoto Zoom Lens. It provides the necessary lens mount for Sony Alpha and Minolta Maxxum DSLRs in a less-than-3-lb package.
Starting with the third-party brands, we have the Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Zoom Lens, which provides all the wonderful features of a top-end lens in a less expensive package. It features a silent motor, vibration compensation, specialized optical elements, and the signature fast f/2.8 aperture of this roundup.
Sigma also manufactures a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with multiple mount options that is very similar to Tamron’s model. However, they also have a unique 120-300mm f/2.8 option. This is the farthest-reaching telephoto zoom with a fast aperture, basically in a league of its own. So, if you need the extra reach, it is the only option, and it maintains the features found in these top-end zooms.
Additionally, Sigma offers a 50-150mm f/2.8 lens for crop-sensor cameras. This provides a good telephoto zoom range that should easily complement a mid-range APS-C zoom lens.
To finish off, we can’t forget about Pentax. They offer a 50-135mm f/2.8 lens for their APS-C sensors with an equivalent 77-207mm range. So, it is around the same type of lens that other manufacturers offer, but it also offers the weather-protection found in Pentax DSLRs and equipment.
A fast zoom lens is one of the most useful pieces of gear you can own, and with just three of these, you can cover an incredible focal-length range. Ideally, you can find which lenses and pairings work best for you and then build your perfect kit.
Format Image Stabilized Field of View Minimum Focusing Distance Filter Size Weight Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens Full frame/APS-C Yes 34° – 12° 3.94′ (1.2 m) 77mm 3.28 lb (1.49 kg) Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM Telephoto Zoom Lens Full frame/APS-C No 34° – 12° 4.92′ (1.5 m) 77mm 2.86 lb (1.30 kg) Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens Full frame/APS-C Yes 34° – 12° 4.6′ (1.4 m) 77mm 3.39 lb (1.54 kg) Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8D ED Lens Full frame/APS-C No 30° – 12° 4.92′ (1.5 m) 77mm 2.86 lb (1.30 kg) Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G Alpha A-Mount Telephoto Zoom Lens Full frame/APS-C No 34° – 12° 3.94′ (1.2 m) 77mm 2.86 lb (1.30 kg) Pentax SMCP-DA* 50-135mm f/2.8 ED (IF) SDM Autofocus Lens APS-C No 31.5° – 11.9° 3.30′ (1.01 m) 67mm 1.51 lb (0.69 kg) Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM APO Lens APS-C Yes 31.3° – 11.1° 2.62′ (80 cm) 77mm 2.95 lb (1.34 kg) Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM Lens Full frame/APS-C Yes 34° – 12° 4.59′ (1.40 m) 77mm 3.15 lb (1.43 kg) Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Lens Full frame/APS-C Yes 20.4° – 8.2° 4.9′ (1.49 m) 105mm 6.50 lb (2.95 kg) Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Zoom Lens Full frame/APS-C Yes 34° – 12° 4.27′ (1.30 m) 77mm 3.24 lb (1.47 kg)