Canon vs Nikon Telephoto Lenses

One of our readers, Simon Speich sent me an interesting article that compares Canon and Nikon Telephoto lenses. He created a couple of fun charts that take into account lens weight, maximum aperture and focal length and he came up with a graph that shows which manufacturer offers the best focal length to weight ratio. Give it a read, I thought this was great to share with our readers!

When transporting your photo equipment, the weight of your lenses can play an important role, especially when travelling on foot or by airplane. To find out which telephoto lens gives you the best compromise between weight and reach, I created a few charts to compare all professional lenses of Nikon and Canon with focal lengths equal to or greater than 300mm (see the table further below). The following comparison should not be taken too seriously, but nonetheless might give you some valuable insight when deciding on a lens.

1) Lens Weight

The first three charts show lens weight, diameter and length against focal length. The first thing you will notice is that both lines of lenses have more or less the same dimensions, but the Canon lenses are between 0.5 and 1 kg lighter than the Nikon counterparts, except for the new Nikon 800mm (see below).

Lens Weight

 

Lens Diameter

 

Lens Length

The biggest discrepancy in weight is between the two 600mm lenses. This is unfortunate, because unless you are a bodybuilder, you can’t handhold the Nikon, whereas it is still possible with the Canon 600mm.

Why is that? My first idea was that it might be the number of glass elements, so I looked at the specifications of both 600mm lenses, but it’s even the opposite. The Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM has 16 elements, while the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR is made up of 15 elements. Then after I read the description of the Canon lens, I realized that its parts are made of lighter magnesium and titanium material, which is probably why it is lighter.

2) Maximum Aperture

The 300mm and 400mm lenses are f/2.8, whereas the 500mm and 600mm are f/4.0. If you look at the gradient in the graphs for weight and diameter, twice there is an increase followed by a decrease. This is a consequence of increasing the lens diameter in order to keep the minimum aperture the same, when increasing the focal length. A larger diameter means more glass, and more glass means of course more weight.

Maximum Aperture

3) Best Super-Telephoto Lens

So which is the best lens in terms of weight? In order to have a better measure than just weight itself, I decided to divide the focal length by weight for each lens. This ratio gives you a measure for how much reach you get per kilogram for the lens you want to carry. If you look at the last graph, the 400mm lenses are obviously the worst to carry around. In the case of the Canons, the Canon 500mm, 600mm and 800mm are more or less the same. In the case of the Nikons, the Nikon 800mm is by far the best and in par with the Canon. The second in place would be the Nikon 500mm with a slight edge over the 600mm.

Ratio of Focal Length to Weight

Of course there are also other factors than weight to consider such as image quality, low-light capabilities and price. But image quality is superb for all of these premium lenses. Also low-light is not such a big issue anymore with modern camera sensors and post processing. So in the end, it comes all down to budget and weight in my opinion.

Simon Speich is a web programmer and amateur photographer from Switzerland. He maintains a photo database and a blog on his website www.speich.net.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Peter G.
    June 15, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Some-one has too much time on his hands…

    • June 15, 2013 at 5:21 pm

      LOL, why not? It is a Saturday :)

    • 31
      ) Peter
      June 21, 2013 at 8:21 am

      You’re right! He should get a wide angle and go the Splugen or Brenner passes and take some pics. But, on the other hand, he is a Swiss programmer and they are quite introspective and analytical. It’s a cultural thing, you know.

  2. June 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    apa maknanya ni?

    • June 15, 2013 at 6:29 pm

      Excuse me?

    • June 15, 2013 at 10:25 pm

      Maknanya lens telefoto Canon lebih baik berbanding lens telefoto Nikon jika dibanding menggunakan jarak fokal/berat.

      *It means that Canon’s telephoto lens is better than Nikon’s telephoto lens if compared according to focal length/weight ratio.

  3. 4
    ) John S.
    June 15, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Nasim,

    For the last graph, you also might want a version which is the ratio of the ratios; your last graph above while correct looks a little distorted because the vertical axis does not start at zero.

    Love your site.

    John

    • June 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      John, I will ask Simon to send me an updated version of that chart, thanks for letting me know :)

      • 21
        ) Not Sure About it
        June 15, 2013 at 10:09 pm

        Isn’t the last chart just a rehash of the first chart? I don’t think you can say “best lens to weight”. Instead of considering serious optics, your entire chart relies on fractions of lbs. The first chart is helpful. The last chart undermines anyone’s reason to read the article.

  4. 5
    ) Kazi Nazmul Azam
    June 15, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Hi Mr. Nasim Mansurov, good wishes for your kid as well as for your whole family. I am a regular follower of you although I am just a begainer and have started with Nikon D90. This comparing informations about the most available rival Lenses will help everybody including me. I don’t understand apperture range provided on my free Lense 18-105 mm 3.5-5.6 G ED where as I can get higher apperture beyond 5.6 by ratating the sub dial at the front, should I get best result within this range or otherwise? Please make me clear brother.

    • June 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      Kazi, I am sorry, but I do not understand your question. Can you clarify what you are asking? Your 18-105mm has a variable aperture that goes from 3.5 to 5.6, depending on focal length.

      • June 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think what he meant was even though his 18-105mm lens show an aperture range of 3.5 to 5.6, he is wondering why he can change the aperture number beyond 5.6, like 8, 11, 22 etc.

        To help answer, the aperture range given on the lens is the maximum aperture for a particular focal length. Meaning, the maximum aperture for the 18-105mm at 18mm is 3.5 while at 105mm it is 5.6. Bear in mind that the bigger the aperture opening, the smaller the aperture number.

    • 26
      ) AM
      June 16, 2013 at 8:45 am

      Hi Kazi,
      I recommend you take a look at all the information that Photography Life has on this web site, it’s very useful. It will help you get started in the world of photography.
      Click on Photography Tips > Photography Tips for Beginners and then look for Understanding Aperture – A Beginner’s Guide. This explains what aperture means and how it affects the captured image.
      And as Amryl said, you can vary the aperture of your lens at any given focal length. There will be times that you may want to use larger apertures, and times that you may want to use smaller apertures. It will depend on what you are capturing and your own creativity.

  5. 6
    ) FrancoisR
    June 15, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    Thank you for this very interesting article Nasim. There is no substitute for big glass (any time soon). I just love the 200 f2 and it’s worth every penny they want because it WORKS (compared to some other not so good glass that IMO are a waste of money and a bad compromise). It seems to generate it’s own light and goes off the D800 just for absolute necessity (or vice-versa). Price is steep but worse is weight. Still I managed to hand hold mine yesterday on a four hour assignment. My arms are ok but it’s my legs, it made me walk a lot. Maybe the fancy materials is a clue to Canon being more costly? (at least for the 200, 300 and 400) Or is-it that most prefer to shoot Canon? I see more white than black …

    BTW I’m amazed by the diversity of subjects your team brings up!

    • June 15, 2013 at 7:03 pm

      FrancoisR, the 200mm f/2 is a gem…love that lens! If I were a portrait photographer, that lens would probably stay glued to my camera – it is indeed an excellent lens.

      As for Canon vs Nikon, I think there were traditionally more people shooting Canon than Nikon. If you go to sports events, the ratio has gotten much better lately, now there are many Nikon shooters out there.

      I hope Nikon will release updated versions of their longer lenses and make them lighter. 1 KG is a big difference when it comes to hand-holding lenses!

  6. 7
    ) Mickster
    June 15, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    I’ve heard that the larger Canon primes ( 200mm & over) are a little more superior in sharpness and image quality compared to the Nikons by a small margin, also with the usage of 2x TC’s on Canon are more forgiving and workable, where as a 2x TC on Nikons is not so good , is this true to a point with any of the statements ?
    I’m a Nikon user myself have been for a few years now, and am looking at moving into the 300+ prime range, so this i not something i want to hear lol , despite seeing superb images produced by both makes, minus any sharpening in editing .
    please make me stay Nasim lol

    • June 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      Nah, I wouldn’t say that Canon lenses are better with TCs. I have tried both and they are about the same. Canon does edge out Nikon on some of their newer lenses, but it is a matter of time until Nikon releases a newer version. Nikon’s 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses are getting old now – time to get VR III on all of them + fluorite + magnesium / fiber construction.

    • 18
      ) Peter G.
      June 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      Looks like I better throw out my 300mm f2.8 and 500mm f4 because they don’t have VR ( 1,2 or 3 ) on them. Never had any problem hand holding my 300 mm F2.8 AF-S and 500mm f4 AF-I , and they don’t have VR.

      Re the comment about Canon having more than Nikon etc., well, a long time ago, Canon did swap ~ Old for new and many photographers fell into that trap. A good friend of mine went Nikon to Canon and is now back with Nikon. He was shooting sports and is a newspaper photographer. Owns all his gear.

  7. 13
    ) Martin G
    June 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    This is about Prime lenses 300ml and over, not zoom lenses. I have used both the Canon and the Nikon 70-200 2.8. The Canon is about the same weight (1490 vs 1530gm)

    Fun charts but the whole Canon v Nikon thing is not for me. I love my Nikon gear. If I had a Canon set up, I bet I’d love that just as much.

    • June 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm

      Martin, totally agreed! I tried out the Canon 5D Mark III and I loved it. Not as much as my Nikon D800, but it was still very good. If I were a Canon shooter, I would happily use the 5D Mark III and their amazing f/1.2L lenses!

  8. 14
    ) Peter G.
    June 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    If you wish to amuse yourself for a few hours, perhaps you may wish to compare the retail prices in Japan at the #1 Camera chain there.. Yodobashi Camera. I have spent lots of Yen there since I discovered them, way back around 1990 ..

    No, they do not export. Japanese home market only.

    1 : Nikon link http://www.yodobashi.com/%E4%BA%A4%E6%8F%9B%E3%83%AC%E3%83%B3%E3%82%BA/ct/61001_500000000000000301/?count=24&disptyp=02&lower=280001&mkrbrnds=0000000957&page=1&sorttyp=COINCIDENCE_RANKING

    2: http://www.yodobashi.com/%E4%BA%A4%E6%8F%9B%E3%83%AC%E3%83%B3%E3%82%BA/ct/61001_500000000000000301/?count=24&disptyp=02&mkrbrnds=0000001830&page=4&sorttyp=COINCIDENCE_RANKING

  9. 16
    ) steve bissell
    June 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Hello Nasim, I believe the difference in wieght is really quite simple, flourite elements have much less wieght than ED or regular glass elements. As proof of my guess, look how both of the canon and nikon 800mm lenses wiegh about the same, why? Because the 800mm nikon is the FIRST and only nikon lens with flourite elements…shazam!

  10. 17
    ) Bruce Photography
    June 15, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks for the comparison graphs. I would like to see the ratio of price to MM or even price to weight for each focal length class. I suspect Canon will be way more in price in terms of price per focal length but how more are we paying for the weight savings assuming that IQ is comparable between Canon and Nikon. I have both bodies from each camera maker.

  11. 19
    ) Ricochet
    June 15, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Since the Canon 600mm. f/4 is $3000 USD higher priced than its Nikon counterpart, I’m not about to switch systems and pay the “Canon tax” for lighter lenses.

  12. 20
    ) deepak
    June 15, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    Great article, keep it up…

  13. 24
    ) Chris Weller
    June 15, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    I am a Nikon shooter and this issue with the weight is the single biggest problem I have with the Nikon system. Look at the Nikon 300 vs the Canon 500, they are within .2 kg of each other. That is a HUGE deal for Wildlife shooter. I recognize one is a 2.8 and the other is f/4. I want the 500, but simply won’t buy it until Nikon comes out with a lighter version. The Nikon version of the 500 is 8.5 lbs vs 7 lbs for the Canon.

    I own the Nikon 400 2.8. It’s a beast. When I see the Canon guys on the sidelines of the night football games I shoot, I’m thinking about how much lighter their 400 is than mine.

    Further, Canon makes a 400 f/4 which is 2 kg! I would buy this lens in 3 seconds if Nikon made one.

    I love my Nikon gear, but if they don’t come out with some new lighter stuff in the next year. I may just buy some Canon gear as well. Maybe a Canon 400 f/4 with a 1.4 converter and a 7D Mark II (when it comes out). This would be a killer, totally hand holdable wildlife set-up. Pro quality everything with 900 MM effective <7 lbs. Nikon has nothing that even comes close to that configuration.

    One other thing that some see as an advantage in Las Vegas, where I live, is the white barrel actually stays much cooler than the black. I cover my lens with Lens coat, but there are still some exposed black areas. Not that big of a deal, but still a minor detraction.

    Having said all of this, I strongly prefer the ergonomics of the Nikon system. Canon gear is every bit as good, but I just don't like the way it feels. Personal preference. I just hope Nikon lightens the load of these monsters soon. I'm actually thinking about selling my 400 2.8. When I put the D4 on the end the whole rig with monopod is about 15 lbs. It's just too much even for a full football game of shooting. Even saving 2-3 lbs would make a difference over 3 hours of lugging the rig around.

    Nikon, please come out with a lighter 500 F/4 and a DO 400- f/4 and a D400. I'll buy it all and I think there is a serious pent-up demand in the Nikon ranks for this gear. A new lighter 200-400 f/4 with a built in 1.4 converter wouldn't hurt the cause either. I think Nikon could pick-up some market share if they do. If not, I fear, when the 7D mark II comes out they will loose some.

    Of course I think they should both make some serious crop frame telephoto's. Maybe Canon will be smart enough to do it when they introduce the 7D. I don't know, maybe they think no one would buy because it can't be used on Full frame camera's as well. Personally, I would prefer them and I would stick with crop frame for wildlife. It would make the lenses even lighter and smaller. I think most birder prefer crop and the majority of all wildlife photog's use crop. The technology now is on par with what FX was just a few years ago. You can't make up for that free reach and pixel density. Wishful thinking……

  14. 25
    ) Peter G.
    June 16, 2013 at 12:25 am

    Chris,

    My Nikon 500 mm F4 AF-I weighs 11 lbs. Its a 1994 model , so, the later AF-S models have become lighter. I could hand hold that for a MotoGP race without any problems.

  15. 27
    ) Gustavo Crimi
    June 16, 2013 at 9:25 am

    D7100+300 f4?

    • 28
      ) Bruce Photography
      June 16, 2013 at 11:09 am

      I use that combination but the super small buffer on the D7100 makes it difficult to do action wildlife (birds) and I miss the image size of the D800.

    • 29
      ) MartinG
      June 17, 2013 at 3:45 am

      I use the D800 F4 300 plus the TC1.4e often with a Gitzo monopod. I wait patiently for a VR 300 F4, nothing else is at all tempting. I can crop to 1.2 if i need to. I can’t see any reason to go back to a crop sensor unless it is on a fully featured body (D400?).

  16. 30
    ) Colin Scott
    June 17, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Hi,Nasim

    Interesting slant on the eternal “who does it best” argument. I’ve always felt that these exotic primes are so good that it’s an almost irrelevant argument. I love my Nikon 500 f4. The 600 and the “old” Canon are monsters: two shots hand held and lay down in a dark room for a couple of hours. I did get to handle one of the new 600s and it felt on a par with my 500 BUT, the cost! Any new nikon exotics will doubtless follow suit putting them out of range of more of us than ever.

    I agree with Simon: weight and budget will swing the deal. Look out for good deals on the “old” 600s and have money left for a good tripod set up with some to spare. Whilst hand held is an option I take up a lot on my 500, i have found the tripod gets more an more use. Generally speaking, the big lenses are for wildlife and, I have found birds in particular take less notice of you standing behind a tripod simply because you are not moving as much.

    That said, if I had the money, would I pay the extra for the lighter lens just to gain 100mm? O yes!

  17. 32
    ) Abhijit K
    April 27, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    The previous generation Nikon 500mm (the one before the VR version – AF-S II) is slightly lighter (3.43 kg vs 3.88 kg of the current VR version) – this is not much heavier than Canon’s current 500mm lens which is 3.19 kg – and not much heavier than the 300mm f/2.8 VR II. You give up VR/IS – but that’s a great reasonably light option to use on a D800E/Nikon cameras. I can handhold it with no problem (usually easier to shoot birds handheld) – usually with a 1.4x TC.

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