What is the ultimate Canon telephoto zoom lens?
For most photographers, a telephoto zoom lens is going to be the second-most important lens in their kit.
The telephoto zoom is the lens that is going to be pulled out for portraits, events (including kid performances), sports, wildlife, landscapes, the beach, and many more photography subjects.
In general, approximately 70-200mm is the focal length range ideally covered by a telephoto zoom lens in an all-purpose kit. This range aligns nicely with the focal length range found in most general-purpose zoom lens. Don't worry about a small gap, such as 55-70mm or 70-100mm, between the focal length ranges is usually not a problem for most, and an overlap of the ranges is a positive attribute, potentially meaning fewer lens changes. Selecting the right lenses for each use should be a higher priority than the alignment of the focal length ranges.
You likely immediately noticed that a couple of the recommended lenses do not cover the advised range. However, these lenses far exceed the long end suggestion, adding significant utility in that regard.
The following examples were captured with a full-frame camera.
1. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens
The Ultimate Zoom Lens
The 70-200 f/2.8 image stabilized lens is one of the most crucial zoom lenses in most photographers' kits, and the 70-200 f/2.8L III IS Lens is one of the best zoom lenses ever produced. Professionals and amateurs alike typically have this lens in their hands with high frequency. Professionals use it because there is no better lens available for many jobs, and amateurs use it additionally because this is the longest focal length available in an affordable, conveniently-sized f/2.8 lens. The wide f/2.8 max aperture allows action to be captured in low light (think indoor events) and, combined with the telephoto focal lengths, allows the background to be blurred away.
The 70-200 f/2.8L III IS is a completely professional-grade lens with excellent image quality, fast and accurate AF, and image stabilization in a solidly-built, weather-sealed, fixed-size body. An added benefit is that this lens performs well with extenders, a great option for when you need even more focal length. This lens is not inexpensive or light.
2. Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM Lens
Impressive Image Quality, Great Build Quality, Fast AF, Excellent Image Stabilization, Compact & Light, Great Value
If you don't need the 70-200 f/2.8L IS III Lens' f/2.8 max aperture, the 70-200 f/4L IS II will give you everything else in a smaller, lighter and less expensive package. Without the f/2.8 aperture, you will need twice as much light to stop subject motion (at f/4), and you will not be able to blur a background as diffusely. However, you also give up a substantial amount of size, weight, and cost. This lens gives up very little in image quality or other pro-grade features including solid, weather-sealed build quality, and you even gain a better IS system than what's found in the f/2.8 model. This is a fantastic landscape and travel lens.
3. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
Excellent Image Quality, Pro-Grade Build Quality, Fast and Accurate AF, Very Effective Image Stabilization, Excellent Focal Length Range
The hugely-popular 100-400L IS II is an overall incredible lens featuring very impressive image quality at all focal length and aperture settings. This lens is well-built, including weather sealing. When wildlife, surfers, aircraft, large-field athletes, and other small/distant subjects are in the viewfinder, you will greatly appreciate having this lens on the camera. Still, the small size afforded by f/5.6 max aperture means that this is a lens that you can carry and hand-hold for long periods. This is one of my most-used lenses.
4. Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C Lens
Long Focal Lengths, Great Image Quality, Great-Value Price
Photographers on a tight budget need to look no further than the Sigma 100-400 Contemporary lens. For a value price, this lens avails the reach-out-and-touch focal lengths so greatly needed for many purposes including tightly-cropped portraits, sports, and wildlife. Landscape photographers also want great image quality and long focal lengths are often needed for this pursuit. In this case, great image quality comes in a light and compact (relatively speaking) package that will also be appreciated. The aperture does not open especially wide, but this lens is a great value.
5. Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM Lens
Excellent Value, Very Good Image Quality, Pro-Grade Build Quality, Fast AF
While this lens model is showing some age, it is priced accordingly. The 70-200 f/4 is a perennial favorite and a reliable performer featuring solid build quality, a high-performing AF system, and very good image quality. This lens is a great value. I don't remember anyone ever telling me that they regretted this decision, but I have heard from many happy 70-200L owners.
6. Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM Lens
Very good image quality for a bargain price
If your budget is tight, this might be the right lens for you. The 55-250mm focal length is very nice, and this lens's image quality per dollar ratio is high. What is not high is the build quality of this lens, which includes a plastic lens mount. This is an "EF-S" lens designed for the APS-C imaging sensor format (it is not full-frame compatible).
Visit the Canon Lens Recommendations page for more lens selection advice.