A zoom lens is one that allows you to adjust its focal length. They can be wide-angle, telephoto, or form the bridge between the two, but they’re all adjustable. The opposite to a zoom lens is a prime, and these lenses tend to offer faster apertures to make up for being stuck at a single focal length. Zooms are extremely versatile lenses, and just about every photographer has one or two in their kit alongside their best camera.
The faster, or wider, your aperture (the lower the f-number) the more light the lens lets in, and in zoom lenses this tends to top out at f2.8, although a very few are making it to f2. If you’re looking for the best lenses for astrophotography, then you’ll naturally gravitate toward the faster apertures, but don’t rule out slower lenses too. With a star tracker, you’ll be able to use longer exposures to compensate, and longer lenses’ ability to peer more deeply into the cosmos rivals some telescopes.
Zoom lenses can be big and heavy, so consider one of the best camera backpacks to lug them around with, and we’d recommend grabbing one of this year’s best tripods too for your night shots.
Best Sony zoom lens for image quality
You can make a strong argument that a quality 70-200mm should have a place in every photographer’s kit bag, and lenses as great as Sony’s 70-200mm exemplify why.
You can look at the specs, of course – the 2.9x zoom range makes it practical, compositionally speaking – while the f/2.8 aperture gives you plenty of incoming light, allowing you to shoot either shorter shutter speeds or lower ISOs at night. Optical image stabilization is included as well, giving you a little more latitude handheld.
More than anything, though, this is a lens that fully deserves its G (Gold) stamp and high place on our best zoom lenses list. It’s pretty sharp with the aperture wide open and improves throughout its aperture range – albeit most astrophotographers will be at the opened-up end.
It’s well built, too. The all-metal body feels tough and its moisture and dust sealed; it is perhaps fair to say that most astrophotography relies on good weather, so perhaps the former of those is unlikely to be sternly tested, but if you’re looking for an all-purpose zoom, this is a great one. Our only hesitation? The Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM holds its own in terms of image quality, and costs significantly less. Worth hiring both to see which you prefer.
Best Sony lens for deep sky photography
Two reviews in our best zoom lenses list and we’re wheeling out the big guns. If you’re looking for gear that will serve for both high-quality deep-sky photography as well as sports, wildlife, and just about anything else you can name, this beast of a lens from Sony is the one.
Almost preposterously sharp at the center of the image – even fully zoomed in at 600mm – this is a lens that stands up supremely well to the torture test of being shot with the aperture fully open, which is a must-have if you’re considering this for astrophotography.
There are further practical benefits, the lens’ 600mm maximum zoom chief among them. Admittedly, this does cost you a little light – the aperture can only be opened as wide as f/6.3 once you crank it all the way in, which will cost you either shutter speed or ISO (or a bit of both). However, when you consider the potential weight of a 600mm lens with a faster aperture, as well as the image quality capabilities of modern sensors, the compromise is worth the cost, particularly if you have a recent, full-frame camera capable of decent image quality at high ISOs. The huge amount of magnification on offer allows for some spectacular photographic opportunities. And, did we mention this lens costs just a shade under $2,000?
Drawbacks? We can think of some, not least the 4.7lbs weight, to which you’ll obviously need to add a camera. That means, in most cases, you’ll need to be using a suitably powerful star tracker for best results, which will be a significant extra cost.
Best medium-telephoto Nikon lens
Nikon makes some bold claims about its range of S-Line lenses. Designed to be the very best zoom lenses available for its mirrorless Z-mount, the S-Line claims to offer edge-to-edge sharpness, plus excellent optical quality wide-open, with the latter of particular interest to astrophotographers.
Currently hovering around the $2,400 mark (quite a bit cheaper than Canon’s identically specified RF-mount lens), this has already built up a spectacular reputation for sharpness. Indeed, if image quality, rather than budget, is your priority, and you’re committed to Nikon’s Z platform, it’s hard to imagine why you’d look anywhere else for this kind of mid-telephoto lens. Going off-brand is an option – Sigma’s 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM is an appealingly-priced option, but you’d need to spring for the FTZ mount adapter as well as the lens, and the Sigma version doesn’t have anything like the reputation of Nikon’s own stellar glass.
The pluses keep piling up, making the Nikon Nikkor Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S-Line one of the best zoom lenses – a big maximum aperture and optical image stabilization chief among them, but we also like the customizable Fn buttons and futuristic OLED panel on the top, which replaces the traditional focus distance marking ring. This can be configured to show focus distance, but alternatively aperture size, focal length, ISO, and even depth of field are all options. We also like the control ring on the lens, allowing you further flexibility.
For astrophotography, there’s always the argument that extreme focal distances are king, and at 200mm this doesn’t necessarily fill that brief. But at 3.1lbs, this is a lens that won’t overwhelm most star trackers, and produces images sufficiently sharp that they’ll survive all but the most assertive of crops. A future classic.
Best Nikon all-rounder for DSLRs
Is it too early in the reign of mirrorless cameras to start referring to DSLR lenses as “classics?” If it isn’t, this beauty of a lens from Nikon is surely deserving of the title. Optically outstanding, this has been a mainstay of professional photojournalists for years, and now nearing its fifth birthday, and with fierce competition from Nikon’s own mirrorless version (above), it’s well worth scouring online auctions for well cared-for examples of this excellent lens.
Built for full-frame cameras (denoted by the FX in its name), this excellent bit of kit also ticks the box for “big aperture,” with its largest f-stop of f/2.8 providing plenty of light. Other lenses may be longer, but few telephoto lenses allow for this much light transmission, hence it’s status as one of the best zoom lenses. And, while it might lack the impressive super telephoto zoom credentials of others, at 3.1lbs it’s easily portable, and doesn’t require a particularly high-end motorized star tracker, albeit with a slight dependency on the camera you pair it with.
Indeed, the only thing we’d say about this lens is that if you have – or are thinking of getting soon – a mirrorless Z-series camera, you’d be well advised to spend your money on the sharper, newer Z-mount S-Line 70-200mm (above), which compares well in terms of price but is optically superior.
Best Nikon lens for deep sky photography
By any standards, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E is a spectacular amount of lens for the money. Costing just under $1,400, this up-to-the-second piece of glass offers a really amazing amount of bang per buck. Wildlife photographers: consider your prayers answered.
And astrophotographers? It’s not bad at that, either. Let’s start with focal length, which goes up to an impressive 500mm. It also has a constant aperture, which means unlike other superzoom lenses here the aperture doesn’t close down, meaning less light reaches the sensor as you zoom in. At f/5.6 it’s not the fastest super telephoto you’ll ever own, but if you really want that extra stop of light you’ll need to add an extra zero to the cost.
Weight is an important factor to consider when looking for the best zoom lenses. If you’re looking at the Sigma 150-600mm you’ll be buying into 4.2lbs, while this is a little heavier at 5.1lbs. In some cases that might notch you over the limit in terms of tripod or star tracker capacity, although it’s worth remembering that using a lens with this kind of formidable focal length will generally require a pro-grade tracker anyway.
Our only caveat? The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM (below) is very, very good, and is priced similarly. It’s a little darker when zoomed all the way in – f/6.3 compared to the Nikon’s f/5.6, which is a bit of a downer, but on the other hand you do get another 100mm of reach and an almost 1lb reduction in weight.
Best budget mid-telephoto lens
It’s a funny old world: it used to be that Sigma was the brand you went for when you couldn’t afford to stay on-brand – that is, buy a lens from the same company that made your camera. These days, Sigma is punching well above its weight with its range of high-end lenses, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM is a beautiful case in point, making it one of the best zoom lenses out there.
It’s affordable, at just under $1,500, which compares well to legacy DSLR lenses of the same focal length and aperture combination, and extremely well to Nikon and Canon’s (admittedly exceptional) Z and RF mount lenses.
There are lots of good points – a sensible while not overwhelming focal length, as well as a large maximum aperture that will allow you to keep either shutter speed or ISO under control. As with all equipment, there are compromises. Here the biggest factor is weight – at 4lbs you’re knocking on the door of some far longer lenses such as the Nikon 200-500mm or Sigma’s own 150-600mm. In both cases, of course, you’re giving up more than a stop of aperture at the long end – although that long end is much, much longer. If you’re not in the market for an up-to-the-second mirrorless lens, this is very much worth looking at.
Best for travel photography
This lens has a nearly endless list of practical applications, thanks to its excellent 10x zoom range. 24mm – zoomed out – is properly wide-angle, lending itself to a range of general purpose travel photography; meanwhile 240mm – zoomed in – is a proper telephoto focal length, allowing you to do all but the most ambitious wildlife or sports photography. All for around the $900 mark.
For all its image quality – and it’s pretty impressive in that regard – the Canon 24-240mm has quite a bit of work to do. For the same money, a keen astrophotographer could get Sigma’s 150-600, which compares favorably in terms of image quality, has the same largest aperture when zoomed in, but is 3.5 times longer in terms of maximum focal length. By no means does that make the Canon 24-240mm bad for astrophotography, but for the money there are better options.
Of course, Sigma’s 150-600mm is a ridiculously great choice for walking around a foreign city, taking everything from architectural shots to intimate portraits due to its size and weight. But, if you’re using an RF-mount lens and want something to shoot the night sky, we’d advise looking at either Sigma’s gentle giant, or perhaps Canon’s own spellbinding 100-500mm.
Best long-range budget lens
You cannot deny that for the money – just under $900 the last time we checked – this is a heck of a lot of lens. Its longest focal length of 600mm is enough for relatively deep sky astrophotography, and is the longest lens on offer here on our best zoom lenses list. Indeed, it’s very much at the long end of what’s possible in a DSLR or mirrorless lens, period. There’s Sigma’s own 300-800mm, or Nikon’s 200-500mm, or Canon’s RF 100-500mm, but very little beats this, especially for the money.
Let’s get the cons out of the way first. It’s heavy at 4.2lbs, and the maximum zoomed-in aperture of f/6.3 isn’t a huge amount of fun, particularly if you’re looking to transition from the world of ultra-wide, ultra-large-aperture photography. You’ll always be at either higher ISOs, longer shutter speeds, or both, and you’ll also need to be on a high-end star tracker in order to get steady results at this lens’ long end, which means buying this lens is probably the beginning of some fairly serious expenditure rather than the end. Expect to do your fair share of trial and error here.
The pluses? This is an eminently portable lens, and the large zoom range allows you plenty of compositional options. The 600mm focal length is practical, astronomically speaking, and although better image quality is certainly possible at this extreme focal length, you’ll have to shell out significantly to get it – Canon’s 200-400mm L-series springs to mind, then springs away just as quickly thanks to its $11,000 price. Nikon’s equally excellent 200-400mm is, similarly, better, but costs $7,000. For astrophotography on a budget, with multiple lens mounts, and at a price many can afford, this is a superb buy.
Best Canon zoom lens
Canon’s introduction of the RF-mount for its pro range of mirrorless cameras was greeted with cautious optimism by photographers, right up until they got their hands on Canon’s new pro-series lenses, at which point optimism gave way to unbridled joy. Canon’s L-series lenses have always been the envy of other photographers, and its L-series RF lenses somehow find a way to take the series to a whole new level.
The RF 70-200 F2.8 is a case in point. It’s expensive, yes, but the image quality is absolutely and utterly spellbinding. From the center to the corner of nearly every image you shoot, sharpness and contrast abound. It’s fantastically made, weatherproof, and, if you’re in the market for this focal range (as opposed to something a bit better suited for deep sky photography), this is arguably the very best 70-200mm f/2.8 lens that there is.
Apart from great image quality and that fast maximum aperture – allowing for faster shutter speeds and lower ISOs – there are some nice features. For example, we like the control ring, which can be customized to adjust any number of camera settings. It’s compact as well – where other 70-200 f/2.8 lenses zoom internally, the Canon version has a front element that drives out when you zoom in. That means the lens is just 146mm long when it’s retracted, a welcome statistic for anyone whose bag is already crammed full of star chasing gear, cameras, and lenses.
You pay for the quality, of course, and for this much money you could easily afford a much longer zoom lens, which for astrophotographers with a suitable star tracker might well be the priority. But, if image quality is a hill you’re happy to die on – which for photographers with pro aspirations could well be the case – your Canon RF-mount camera will rarely be happier than when this lens, one of the best zoom lenses available, is attached.
Other things to consider
When looking for the best zoom lens with a long focal length (i.e. more magnification), you need to know a few things before you start. Focal length is measured in millimeters, and the more you have, the longer your lens is. Telephoto lengths start at around 70mm, and super-telephoto is generally regarded as anything longer than 400mm. So, if a lens has a focal length of 70-300mm, it starts with a reasonable amount of magnification (a little more than the normal human field of view), and can zoom in to 300mm, which is a significant amount of magnification.
There are a few other factors to consider as well when shopping for the best zoom lenses. Aperture size is a really important one – the aperture is the adjustable hole in the lens that light passes through, and the bigger it is, the more light can get through at once, with a relational effect on shutter speed (how sharp your image is, in simple terms) and ISO (how sensitive your sensor is and how noisy your image is). Aperture sizes are described as f-stops, with an f/2.8 aperture being much bigger than an f/5.6 aperture. For night photography we recommend going for a lens with the biggest aperture you can afford, especially if you’re planning to shoot long-exposure tracked shots. For simple pictures of the moon you can actually get away with cheaper lenses with smaller apertures as the moon reflects so much light.
When looking at the best zoom lenses, you also need to consider image stabilization, also known as IS, VR (Vibration Reduction), OS (Optical Stabilizer), and OSS (Optical SteadyShot). This can be worth its weight in gold if you’re planning to shoot images at night without a tripod, as the lens will detect tiny amounts of movement and move its glass elements within to keep your image steady.
Finally, those looking for equipment that will travel long distances in a camera backpack – or be used on a star tracker system – should be wary of weight. There’s the obvious – a big, heavy, long focal length lens with image stabilization and a big aperture will be more exhausting to carry – but if you want to use your lens for deep-space photography on a motorized star tracking system, you’ll need to be watchful of how much your lens and camera weigh together, and consider if your star tracker can handle the extra baggage.