Other than a decent camera body of course, a quality telephoto lens is an aviation photographer’s best friend. While not everyone is able to afford a top-of-the-line Canon L lens, any plane spotter worth his salt should know the importance of glass in determining image quality, as opposed to just the camera body, and be able to pick out a lens suitable for his needs and his budget. In this guide I will be breaking the down characteristics of several telephoto lenses for Canon DSLR’s popular among plane spotters so that you will hopefully be able to make a better decisions as to which one is most suitable for you. Note that I only own some and not all of the lenses mentioned in this review, however I will derive information from reputable sources on all of these lenses so rest assured that what I’m presenting to you is indeed factually correct. Also note that I do not have any affiliation with Canon or any other company that may be mentioned. All opinions seen here are completely unbiased and come from either me or one of the several reputable sources that I have listed. For a more detailed review and image tests of lenses that I do own, please visit the links provided. Enjoy!
In order from the cheapest to the most expensive (prices from B&H in USD):
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM ($299)
This is one of the most popular and common Canon telephoto lenses around. It was my first ever telephoto lens, and is widely used by all sorts of photographers, usually on entry-level Canon DSLR’s (models with Rebel, Kiss, or 3-digit numbers in their names). If you have a 60D or better, then this probably isn’t the right lens for you. The image quality is decent, but will perhaps bottleneck higher end cameras. That’s not to say this is a bad lens, as it gives an impressive amount of bang for your buck, but if you spent all that money buying a high-end DSLR body you might as well go the extra mile and invest in better glass. The build quality of this lens is unimpressive, but the focus system works beautifully and image quality is satisfactory. Definitely an entry-level telephoto lens, but one that is greatly recommended if you’re on a budget.
Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD ($449)
I’ve never owned this lens myself, but I’ve seen quite a few fellow spotters sporting it. The 300mm focal length is a step up over the Canon EF-S 55-250mm, and so is the Ultrasonic Silent Drive focusing motor that offers full-time manual focusing (essentially the Tamron equivalent of a USM motor). With this lens you’re also getting significantly better build quality with a proper metal mount. The maximum aperture stays the same, but I think it already has plenty of advantages over the Canon 55-250 given the reasonable price difference of $150. Wide open at 70mm, the lens has decent sharpness but some softness in the corners and generally stays the same as you stop down or slowly extend the focal length. Past 200mm, and especially past 250mm, sharpness takes a big hit. At 300mm, the image quality becomes quite poor, and stopping down doesn’t have much of an effect. While this is in many aspects a great lens, the image quality is something that you should look into before making a purchase. I imagine it can’t really be any worse than the EF-S 55-250 STM, but again I’ve never owned or used this lens so I wouldn’t exactly know how the two stack up. It’s hard to expect perfect image quality from a lens at this price point, as after all you get what you pay for.
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM ($599)
This was my second telephoto lens and has received and overwhelming amount of praise from all sorts of photographers for its superb image quality and outstanding value being a professional Canon L lens. With a constant aperture, an ultrasonic motor, tank-like full-metal build, and that distinctive red ring on the barrel, this lens is without a doubt nearing professional-grade. All it needs is image stabilization and perhaps a slightly lower maximum aperture. But at just $600, you can’t complain at all. If 2-stop IS and an f/2.8 aperture matter all that much to you, feel free dish out a couple hundred more for one of the three other variants of this lens. This is overall an absolutely amazing lens. If you have the budget, this is what you should be aiming for. Save some bucks on your camera body and use it to buy better glass. Trust me, it’s well worth it.
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM ($1249)
The Canon 100-400 was first introduced in 1998 and is commonly referred to “the plane spotter’s lens” due to its popularity among spotters for its far reach and superb image quality. It also happens to be the lens that I currently use for spotting, and is absolutely lovely. As this lens came out a decade and a half ago, it features a push/pull zoom mechanism, which I think is very easy to use once you’re used to it. It has experienced several price drops, especially after the launch of the newer Mark II version of this lens, which retails for around $800 more. Chances are you can pick up a copy of the old version for far less than what it’s selling for on B&H, so this lens definitely has great value. There aren’t many improvements that can be made to this lens, other than increasing the focusing speed or adding an additional stop of IS. As lenses nothing more than glass, they can only be so technologically advanced before you run out of room for upgrades, therefore the age of this lens definitely isn’t a hindrance to its performance some twenty years later and I would still highly recommend it.
Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM ($1349)
This was a lens that I considered purchasing before I got my 100-400. It’s essentially just the little brother of the 100-400, being significantly lighter and shorter with less reach but considerably newer and therefore slightly more expensive. As is expected with a piece of L glass, the build and image quality of this lens is top-notch. It’s a suitable alternative to the 100-400 if size is a concern and the reduced reach isn’t. You can easily get the same effect with a 1.4x teleconverter on the Canon 70-200 f/4L IS USM, however image quality will not be as good with such as setup. I have quite often seen people use this lens for plane spotting, however I would still favour the 100-400 for its extra reach.
Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS II ($2099)
The last lens on this list is the updated version of the original Canon 100-400 that I’m currently using. I don’t own this lens, nor have I tried it (admittedly because I simply can’t afford it), however I have heard plenty of praise for this highly anticipated lens. According to a proper image quality test done on this lens, it performs noticeably better than the original version, even after a 2x teleconverter was attached to it but not its competitor. There’s no denying that this is a spectacular lens, and will be able to handle the demands of plane spotters. Whether the price difference between it and the Mark I is worth it, well that’s up to you to decide.
Obviously I have briefly covered only a couple of the many telephoto lenses available for Canon DSLR’s, as it would be near impossible to include every single one. The ones that I have covered in this brief round-up are several of the more popular lenses among spotters that are also relatively easy to find in stores. There are so many great telephoto lenses available, therefore in no way are you limited to just these.