What should I look for in a telephoto lens that wouldn't cost more than $250?
November 23, 2012 11:50 AM   Subscribe

What should I look for in a telephoto lens that wouldn't cost more than $250?

Asking for my mom: I'm just learning to use my Sony a230 digital SLR camera. I think I want a telephoto lens - I want to be able to take close up photos with blurry backgrounds and close ups of wild life that are taken from a distance. The lens that came with the camera was "3.5-5.6/18-55 SAM" on it. What should I look for in a telephoto lens that wouldn't cost more than $250? Or, am I wasting my money buying a relatively inexpensive lens? Also, would a telephoto lens be useful for landscape photos?
posted by sacrifix to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
On the lens that you have now the 3.5-5.6 is an indication of the f/stop. In simple terms, the lower f/stop number you find on a lens, the better its ability to separate foreground from background (giving that "close up photos with blurry backgrounds" that you want).

In non-zoom lenses - usually referred to as prime lenses - it's easier to manufacture a lens with a smaller f/stop because there are fewer parts. Both Canon and Nikon have a 50mm f/1.8 lens available for around $100.

When you move into the realm of zoom lenses, however, it gets expensive to manufacture a lens with a low f/stop. Most consumer grade lenses like the one you currently have go no lower than f/3.5.

(side note - the f/3.5-5.6 on your lens is stating the minimum f/stop at each end of your zoom; you can shoot at 18mm f/3.5 (wide angle) or 55mm f/5.6 (zoomed in). At 55mm and f/5.6 you're not going to get good separation of subject and background)

I don't know that you'll be able to find a zoom lens for under $250 to match your camera's mount system - though I am unfamiliar with Sony and don't know which lens mount they use - that fits your requirements for background separation and wildlife photos.

As for landscape photos, it depends on what kind you like to take but the majority of them are done with a relatively wide lens, say something like 35mm. Since that falls within the range of your existing lens I wouldn't think you'd need a new lens to do landscapes, unless you find you want to do them at ultra-super-wide angle. In other words, if you turn that lens to 18mm and find that you still can't see as much of your surroundings as you want - that it won't go "wide" enough - then you'd need a wider lens.
posted by komara at 12:09 PM on November 23, 2012

I found this list of a-mount (Sony / Minolta) zoom lenses - very few are available for under $250. Most of the ones that are available in that price range are versions of your existing lens except made by other manufacturers.

You could pick up something like the Sony 85mm f/2.8 lens for $249. That one would help separate subject from background - but there's no zoom. All zooming must be done with your feet.

Me personally, I much prefer prime lenses and don't mind moving my body around to get the shot. Your preferences may vary.
posted by komara at 12:17 PM on November 23, 2012

If this is a casual hobby for you, a cheaper zoom lens will work just fine. The differences you notice once you hit the more expensive lenses are definitely there, but become much more important when you are trying to print out larger copies, or where really accurate sharpness/color/etc. is important. For casual use to have fun with and take family photo's, a cheaper zoom will be great.

Be warned, however, that as you zoom in more, the image will shake around more. I don't know how the sony system works, but with the canon cameras, the image stabilization is built into the lens. With a zoom lens, unless you are always going to be shooting outdoors in full sunlight, you definitely want image stabilization. Without it, you are going to get a lot of blurry photo's (with the exception of shooting in bright sunlight). Definitely avoid buying a cheaper lens if it can't be stabilized, you are going to regret it in the end.
posted by markblasco at 2:29 PM on November 23, 2012

Buy the Sigma 70-300mm APO lens here. I have it on Canon mount. I like it a lot, and it's great for that price. I have a gallery specifically of photos taken with that lens on my Flickr, take a look.
posted by sanka at 3:11 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Sigma sanka points to will get you in the game. It isn't just the F stop in faster lenses the glass is usually much better quality. A telephoto lens in low light will benefit from image stabilization.
posted by pdxpogo at 4:24 PM on November 23, 2012

You have a 18-55mm lens, telephoto zoom lenses are typically 70-300 or 55-250. Regardless of f-stop.

B&H photo video lists the Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Alpha A-Mount Telephoto Zoom Lens for $248 which will certainly get you zoomed in closer to your subject.
Getting blurred background has to do with the f-stop (lower gets more blurred, and costs more), and distance (further distance from the subject to the background gets more blurred).

If you dont know what you want, you could rent lenses from lensrentals.com - sony for less than you can buy them for to try them out.
posted by TheAdamist at 6:29 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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