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Sports Photography – The Complete Guide From Lenses to Bodies

By Anthony Thurston on September 24th 2013

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Introduction

Welcome to the world of Sports Photography, where fast apertures and frames per second rule with an iron fist. In all seriousness there are many things that you have to consider if you are wanting to get more serious about your sports photography. The purpose of this guide is to help take you through the various options that you have and to help you make an educated decision based on your needs and your budget. Sports Photography is a fast paced niche of photography where your subjects are constantly moving (usually pretty quickly) and you don’t get “do-overs” – you either get the shot or you missed the shot, it is as simple as that. The gear that you select for your kit will have a direct impact on your ability to “get the shot.” Select the wrong gear and you may find yourself up a creek without a paddle.

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Consideration: Prime vs Zoom

One of the first things that you will have to decide when you are putting together your Sports Photography kit is what sort of lens to invest in. Many full time sports photographers often carry two cameras with a prime on one and a zoom on the other, but for the sake of this guide we are going to go with the idea that you only have one camera. The case for prime lenses is pretty simple, they are sharper than zooms and by design they are always a constant aperture lens (no variable apertures to worry about here). This means that you are able to get sharp images in less than ideal lighting conditions. But as with any option prime lenses have their drawbacks as well. The biggest and probably most obvious drawback of a prime lens in a sports photography environment is the lack of flexibility. If you are too close to the action or too far away then a prime lens can limit your ability to get the shot. Put simply you can’t find one spot and sit there, the term “zoom with your feet” applies here. If you decide to go with a prime then you can expect to be moving around constantly. Now for the zoom lenses. The biggest advantage that zoom lenses have over prime lenses is the ability to zoom in closer or out wider from your subject. This can be very important in sports photography where your subject may start out fairly far away from you but end up closer to you within a few short seconds. The disadvantages to zoom lenses are that what you gain in convenience you lose in sharpness (when compared to primes that is). A zoom lens at 200mm will almost always be softer than a prime at 200mm. Another thing to worry about with zoom lenses is that many of them come with variable apertures, meaning that as you zoom in your maximum aperture gets less and less. There are of course constant aperture zoom lenses, but these are significantly more expensive than their variable aperture counterparts. So it is always important to remember that.

Lens Recommendations

Ok, so you now have some background on the types of lenses and their advantages and disadvantages related to sports photography. So lets go ahead and talk about some specific lenses that I would recommend for your sports photography kit. Indoor Sports Lenses Indoor sports are a tough nut to crack when you are on the lower spectrum of the financial pyramid. Indoor sports are almost always poorly lit, at least for photographic purposes. But here are a few lenses that you should look at for indoor sports, ranging from pretty affordable to rather expensive.

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The Big Dog: Canon 200mm F/2L IS

This is one of those lenses that people stare at, one of Canon’s “White Bazookas”. At 200mm it gives you the reach to be able to stay away from the action and still get tight professional looking shots. The maximum aperture of F/2 gives this lens a huge advantage over something like a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom because it allows you to collect more light and thus get those critical shutter speed numbers where they need to be. The only downside to this lens is that it is rather expensive, and can be limiting in a small gym where 200mm may be too long for your needs. The added benefit of purchasing one of these for your kit is that it also doubles as a great outdoor sports lens. If you can’t scrounge up the budget for a lens like this a decent alternative would be the 200mm F2.8L, still a good sports lens but the 2.8 can be borderline in some gyms (and by some I mean most high school gyms).

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Smooth As Butter: Canon 135mm F/2L

This is one of my favorite lenses for indoor sports photography, the focus ring is buttery smooth and the bokeh is delicious. This is also probably the sharpest lens that Canon makes, some have said it may be too sharp for some applications. The other great thing about this lens is that it is relatively cheap when compared to other Canon L glass, you can pick one of these up new for around $1100 or used for under $1000. The focal length of this lens is right at a sweet spot too, for full frame cameras this gives you some good reach and on crop bodies this is like shooting a 200mm on a full frame body so it works well.

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Diamond in the Rough: Canon 100mm F/2

If you are on a budget and you need a good indoor sports lens then this is a lens for you. It focuses quick, gives you decent reach (160mm on a crop body), and gives you that critical F/2 aperture that is needed in many gyms. The reason this is the diamond in the rough is that it is really cheap, under $500, and is a relatively unknown lens despite its outstanding performance. If I had a crop sensor body and was on a limited budget this would be the indoor sports that I add to by bag. Its as simple as that, low price and great performance are hard to beat.

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Honorable Mention: Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8

The 24-70mm focal length is not the greatest range for most sports on full frame bodies, 24 is normally too wide and 70 is not quite enough reach. But for crop sensor shooters a 24-70mm (effectively a 40-110mm equivalent on a full frame body) would actually be a great focal range for indoor sports where you can get fairly close to the action such as Basketball and in some cases Volleyball. If you have the cash to swing one of the brand name 24-70mm lenses like the Nikon or Canon then they could be a good option if you have a crop body and can get away with f/2.8 in the gym you will be shooting in primarily.  Outdoor Sports Lenses – Long to Super Telephoto Outdoor sports photography is where the big lenses come out to play. Sports like Soccer, Football, Baseball and Softball are examples of sports where a 300mm+ lens is almost a necessity (you can squeeze by with a 200mm but you can be limiting yourself more than you would like). This is where sports photography gets very, very expensive if you want the best. But luckily there are still some great options for lower budget sports shooters like you and I.

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The Field Canon: Canon 400mm F/2.8L

This is the lens that you want to have if you are on the sideline of a football game and want to be able to cover a large portion of the field with little movement required. Its worth noting that this is probably a little long for crop sensor shooters, as it gives you an equivalent of roughly 640mm. But for full frame shooters this is IT – much more reach than this and its too hard to shoot because everything is so tight. This lens is very sharp, fast focusing, quiet, and has great image stabilization. The only problem, for most of us anyway, is the price tag. This lens will run you around $11,000, which if I am being honest is more than my entire photography kit is currently worth.

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The Field Canon Mini: Canon 300mm F/2.8L

Of course I say “mini” only in comparison to the 400mm. This 300mm lens is a great length for outdoor sports, at which it can be hard to be as close to the action as you would like, so having the reach of a 300 is great. On a crop body this 300mm acts like a 480mm which is a little long in some cases, but still a very good length for outdoor sports. All of the advantages of the 400mm apply to the 300mm, but the biggest difference is the price. Where the 400mm is $11,000 the 300mm is only around $6,500, making it much more affordable for the common man.

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The Field Alternative: Nikon 300mm F/4

Both of the lenses above are way out of the range of most of our budgets, so what can you find that is good and doesn’t require that you refinance your home to pay for it? Both Canon and Nikon make great 300mm F4 lenses that are relatively cheap and still perform very well when outdoors in sunlight. Its when you try to shoot at night, for high school football for example, that you can run into trouble with an F4 lens. But if your primary sports are during the daylight hours then a 300mm F4 like the Nikon 300mm F4 or the Canon 300mm F4 are great options.

Outdoor Sports Lenses – Standard Telephoto Many professional sports shooters carry around two bodies to outdoor sports, one with a super telephoto like what we mentioned above, and one with a mid-range zoom like the 70-200 range.

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The War Horse: Canon 70-200mm F/2.8L IS II

The Canon 70-200 F2.8L IS II is a lens of pure beauty. It is one of the best and most versatile lenses that you can buy for any photography purpose – not just sports shooting. These lenses work great on your second body so that when the action is closer than you 300/400mm can handle you can still shoot and not miss anything. These lenses, and their Nikon counterparts, are pretty expensive though. So if your budget is tight then you may want to consider one of the other options below.

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The War Horse Mini: Nikon 70-200mm F4 G

Just as with the 70-200mm Canon lens that I mentioned above, this Nikon F4 constant aperture 70-200mm is a great lens for outdoor (in daylight) sports photography. The biggest advantage that it has over a lens like a 70-200 f/2.8 is the weight and price, the F4 70-200mm’s are significantly cheaper and lighter than their f/2.8 counterparts. If you shoot mainly in daylight then these would make great options for you and your wallet.

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The Third Party Magician: Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 VC

Lets be honest here, if you are super serious about being a versatile sports shooter then F4 is really just not gonna cut it when you are in low light of any kind. If you can’t afford a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens from Canon or Nikon then your best option currently is the Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 VC. It is about $1,000 cheaper than either of those brand name 70-200’s but its performance is only marginally lower than the brand name lenses. In many ways this third party lens is even better than the brand name lenses, although there are some caveats. These lenses will focus slightly slower than your Canon/Nikon equivalent, the build quality is not quite the same level either. But again, the quality difference between this third party lens and the brand name lenses is nowhere near the $1000 difference in my opinion. If you are on a tight budget then this is the 70-200mm lens that I would get.

Consideration: Full-Frame vs Crop-Sensor

Another major decision in the process of building your sports photography kit is deciding on a body to build your kit around. You essentially have two options as far as bodies go, Full Frame and Crop Sensor, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Lets start with the Crop Sensor bodies because these are cheaper and more likely within your budget if you are just getting started. Crop Sensor cameras have one major advantage that you need to know about, that being that depending on the size of your sensor (it varies from camera manufacturer to camera manufacturer.) the crop factor makes lenses “longer” than on full frame camera bodies. For example on my Canon 7D, which is a crop sensor camera body, a 200mm lens actually has the field of view closer to that of a 320mm lens. This can be confusing so here is a great video to help explain it to you all, if you want to learn more you can checkout this article. So what about Full Frame cameras? Well in addition to being generally better built a full frame camera body gives you significantly better low light performance than a crop sensor camera. You also don’t have to worry about converting lens length numbers like you do with crop sensor cameras. As you can see both systems have their advantages, and what it comes down to really is your personal preference and situation. If you are going to be shooting in low light a lot then a full frame would likely be a better choice, but if you have a limited budget or need extra reach from your lenses then a crop sensor may be the way for you to go. 

Camera Recommendations

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The Machine Gun: Canon 1D X

This baby is Canon’s top of the line DSLR period, not just for sports but their top of the line. It does not get any better than this. It has superb ISO performance, an astonishing 12 fps, and is built to survive the apocalypse. No worries if it gets hit by a football player, chances are it will be fine. But again, top of the line features in this case means a top of the line price. The Canon 1DX will run you a little less than $7,000 for the body only. If you are a Nikon shooter than the equivalent for you would be the D3 or D4.

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Just Right: Canon 5D Mark III

The new Canon 5D Mark III is a great sports photography body. It has some of the best high ISO performance that I have ever seen, it has a decent fps, and is very solidly built. If you want an affordable full frame body with fast AF and good all around performance than this is the option that I would recommend for you. If you shoot Nikon than the equivalent would be the  Nikon D800, which is also a very capable sports body (though the large file size can get cumbersome if you spray and pray).

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King of Crops: Canon 7D

The Canon 7D is an older camera body by todays standards, but it is still one of the best performing crop sensor camera bodies on the market. IT is build tough, has super fast 8fps, and is very affordable. You can pick up a Canon 7D used for around $1000, or new for a few hundred more.If you absolutely need a newer body the new Canon 70D may be a decent option as well. If you shoot with Nikon then you would want to get the D7100, which is also a great crop sensor body (though not quite as solid as the 7D).

In Conclusion

Sports photography can be one of the more expensive niches of photography, but that should not scare you away. There are still plenty of lenses and camera bodies that are capable of helping you get the best sports images that you can. It comes down to knowing your gear, knowing the game you are shooting, and practicing as much as possible. The more expensive gear may focus faster, have lens vignetting, image stabilization, or any number of new features. But there is no substitute for knowing your subject and knowing your gear. I hope that this guide has been helpful for those of you looking to getting into sports photography. If you have any questions feel free to email me (in my bio below) or leave a comment below.

Anthony Thurston is a photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area specializing in Boudoir. He recently started a new project, Fiercely Boudoir to help support the growing boudoir community. Find him over on Instagram. You may also connect with him via Email.

6 Comments

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  1. Rob Merc

    Most of my decisions for Sports gear are based on this article. Thank you! I finally have upgraded from Canon 550D to Canon 7D. It’s awesome!

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  2. cara jenkins

    Best camera and lens for equestrian photography? Dressage in particular… Many thanks!

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  3. Joseph Prusa

    I get by with a 400 5.6

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  4. Eric Duquette

    I shoot taekwondo compétitions with the Canon 50 f1.4. Extremely fast lens for the price. The 50 f1.8 is much cheaper and could easily do the job also.

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  5. Bob Mulholland

    I’m a professional obstacle course race/mud run photographer and love shooting with my Canon 70-200 f/2.8 II lens. I’d really like to try out the Canon 400 f/2 lens.

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  6. Richie

    I guess one thing worth mentioning is how sports photography is also one of the lowest paying forms of photography, and big papers like the Chicago Sun Times is cutting the entire dept. Tough times for some awesome photogs…

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