If you are interested in sports photography, you certainly feel a sense of satisfaction from freezing motion or capturing an intense emotion in a gaze, an elusive moment… But sports photography is a field that imposes stringent demands on your camera equipment. It’s a fast and dynamic art often happening in poor shooting conditions such as having to contend with challenging light conditions (for both indoor and outdoor sports, believe you me, from my own experience!), extreme outdoor conditions with rain, wind, dust, cold, and multiple manipulations that may damage the equipment…
As you can see, choosing your sports photography equipment may be more demanding than for other types of photography… If you want to specialize in sports photography, be prepared for it not to be cheap.
Gear doesn’t come with just one scenario. So, I can’t give you ready-made answers, because a lot of variables will come into play: what kind of sports you will shoot (indoor, outdoor, high speed mechanical sports…), how else you will use your equipment and, of course, what kind of budget you have. But fear not, from true amateurs to non-professionals and those on a budget, the wide range of cameras and lenses available, from mirrorless to DSLR, will allow you to find happiness while shooting your favourite sport!
Based on my own experience, I will here try to share both some tips and what boxes to tick in order to get the best basic equipment, that is to say, camera + lens, but also some advice on accessories when you’re just starting in sports photography. If you want to learn more about all this, I invite you to read our article on the best current cameras for sport photography (DSLR and mirrorless cameras).
Check out my practical photography packs. It's a simple, fun and entertaining way to learn and improve in photography, especially in the field!
Until recently, mirrorless cameras were not very well regarded for sports use due to too high a viewfinder latency, limited AF in subjects’ follow-up, reduced autonomy, and a narrow choice of cameras and lenses.
With most brands’ latest mirrorless cameras, however, you can now find very capable cameras. Nevertheless, for the moment, we are mosty talking about very high-end cameras, therefore, very expensive. Amongst DSLR cameras, you can find older, less expensive, high-performance cameras. However, they will not be able to take advantage of the recent lenses designed for mirrorless cameras, even though these are still currently limited in their number.
Moreover, when DSLR cameras offer similar performance for sports, be they a Nikon or a Canon, there is still a lot of brand disparity in terms of both AF and choice of lenses. Mirrorless cameras also have an advantage over DSLR ones since they can be paired with DSLR lenses with adapter rings. Something DSLR cameras can’t do the other way around.
If you want to know more, here’s our full and detailed article explaining how to choose a camera.
Among interchangeable lens cameras, the smallest sensor size is the micro 4/3 (also known as MFT). Panasonic and Olympus created this mount together and can, therefore, share their lenses. It means that should you buy a Panasonic micro 4/3 camera, you can use Olympus lenses, and vice versa. The advantage of these cameras lies in their relative affordable. Their sensor size also implies a tighter crop factor -meaning a tighter perceived field of view for the same focal length- -, which is an advantage in sports when you are far from the subject (with a x2 factor, a 200mm will frame like a 400mm). Olympus has recently sold its photography division to OM System which, for the moment, appears to be willing to continue developing and producing new products.
APS-C sensor cameras are amongst the most widespread since it is the format manufacturers chose when digital technology was introduced. Consequently, many DSLR cameras use this sensor size. Except for Canon, DSLR brands have recently adopted this sensor size for their new mirrorless cameras such as Sony which manufactures most of them and Fujifilm which successfully entered the high-end APS-C mirrorless market. As for the micro 4/3 sensor, its size offers the advantage of a reduced cost compared to the historical full frame, and a cropping factor of x1.5 (x1.6 for Canon) with a 200mm therefore framing like a 300mm (320mm for Canon), for example.
Of course, full frame cameras also have their advantages! They are generally more robust and frequently offer better low-light performance. With equal framing and settings, a full frame will get you a shallower depth of field than an APS-C or micro 4/3 will, which is useful in sports, to separate players from the background. Brands offering full format such as Nikon, Canon, Sony, Panasonic, and Leica put most of their resources into developing these cameras. It’s up to you to see if full frame advantages are important to you, and particularly if you have the budget for it…
There are cameras out there with even larger sensors, namely, the medium format cameras proposed by Fujifilm, Hasselblad and Phase One (with sensors made by Sony, again), but they are not particularly adapted to sports photography since their AF is generally slower and adaptable long focal length lenses are far and few for these formats. These cameras are made for fashion, portrait, and landscape photography instead.
We have also written a comprehensive article that explains everything you need to know about the size of photo sensors.
In my opinion, these are the two most important things you should care about when choosing your sports camera.
Mirrorless cameras are at an advantage here because they usually cover most of the range while DSLR cameras, especially full-frame ones, cluster at the center. Moreover, the latter also offer more and more subject detection functions, mainly for humans and animals, but recently, for vehicles too. However, there is a difference between offering subject detection and being able to track them, and this is where some brands stand out from the rest, with Sony and Canon being the day’s best performers and Panasonic and Fujifilm lagging a bit behind. DSLRs have very good tracking abilities in general, but not as many automatic detection functions, which implies having a better knowledge of AF modes and AF points selection.
As far as shutter speed is concerned, it is very important to capture the decisive moment. Shooting bursts in sports photography is often the norm as you get a wider range of shots to select the perfect shot. It is not always necessary to shoot at 20 fps, and most recent cameras offer at least 8 fps. However, we have been able to shoot sports at a time when burst shots were much slower, if in existence at all), so don’t focus too much on this. Instead, make sure the burst can last a long time by asking about the buffer, that is, the memory buffer that will allow you to keep this burst going as long as possible. Having 30 fps is not very helpful when your camera stops shooting after 25 images because of a full memory buffer…
Unfortunately, sporting events often take place in poor lighting conditions and, even with the use of a fast lens (i.e. one with a large aperture such as f/2.8 or f/1.8), you will still need to adjust a high ISO to work at a fast-enough shutter speed. Remember that every time you increase the ISO, you will be able to shoot twice as fast (the three parameters of the exposure triangle being connected). Easy to use, sensitivity comes with an important trade-off and can even ruin your shots if you go to extremes. This is why finding out the amount of noise at high ISO is important when choosing a sports camera. A camera that is happy to work at high ISO is thus recommended for more qualitative results. If you have to choose between several cameras, don’t hesitate to look at image quality tests at different ISO.
Currently, most sensors allow to work up to ISO 6400 and even micro 4/3 cameras deliver very good results at this value, provided, of course, that you know how to process images correctly through the camera’s setting or that you work with RAWs and use a good photo processing software.
To compensate for the lack of photographer’s stability, most manufacturers offer image stabilization mechanisms. There are 2 main types: optical stabilization (integrated in the lens) and mechanical stabilization (integrated in the camera body).
Here, we will talk about mechanical stabilization.
- Allows other functions such as pixel-shift (the stabilization mechanism slightly moves the sensor to take the same picture several times, and recombines it to create a more defined image),
- Works on all lenses, optically stabilized or not.
- Awkward with DSLRS’ long focal lengths in optical viewfinder but not a problem for mirrorless cameras since electronic viewfinder benefits from this stabilization,
- A little less efficient than optical stabilization.
How does your camera perform, in practice? It is important to be able to work seamlessly with your camera, not to spend too much time searching through the menus, and to be able to make quick adjustments thanks to two distinct wheels that adjust shutter speed and exposure time, for example. The top LCD screen is ideal to both save energy and have a quick overview of all the camera’s settings. Also keep in mind the fact that it should fit smoothly in your hand.
Don’t underestimate camera longevity. Your camera’s sturdiness and build quality are also worth mentioning. You will be shooting outdoors, in bad weather, and with a heavy lens. For these reasons, it is a good thing to choose a camera body made of a robust alloy with basic protection against water and dust (which will automatically eliminate a lot of cameras, especially entry-level ones).
Now that you know the most important criteria to look at when choosing your sports camera, let’s take a look at the different camera categories on which you will be able to put the previous advice to practice.
A more detailed and comprehensive article detailing which sports cameras to choose according to both the type of camera (DSLR/hybrid) and the brand will be published soon. I will detail what I consider to be the best sports cameras for each brand.
Sure, you can use almost any camera to shoot a sports moment, but to capture high-speed action while withstanding the rigors of outdoor elements and the daily hustle and bustle of sports and action photography, I recommend you buy an expert or pro-grade camera. Nikon and Canon were the first to produce cameras for sports photography. On the mirrorless side, we had to wait for the Sony A9 to get a sports-orientated camera. Since then, each brand has started to release cameras geared towards sports, such as the Z9 from Nikon, the R3 from Canon, the OM-1 from OM System, and, most recently, the X-H2s from Fujifilm. Sony has also renewed its A9 with the A9 II and released an all-in-one A1 camera that combines both sports performance and high definition.
Amongst DSLR cameras, there are still some very performant APS-C cameras such as the D7500 and D500 from Nikon, or the 90D and 7DII from Canon. In full frame, references such as the D6 from Nikon and the 1DxIII from Canon remain very powerful cameras but also very expensive ones and will end up being supplanted by mirrorless cameras. When selecting, you might as well go with the Z9 or R3, unless we you a good bargain for a DSLR. Choice of lenses is not an issue as mirrorless cameras can use DSLR lenses with an adapter ring.
Now it’s up to you to balance performance and budget for your own personal use…
No matter what kind of photography you do, most of your budget should be spent on lenses. While cameras come and go frequently, your best lenses will be with you for a long time, and it is often suggested to save money on your first camera while investing in a quality lens. If you want to know how to choose a lens, I invite you to read the aforementioned article.
For sports photography, you’ll need a fast, high-quality lens with a solid build. If you are just beginning, you may only have one camera and one lens. I would then advise you to buy a zoom lens. As you go along, you can expand your lens collection with another quality zoom lens and a prime telephoto lens. Your first telephoto lens often represents a financial hurdle, but don’t forget the possibility of long lens rental for specific events and bear in mind teleconverters.
With sports photography, relatively long focal lengths are often a must, 70-200mm, 300mm… These focal lengths are perfect for capturing beautiful and emotional images from a distance.
But again, it all depends on the sport, the type of subject, its distance, your position, your movement possibility, etc. Telephoto lenses are particularly important for sports photography, but standard and wide-angle lenses can be just as interesting. If you can move about and get close to the players, a 24-70mm or 24-105mm lens is a good all-rounder. Nevertheless, you’ll also find 85mm lenses and especially extreme wide-angle zoom lenses in the bags of many a sports photographer. Players’ or vehicles’ first shots are not the be all and all of sports photography. It is also important to use a lens that will allow you to showcase the event’s site and share the emotion.
For sports photography, it is best to use a wide aperture (f/2.8 to f/5.6) to highlight subjects. Shooting with a large aperture also allows you to do so at a very high speed. This is because lenses with an f/2.8 aperture allow for more light to pass through the lens and, in turn, for faster shutter speeds to freeze sports actions.
In daylight, a lens “that fast” may not be necessary, so think carefully about your actual needs before splashing out on an f/2.8 aperture telephoto lens. An f/4 could do just fine, depending on circumstances. Keep in mind that there can be a twofold price difference between a 70-200mm f/2.8 and f/4. There is a reason for that difference, as well.
We talked about mechanical stabilization in the chapter devoted to lenses. Let’s now look at the advantages of optical stabilization, which, in my opinion, is the one to prefer.
- Stabilized viewfinder regardless of the camera type (DSLR or mirrorless),
- Better performance (up to 4 speeds are gained),
- Optimized for the lens,
- Works also with an ‘old’ film DSLR camera.
- Adds to the weight, size, and price of the lens,
Considering the fact that we will probably have to work with long focal lengths and at (relatively) low speeds, it is always recommended to activate the equipment’s stabilization function. Unless you want to do a panning effect (but that’s another story I’ll detail one day), or work with “small” zooms at high speed…
To increase the focal length of your telephoto lens, you can consider teleconverters, also known as focal length multipliers or extenders. You will then be ready to face anything thrown at you! But remember that you will lose light and optical quality since the higher the multiplication factor, the more important the loss. Telephoto lenses will have a longer focal length, but the lens’s aperture will also be reduced. This is why, it is best to only use them with fast lenses that allow a f/2.8 aperture.
To wrap up this sports lens’s chapter, let me propose a small selection of lenses. Indeed, the range is really wide! Having said that, you now have all you need to make the best choice for you.
With telephoto lenses, a 70-200mm is a good starting point if you can afford it. A 300 or 400mm is, however, ideal because it allows you to really get close to and isolate your subjects from their environment. If you go with Canon, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM and the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM are a must! The f/4 version (Canon / Nikon) should already be bright enough for most uses and more importantly, cheaper. You will also find a Nikon equivalent with the Nikkor AF-S range (see the f/2.8 and f/4 ones). Tamron also offers a very good 70-200mm f/2.8 G2 at a much cheaper price than the Canon and Nikon manufacturers’ versions.
For standard zoom lenses (and if the sport lends itself to it), my choice would fall on a 24-70mm f/2.8 (Canon or Nikon), or a Canon 24-105mm f/4, a true all-around zoom lens. For more affordable lenses, you can go for f/3.5-5.6 apertures knowing that at long focal lengths, you will be more limited under low light conditions and will have to increase ISO to compensate. As always, the key is to find a balance between going with too high an ISO, choosing a more expensive and brighter lens from the onset, better isolating your subject, and staying within your budget. Here again, Tamron offers an excellent option with the 35-150mm f/2.8-4 which is light and very affordable (Canon / Nikon version).
As for wide-angle lenses, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24 mm f/2.8G ED lenses are good values in full frame. Tamron offers an affordable 17-35mm f/2.8-4 (Canon / Nikon) while Sigma offers a 14-24mm f/2.8 (Canon / Nikon). If you use an APS-C, choose wide-angle lenses adapted to them such as the 10-20 or 10-24mm, although, unfortunately, there are few APS-C lenses with large apertures.
Regarding mirrorless camera lenses, the range is growing but your choice will be even more limited than with DSLR cameras, especially with APS-C bodies. However, it is worth mentioning again the advantage of being able to use DSLR lenses with an adapter ring, some of which even allow the use of Nikon lenses on a Sony or Fujifilm mirrorless camera, for example (only Canon offers a ring that only fits its own lenses).
Let’s start with Sony. With an E-mount for APS-C cameras, I particularly recommend the Tamron 17-70mm f/2.8 Di III-A VC RXD standard zoom lens as well as the Sony 18-105 mm f/4. If you want a wider zoom lens, then have a look at the 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS. With an FE mount, the choice is a bit wider with the FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS (standard zoom lens), the 70-200mm f/4 G OSS (for telephoto), or the much better and cheaper Tamron 70-180 mm f/2.8 Di III VXD. are nice options to consider (I personally bought the latter one). If your budget is more substantial, then don’t hesitate to splash on the 70-200 mm FE telephoto lens with f/2.8 aperture telephoto lens with f/2.8 aperture (a mark II version has just been released as well) or the FE 400mm f/2.8 G Master! If you’re very far from the action, such as during an F1 race, you can go for the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM, or one of the options offered by Tamron and Sigma, such as the 150-500mm f/5-6.7 or the 150-600mm f/5-6.3.
Let’s continue with Canon and its RF mount lenses. As is the case with DSLR cameras, both the RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L US USM and the Canon RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM -as a more versatile option- are a must have for sports photography. For the time being, you’ll have to use Canon’s own lenses which are rather expensive. Indeed, there are no Tamron nor Sigma lenses designed for this mount as of yet. If you are far from the action, Canon offers the 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1.
Let’s finish this chapter with Nikon and its Z mount. We will obviously have the same problem we have with Canon, but let’s mention the Nikkor Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S as a professional zoom lens or the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S as a transtandard zoom lens, or its more affordable version that comes with f/4. Should you find yourself even further away from the action, the Nikon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S is an option.
For more choices and details on the various DSLR and mirrorless lenses by brand, have a look at the various articles on the camera lens page! You will find in it a list all available lenses according to brand and type of sensor (between you and I, that was huge job).
A camera and a lens are not enough with sports photography. You will quickly come to notice that having a memory card or two is not enough, either. Here are some tips on useful accessories you can get for sports photography.
This tip may seem obvious at first sight, but it’s worth considering because it can make your life easier. Since you’ll be shooting in burst mode, it’s best to use the fastest memory cards on the market. If the camera takes a long time to save the images on the card, it will stay stuck for a longer period of time before it can start shooting again. Even more obvious is the fact that since you’re going to shoot a lot more pictures with sports photography, it’s a good idea to carry as many memory cards as possible to cover the whole event. An article on memory cards and how to choose them already exists!
The second essential thing you need to get is at least one backup battery. If you are shooting during winter, your battery’s capacity decreases and it doesn’t last as long as it does during summer. A battery grip will also be a great thing to have. Just insert a second battery and you don’t have to worry about changing it while shooting. While the grip makes the camera a bit larger, it also makes it easier to hold.
It may not seem like a big deal, but this little detail can make all the difference! Often, sports photographers work outdoors and are therefore dependent on the weather and its whims! You”ll never regret having your lens hood handy when it starts to rain, or under a burning sun, at 2pm… his piece of advice is also valid indoors! Sports arenas are illuminated by powerful light sources which may cause unsightly chromatic aberrations. That’s when the lens hood comes in handy! Don’t forget to use UV or neutral filters to protect your lenses.
Not much light and long focal lengths? Obviously, in such conditions, it is highly recommended to have a strong support hold for your camera in order to avoid all worries with shaking. We can thus use a tripod. Although effective, it is not very nifty. Hence choosing a much more practical monopod. While not offering as much stability as a tripod, it is often enough for our purpose, here. Moreover, not only will it be more versatile but it’ll be easier to move around with the camera installed on it. I recommend you read our article on tripods. Otherwise, here is a selection of the best monopods available nowadays.
Where can you store all your gear? You may choose a backpack or a shoulder bag. The right answer depends on your preferences. Personally, I use a backpack and I find it much more practical. I have written a complete article to try to guide through choosing camera bag.
If shooting indoors or in a stadium, where you can leave most of your gear at the media center, they will both be adequate.. However, if you’re going to be shooting motorsports, for example, you’ll have to travel longer distances, so a backpack will be more appropriate. Beyond compartments for your camera and lenses, look for bags that will allow you to carry a tablet or a small laptop computer as well as other storage compartments and bag comfort!
Here is a selection of the best camera bags, to be chosen according to your equipment and budget!
Don’t underestimate bad weather. You need to protect yourself but mostly your equipment. There are many types of rain covers available for cameras and lenses online. They are always of great use because of leakage or condensation… But under heavy rain conditions, you really cannot afford to take pictures “without a cover” nor with a poorly waterproofed camera.
Sports photography often takes place outdoors, in bad weather, on mud, in dust, and God knows what else. So, it’s very easy for dust (or worse) to get into your lens. In these situations, you need to have your cloth and brush kit at hand to clean the lens. Here is an example of an interesting and inexpensive kit.
I’m coming to the end of this article. I hope this article helped you, if only a little, with what you should focus on, when choosing both a camera and lenses for sports photography. I’ve tried to focus on the elements I find to be most important, but of course, there is a variety of different features and gadgets that can also be useful, depending on the situation. Very soon, I will write an article with technical and preparation tips for sports shooting. To go further, I invite you to read our article which gives out all the tips for shooting with a long focal length.
See you soon,