Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in our Summer issue and reflects the products available at the time of publication. To see our coverage of new lenses, visit our Gear/Lenses and News sections.
The sports photographer can be easily identified by the contents of their camera bag. Peek inside, and you’ll find a collection of superlong lenses, monopods and lots of storage cards. You’d expect to find supertelephoto lenses in the bag of a Sports Illustrated shooter, but look closer and you’ll notice a whole unexpected collection of glass, too. Super-wide-angle lenses, fisheyes and portrait lenses are part of a sport shooter’s kit, and for good reason.
There was a time when a sports photographer could be a specialist, spending their career courtside at NCAA basketball games or positioned in the end zone at a local stadium. But sports photography has evolved through technological adaptation ever more rapidly than the sports themselves have. Technologies like instant replay and virtual first down lines have changed how people watch sports on TV, but media-savvy consumers have changed how images are not only delivered but also conceived. Remote cameras, digital transmission, video frame capture and more have kept the sports photographer on the cutting edge, feeding the media demands of hungry customers.
That doesn’t mean that photographing a local little league game requires a bag full of lenses, but it does mean that successful sports photographers bring a variety of techniques along with their A game.
Sports photography is one area in which the smaller sizes of the APS and Micro Four Thirds sensors really starts to pay off, at least in most shooting situations. Because the APS sensor is smaller than a full-frame sensor, full-frame lenses attached to an APS camera have a crop factor that gives the lens a field of view like a longer lens.
An APS camera with a crop factor of 1.6 will give a full-frame 300mm lens a field of view of a 350mm lens. A lens designed for an APS camera can offer the same field of view as a full-frame lens in a smaller, lighter package (all else being equal). Since the Micro Four Thirds sensor is half the size of full frame, telephoto lenses for the system can be a fraction of the size and weight of those for a full-frame camera.
As a result, many sports photographers will shoot with an APS or Micro Four Thirds body on occasion, even if they’re primarily a full-frame shooter.
Traditionally, sports photographers are known for their superlong lenses—you see them in rows, crowded together as photographers jostle for position on the sidelines of any major sporting event. The long lens is the hallmark of the sports photographer because there needs to be some separation between the players and the media to keep both safe during play, and because so much of sports happens so far away. A soccer field is more than 300 feet long, so capturing images from the other side of the field requires a long lens.
Zoom lenses are also popular with sports photographers because of the wide range of coverage they provide. When a surfer hits a wave and rides it toward the beach, you don’t want their body to overflow the frame as they get closer.
One of the most common focal lengths in sports photography is the 70-200mm, as this provides coverage for some relatively close subjects and enough reach to comfortably capture something like a runner on first base from the press spot behind the bench.
A 70-200mm lens with an aperture of ƒ/2.8 is the ideal choice, partially because of the soft background defocus it provides and partially because with a 2x teleconverter, the lens becomes a 400mm ƒ/5.6 in a pinch.
Many sports shooters, especially those starting out, often end up with zoom lenses that provide a greater range of focal lengths but with a trade-off of a variable aperture. Sigma, for example, offers a 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM that’s budget conscious at around $800. It’s not just entry-level photographers who often opt for this wide range, though, with a variety of lenses that offer wide zoom ranges, with some trade-offs in aperture. Both Nikon and Canon, for instance, have a lens that’s around the 100mm-400mm zoom range for around $2,000 with a ƒ/4.5-5.6 variable aperture. That’s a lot of versatility in a single lens, and it’s a good investment for the sports shooter who covers a variety of subjects. We’ve had great results with both Sigma’s and Tamron’s lenses in the 150-600mm zoom category, both of which provide excellent image quality, fast focus times and a relatively low price of around $1,500.
As the distance between the photographer and the athlete gets farther—or for when a photographer wants a tighter frame, supertele lenses are the norm. Those superzoom lenses I just mentioned will give photographers most of the reach, but some sports demand not only longer glass but brighter glass, too.
A minimum aperture of ƒ/5.6 might be fine for most general sports images, but when you’re looking to capture a really eye-catching image, how you treat the background is as important as how you treat the subject. Take a crowded stadium, for example—most photographers shoot from a position down on the field, which means the rows of fans in the bleachers are clearly visible in the background and can often distract from the action. Sports photographers rely on a wide-open aperture to blur the background, and shooting at ƒ/5.6 might not cut it for some sports shots.
The sports shooter also needs to freeze action in a way that a portrait shooter does not. Capturing a horse galloping around the track or a pitcher throwing a 90 mph fastball requires a fast shutter speed, and fast shutter speeds need lots of available light. A shot that’s possible at 1/500th of a second at ƒ/2.8 slows to 1/250th of a second at ƒ/5.6, which can blur a lot of sports.
That’s why so many pro sports shooters are seen lugging around massive telephoto lenses—glass far bigger than their camera body—in order to get long reach with a big, wide aperture. Every additional millimeter of focal length adds to the weight and price of a lens, so superlong telephoto lenses are treated gingerly and only purchased when necessary. If you’re only occasionally shooting sports, renting a supertelephoto lens is a good idea—but buy the insurance, too.
It’s not uncommon to see photographers at an event with 300mm, 400mm and even 600mm lenses. An ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture version of a 600mm lens will cost upwards of $10,000 but is worth it for a shot at the cover of Sports Illustrated. “Less expensive” options are available from third-party companies like Sigma, with excellent lenses like the Sigma 500mm F4.5 EX DG APO HSM available for around $5,000.
Even though the bread-and-butter of sports photography is a supertelephoto lens, a good sports photographer will have, and be familiar with the use of, a variety of lenses. Wide-angle, ultra-wide-angle and fisheye lenses can create images with an immersive look, getting in close to a huddle or showing the crowds gathered in a stadium from up in the rafters, while a fisheye lens can be mounted above or below an athlete to convey a feeling of the complexity of a sport. Macro lenses, while not used to a great degree, can be employed to capture details of a sport—laces on a pair of shoes or the detail on a world championship ring.
To complete the sports lens package, many photographers pack a 24-70mm (or equivalent) zoom in their kit along with superwide lenses of around 20mm. Nikon, Canon and others make lenses around the 14mm-30mm range, and they’re popular add-ons for the sports photographer.
The sports photographer has arguably the most extensive lens needs of any photographic discipline, and often the biggest financial cost to get started. But like the subjects these photographers capture, there’s a need for a combination of cutting-edge skills and cutting-edge gear in order to bring home the medal.
Wide-Angle To Mid-Telephoto Lenses
The 24-70mm focal length is a staple of the sports photographer and can be found on cameras on the sidelines and in the field. The 24mm is wide enough to provide a great field of view but long enough that it reduces distortion, while 70mm is just long enough to reach out to athletes at a distance. The versatility makes this a key sports and wildlife lens. For the APS-C shooter, these lenses create images like an equally useful 35-105mm.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F/2.8E ED VR. Nikon’s update to its venerable 24-70mm adds image stabilization through the company’s VR technology, giving photographers up to four stops of extra shooting range. For photographers capturing sports and wildlife in low light, that means a lot more shots without the need for a tripod. The fixed ƒ/2.8 aperture creates great-looking background separation. Price: $2,399. Website: nikonusa.com
Canon EF 24-70mm F/2.8L II USM. Canon’s 24-70mm professional lens is designed with one Super UD and two UD lens elements for edge-to-edge sharpness, while the nine-blade aperture creates incredibly soft bokeh. Focus is legendarily fast thanks to the ring-type ultrasonic motor, and the manual focus override allows photographers to dial in critical sharpness at a moment’s notice. Price: $1,750. Website: usa.canon.com
Sony FE 24-70mm F/2.8 GM. Sony’s 24-70mm offering is in the company’s G Master lineup, a series of lenses that are designed to work with ultra-high-resolution sensors. The lens has one XA element, two Aspherical elements, one ED element and one Super ED element, plus a Direct Drive SSM motor for ultra-fast focusing. Price: $2,200. Website: sony.com
HD Pentax-D FA 24-70mm F/2.8ED SDM WR. The highly weather-resistant Pentax K1 camera has an equally tough lens with the Pentax-D FA 24-70mm F/2.8ED SDM WR lens. It’s built around three aspherical and three ED elements plus an Anomalous Dispersion element and an HD coating to reduce ghosting and flaring. A smart zoom-lock lever keeps the lens at a specific focal length, so you don’t have to worry about bumping the lens and ruining the perfect composition. Price: $1,200. Website: us.ricoh-imaging.com
Sigma 17-50mm F/2.8 EX DC OS HSM. For APS-C shooters, this 17-50mm lens provides just about the same range as the 24-70mm in full frame. Available in a variety of mounts, the lens offers image stabilization in most systems (but not in Sony and Pentax, which have in-camera stabilization and lose the “OS” in the name), with two glass mold elements and one hybrid aspherical lens. It’s an affordable option for the APS-C photographer who wants to shoot in this focal length but doesn’t want to shell out a ton. Price: $799. Website: sigmaphoto.com
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F/2.8 PRO. This Micro Four Thirds lens offers a 24-80mm equivalent focal length and is a staple of the MFT professional. The lens is an optical pro as well, with one aspherical ED element, two aspherical elements, one Dual Super Aspherical element, two ELD elements, one HD element and two High-Refractive elements, plus a coating to reduce flaring and ghosting. The lens is designed to switch quickly between autofocus and manual focus, and also has an on-lens function button for camera function control. Price: $900. Website: getolympus.com
Mid-Range To Telephoto Lenses
Most sports and wildlife shooters will find themselves working primarily in the mid- to long-telephoto range. That explains why every major camera company, and all of the third-party manufacturers, make something in this range, and why you’ll find them in just about every camera bag.
Tamron SP 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di VC USD. Tamron’s budget-minded 70-300mm lens is a great choice for someone looking to get into sports photography, thanks to fast focusing and sharp contrast. You’ll lose a few stops over the top-end pro models in this list, but that’s not a problem when you’re capturing the occasional skateboarder or elk, due to the built-in image stabilization, which gives photographers around four stops of stability. Price: $450. Website: tamron-usa.com
Canon EF 70-200mm F/2.8L IS II USM. This update to Canon’s stalwart tele-zoom adds faster focus and improves upon the image quality of an already excellently regarded lens. The image stabilization adds four stops of support at all focal lengths, and the lens can focus as close as four feet, perfect for in-your-face sports portraits or the occasional close-distance bird photo. Price: $2,000. Website: usa.canon.com
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm F/2.8G ED VR II. This fixed-maximum-aperture lens from Nikon is designed around seven Extra-Low Dispersion elements and a nano-coating on the lens to reduce flaring. The VR II image-stabilization system provides 3.5 stops of extra handholding ability, and a nine-blade aperture design creates smooth background defocus. Price: $2,100. Website: nikonusa.com
Sony FE 70-200mm F/2.8 GM OSS. Part of Sony’s high-resolution G Master lineup, the 70-200mm F/2.8 GM OSS lens has the company’s in-lens image stabilization, which works in tandem with the in-camera stabilization found on the Sony a7 and a6500. The lens has three aspherical elements, one of which is a high-end XA element, designed to reduce chromatic aberrations. A focus-range-limiting switch prevents accidental changes in composition, an on-camera button can be programmed to a number of functions, and the 11-blade aperture allows for excellent bokeh. Price: $2,596. Website: sony.com
Fujifilm Fujinon XF50-140mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR. For the APS-C-based Fujifilm cameras, this lens has an equivalent 76-213mm focal length and is comprised of 23 elements in 16 groups, including ED and Super ED elements. Twenty weather seals keep the environment out while the Triple Linear Motor assures fast focusing for both stills and video work. Price: $1,599. Website: fujifilmusa.com
Long Telephoto Lenses
When you need a bit of extra reach, these lenses will provide it. While superlong telephoto lenses aren’t necessary for every photographic type, they’re de rigueur for the sports and wildlife shooter.
Sigma 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary. For a hair under $1,000 at most retail outlets, the Sigma 150-600mm lens is a steal. While you won’t get the super-wide-open aperture of an ƒ/2.8 prime telephoto, you won’t need a second mortgage, either. This lens features optical image stabilization, a focal length lock (very handy when you’re walking with the lens pointed down) and fast autofocus. This lens gets it all done. Price: $1,000. Website: sigmaphoto.com
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F/5.6E ED VR. When we reviewed this budget-minded supertelephoto (digitalphotopro.com/reviews/af-s-nikkor-200-500mm-f5-6e-ed-vr/), we said it was one of the best-kept secrets in photography. We’ve used it to capture everything from fighter planes to portraits. The fixed ƒ/5.6 is plenty wide enough for most shooting, and the 4.5 stops of VR image stabilization make it easy to handhold this lens. Price: $1,400. Website: nikonusa.com
Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L USM. It’s not as dreamy as Canon’s 400mm ƒ/2.8, but at nearly $8,000 cheaper, it’s a perfect choice to get the shot from the other side of the field. A two-stage focus limiter helps improve AF times by keeping the lens focusing in a certain distance, but a minimum focus distance of around 12 feet means the lens will continue to focus on an unexpected touchdown run in the end zone or a hippo charging your safari. If you can afford it, though, the 400mm ƒ/2.8 and a 2x teleconverter will get you to 800mm at ƒ/5.6—the same minimum aperture as this 400mm lens. Price: $1,199. Website: usa.canon.com
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F/4.0 IS PRO. The advantage of the Micro Four Thirds sensor really becomes apparent at long distances, where glass can be longer and yet cheaper than full-frame lenses of comparable focal lengths. The Olympus 300mm lens has a full-frame equivalent of 600mm, and the in-lens stabilization works with the in-camera stabilization in Olympus systems. Add the 1.4x teleconverter, and you end up with an 840mm equivalent lens—which will bag you a shot of a lioness and her cubs, without making you their meal. Price: $2,500. Website: getolympus.com