I used my Nikon D4 with my NIKKOR 300mm F2.8 lens set to 1/2000th of a second, f/4.5, ISO 200 to capture the action of a steer wrestling competition at the PRCA Rodeo during Cheyenne, Wyoming’s Frontier Days.
When it comes to sports photography, since speed is the name of the game, pros turn to “fast” lenses. But what constitutes a fast lens and why are they important?
The next time you’re watching a professional outdoor sporting event, look at the sidelines or photographers pit, and you’ll see huge $5,000 to $13,000 lenses focusing in on the action. Notice that many will be attached to monopods because of their weight. Apertures can be opened to f/2.8 on 300mm and 400mm lenses and as wide as f/4 on 500mm and 600mm lenses. Because of all the light coming into the camera body through these wide openings, shutters can be set to faster speeds, hence the expression “fast lens.” A secondary advantage of these lenses is the opportunity to create a beautiful bokeh—that magical aesthetic quality of blur in the out-of-focus areas of an image created by an extremely shallow depth of field. This can be used to keep the focus of the viewer on the action rather than being pulled away by distracting elements in the background.
Because of their price, these lenses tend to be the property of professional sports and wildlife photographers, photo agencies that lend out equipment to their photographers on assignment, and non-professionals with healthy savings accounts.
Yet for those where money is an object, there are still plenty of lens choices that can keep you in the game at a reasonable cost. As the focal length gets shorter and/or as the widest f/stop closes down, so does the price. You’ll sacrifice a bit of the bokeh and possibly have slower auto focus capabilities, but you’ll gain in savings and portability.
What’s not lost is the ability to freeze the action. While less light is coming through the lens into the camera, necessitating higher ISOs to maintain fast shutter speeds at times in excess of 1/1000th of a second, state-of-the-art sensors have allowed photographers to increase their cameras’ sensitivity without sacrificing an image to digital noise. In the not-too-distant past, even setting your ISO beyond 800 was venturing into dangerous territory.
One way to get more bang out of your lenses, when the rules of the game keep you at a distance from the action, is to attach them to an Advanced Photo System type-C (APS-C) camera body. These cameras have smaller sensors than their full frame brethren, meaning that the lenses will have a magnification factor of typically 1.5 or 1.6. For example, if I put my AF-S NIKKOR 300mm F2.8G ED VR II lens on my full frame Nikon D850, the focal length will still be 300mm. But if I put that same lens on a crop sensor body such as a Nikon D500 with its crop factor of 1.5, the effective focal length will be 450mm. The Canon 7D has a slightly smaller sensor and a 1.6 crop factor. Putting a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS II USM lens on that body will make it in essence a 480mm lens. That same lens on the full frame Canon EOS 5D Mark IV will keep it at its original 300mm focal length.
To take this one step further, a Micro Four Thirds format camera such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II has a magnification crop factor of 2. That means that its Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f4.0 IS Pro lens on that body will have an effective focal length of 600mm but will be much smaller and lighter than an actual 600mm f/4 lens.
The key when buying lenses for sports is to contemplate your need for speed, budget and how much weight and size you’re willing to carry. Keep in mind that it might be more cost effective to rent a big piece of fast glass if you only occasionally find yourself on the sidelines of a sporting event, camera in hand.
Present-day sports photographers have the luxury of fast autofocus lenses, something that one of the greatest photographers in the history of the genre, Neil Leifer, only has gotten to experience late in his career. I asked him how he was able to manually focus on constantly moving subjects so quickly when covering football. He said, “That’s what separated the big boys from the rest of the pack. What separated the big boys when I shot was eye-hand coordination. I was pretty good at it. Walter [Iooss] was the best I’d ever seen at it. John Beaver, who will be shooting his 50th straight Super Bowl, is phenomenal with his hand-eye coordination working with a 600mm lens. He can track a player coming at him and have the whole damn play in focus. So would Walter. I was very good at it. Jim Drake was very good at it. What separated the really top photographers from the second tier was that ability to focus a 600mm lens at a player running right at you or capturing a shot of a pass receiver just as the ball is coming into his fingers. That was hard to do in the days of manual focus. Today, the cameras are so good that they take a lot of the hard work out of the equation. But even with autofocus, it’s still about the photographer behind the lens.”
Sigma 120-300 F2.8 DG OS HSM. The Sigma 120-300 F2.8 DG OS HSM is the manufacturer’s first lens introduced into its Sports category. The fast f/2.8 aperture is a constant all the way through the zoom from 120mm to 300mm, giving the sports photographer great coverage without giving up speed. Its Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) gives a quiet, fast and accurate autofocusing while its Optical Stabilizer (OS) compensates for potential camera shake when shooting hand-held. The dust- and splash-proof design of Sigma’s Sports line lenses keep you in the action when working in inclement weather.
Price: $3,400. Website: sigmaphoto.com
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM is a must-have lens in the camera bag for professional photographers covering sports using the Canon system. This L-series telephoto zoom has a bright f/2.8 constant maximum aperture and excellent optical image stabilization. Its five ultra-low dispersion elements and one fluorite element reduce color fringing and chromatic aberrations while its Super Spectra coating reduces lens flare and ghosting. Fast autofocus with a full-time manual focus override keep the photographer in constant control of the final image. Its rounded eight-blade diaphragm contributes its ability to render a beautiful bokeh at wide apertures.
Price: $1,900. Website: usa.canon.com
Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD G2. The 70-200mm zoom range is great for dugout portraits to nearby action on the field and is often the second lens professional sports photographers have at the ready after their big glass. The constant f/2.8 aperture allows for fast focus while its BBAR and eBAND lens coatings reduce ghosting and flare, the latter being a potential issue when working under stadium lights. VC image stabilization helps to minimize camera shake while the rounded nine-blade diaphragm of the Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD G2 contributes to an elegant bokeh quality.
Price: $1,300. Website: tamron-usa.com
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM. The dust- and splash-proof 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports lens offers professional-grade optics and an Optical Stabilizer (OS) that features an accelerometer for improved vertical and horizontal panning, particularly useful for motorsports photography. While its widest apertures are slower, which keeps its price in the ballpark, its Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) provides fast, quiet autofocus. One particularly useful setting built into the lens barrel includes two switches, one zoom lock that can hold the lens at any focal length, and a manual focus override for when more precise control is needed.
Price: $1,800. Website: sigmaphoto.com
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II. Nikon says this lens, “For professionals seeking the ultimate super-telephoto zoom lens, the AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II delivers unrivaled speed, consistency, low-light performance and image quality in the most demanding situations.” This quality comes with a price tag, but that’s part of the balancing act that comes into play when shopping for high-quality glass. There are four switches positioned on the rear of the lens barrel used to engage different focusing modes. Memory Recall can be especially useful in sports when certain actions can be predicted. For instance, when covering a baseball game, you can pre-set the focus from the camera to second base in anticipation of a bang-bang double play, then cover another area of the field, then engage Memory Recall to quickly capture the action at second base without having to refocus. This heavyweight in the professional photo world weighs in at a fit 118.5 ounces.
Price: $7,000. Website: nikonusa.com
Sony’s E 18-200mm F3.5-6.3 OSS. This versatile zoom covers wide-angle to super telephoto with its full frame equivalent zoom range of 27-300mm, giving sports photographers the opportunity to cover a full range of subjects from near and far. The variable f/3.5-6.3 aperture keeps the lens relatively compact. The lens features Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, one extra-low dispersion glass element to help reduce chromatic aberrations and color fringing, and four aspherical elements to reduce astigmatism, field curvature and other monochromatic aberrations. An internal focus mechanism contributes to faster, more responsive autofocus and easier handling since the lens will not change in length during use. A rounded seven-blade diaphragm contributes to a pleasing bokeh quality, especially important when shooting at wider apertures.
Price: $900. Website: sony.com
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 II. The Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 II for its Micro Four Thirds cameras is a compact super-telephoto lens with a 35mm equivalent focal length of 150-600mm. Its MSC mechanism provides fast, silent focusing while its ZERO (Zuiko Extra-low Reflection Optical) lens coating controls issues such as excessive flare in backlight environments. When combined with an Olympus OM-D or PEN series camera, image stabilization on the 15-ounce lens will open up a world of handheld, slow-shutter, possibilities.
Price: $550. Website: cameras.olympus.com/en-us
Fujinon XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR. The Fujinon XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR has a 35mm full frame focal length equivalent of 152-609mm. The high-performance optical construction of 21 elements in 14 groups includes five ED lenses and one Super ED lens to help reduce chromatic aberration. Weighing a demure 3 pounds, the lens has been designed for handheld shooting with a 5.0-stop image stabilization system, which, when it detects panning, will automatically switch camera shake correction to the vertical plane only.
Price: $1,900. Website: fujifilmusa.com
Tamron 100-400mm F/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD. Another budget-friendly option when going long is the Tamron 100-400mm F/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD lens. Its three low-dispersion glass elements are effectively positioned to eliminate aberrations that can occur with a telephoto lens. Tamron’s eBAND (Extended Bandwidth & Angular-Dependency) Coating prevents reflections that flatten out color. An Ultrasonic Silent Drive (USD) autofocus motor delivers quick and precise focusing performance, well suited to covering moving subjects, a constant in sports photography. Through the use of magnesium alloy components, the lens is both lightweight, at approximately 40 ounces, and extremely durable.
Price: $800. Website: tamron-usa.com