Telephoto Strategies For Sports Photography

Pay close attention to the sidelines of your favorite sporting event, and you’ll see the photographers share one thing in common: long lenses. Whether it’s world-class tennis or World Cup soccer, high school football or little league baseball, the professional photographers who cover these events know that when it comes to sports, telephoto reach is everything.

When you’re working for Sports Illustrated, shelling out $12,000 for a fast 600mm prime may be de rigueur, but many of us need to be a bit more budget conscious. So can you still photograph your favorite sports without taking out a second mortgage for a lens? With some outside-the-box thinking and capable-yet-affordable telephoto zooms, you can. Here are five techniques for maximizing your telephoto reach on a budget, followed by a handful of lenses that are up to the task.

1. Start with the longest lens you can reasonably afford.

Depending on the sport, a 70-200mm lens may be sufficient. But for sports that position photographers far from the action (such as football, soccer and baseball) you’re likely to prefer the results you get from a much longer lens—like a 300mm, 400mm or even 600mm. While there are a lot more options in the “normal” telephoto zoom range, manufacturers have increasingly responded to photographers’ demands and now produce reasonably affordable super-telephoto zooms that are great for sports. A few top options are highlighted in this article.

2. Put it on an APS-C or another small-sensor camera.

If you’ve got a lens that maxes out at 300mm, you can actually extend its effective telephoto reach by mounting it on a sub-full-frame camera. A Canon EOS Rebel SL3 DSLR, for instance, has an APS-C sensor that effectively increases any lens’ focal length because of the crop factor. (The APS-C sensor is smaller than a full-frame sensor, and so the effect is like cropping out the center of a full-frame image.) That means that on a Rebel SL3 (or any other Canon APS-C sensor camera, for that matter) the 300mm lens is multiplied by the 1.6x crop factor, so in effect the lens actually functions as a 480mm telephoto. Not bad at all, especially since there are lots of options out there in sub-full-frame cameras.

In case you’re thinking that’s the same as shooting with a 300mm lens on a full-frame camera, be forewarned that it’s not. Because in fast-moving sports where critical focus is key, the ability for the subject (i.e., a player on the soccer pitch) to fill more of the frame (and, therefore, the sensor) makes for faster, more accurate autofocusing than when that player is a smaller portion of the scene. Not only are APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras more compact and less expensive, but they also can be better for sports photography because of the ways in which they maximize telephoto reach.

3. Add a teleconverter.

To some, they’re called teleconverters, while to others they’re telextenders or even just extenders. But by any name, these neat devices optically extend the focal length of whatever lens they’re attached to.

Sigma 2X Teleconverter TC-2001

Sony FE 2.0X Teleconverter

Teleconverters are short optics that mount between a lens and the body of the camera and magnify the image before it reaches the sensor. Measured in magnification power and typically available in 1.4x and 2x sizes, these devices simply multiply the focal length by the indicated amount. With a 2x teleconverter, for instance, a 70-200mm zoom functions as a 140-400mm that works even better for sports. So why doesn’t everyone use these at all times, eliminating the need for super-telephoto lenses altogether? Because there’s a catch. (Isn’t there always?) The catch here is threefold.

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 2x Teleconverter MC-20
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 2x Teleconverter MC-20
Fujifilm Fujinon XF1.4X TC WR Teleconverter
Fujifilm Fujinon XF1.4X TC WR Teleconverter

First, in terms of optical quality, a true 400mm prime is almost always going to outperform a 200mm with a 2x telextender in terms of sharpness, contrast and fidelity. Second, the teleconverter always eats up a bit of light as it passes through the lens, making it a little more difficult to shoot in low light. The longer the teleconverter, the greater the loss of light. A 2x extender, for instance, sacrifices two stops of light, turning a fast ƒ/2.8 200mm prime into a slower ƒ/5.6 400mm lens. For sports in bright sunlight, this is less of a concern, but it is worth noting. And finally, while many teleconverters are designed to have minimal impact on autofocus capabilities, they do tend to slow the performance of AF systems. Since fractions of a second count in sports photography, this can be a real issue. That said, when a high-quality extender is used on a high-quality, fast prime lens, any compromise is minimized.

4. Pair the right accessories and camera settings to ensure sharpness.

Super-telephoto lenses can be difficult to work with. They’re typically long and heavy, making for a cumbersome kit. Worse, the longer the focal length, the more chance there is for motion blur. To minimize this, use a monopod to steady the lens. For very long lenses (such as a pro shooter’s 600mm prime), the monopod is mandatory.

Even with lighter lenses and shorter focal lengths, handholding beyond 200mm and certainly 300mm becomes exceptionally difficult. Not only that, but the weight of such lenses means handholding gets harder by the minute. If you don’t have access to a monopod, be sure to use any image stabilization options available. And in each case, employ a shutter speed that’s fast enough for the lens. Given that you’re photographing sports, you’re likely to be using very fast shutter speeds anyway, but stick to the rule of thumb that says the minimum shutter speed for any lens should be the reciprocal of its focal length, meaning that a 400mm lens requires a 1/400 sec., minimum shutter speed to minimize the possibility of blur caused by camera shake.

5. Enlarge the image even more using the right Photoshop technique.

If you’ve got your heart set on, say, an 8×10-inch print of a photograph you’ve made, and even with the above techniques you weren’t able to fill the frame with the subject as much as you might like, you may want to consider upsizing the image in Photoshop. Crop the image to your ideal proportion with an 8×10 cropping preset, and then adjust the image size to enlarge the selection to a printable resolution—8×10 at 300ppi, or an area resolution of 2400×3000 pixels.

Photoshop’s Image menu holds the key to this, and it’s found under the heading labeled Image Size. Click to open Image Size, and you’re greeted by a dialogue box containing dimensions of the image file (denoted in pixels, inches or one of several options as indicated) as well as two boxes to enter new dimensions. I like to work in pixels, so that I know the actual physical dimensions that I’m changing and can’t be confused by PPI interfering (by, say, resizing an image to 8×10 inches at just 72ppi, which would not nearly be large enough for printing). Knowing that I want to get to 8×10 at 300ppi, or 2400×3000 total pixels, I simply enter those new dimensions in the appropriate spaces. But before I click “OK” to render the file at its new size, I make sure that the Resample checkbox is checked and that it reads “Preserve Details 2.0” next to it. This is a relatively new Photoshop feature that is designed precisely for increasing image resolution without much loss of sharpness or detail.

If you don’t see “Preserve Details 2.0” in the Resample dropdown menu, close the Image Size controls and open Photoshop’s Preference menu. Look for Technology Previews, the place where Adobe occasionally tests new features, and be sure Enable Preserve Details 2.0 Upscale is checked. Exit Preferences, and the new settings immediately take effect, so repeat the Image Size adjustment, this time choosing Preserve Details 2.0 in order to maximize the image quality of your upscaled image file.

Long Telephoto Zooms For Sports

Here are some popular lenses that will get you the telephoto reach you need to shoot sports effectively.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM

Serious sports shooters may lust after Canon’s 600mm ƒ/4 prime but likely not its $10,000 price tag. For those who want something sports capable in a much smaller and less expensive package (in fact, fully 95% less expensive) check out Canon’s EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM zoom. Considerably smaller and lighter thanks to its variable maximum aperture, the lens uses an ultrasonic ring motor for high-speed autofocusing perfect for sports photography, with the option of smoother and quieter stepping motor AF for video. Four stops of image stabilization make this lens especially handholdable even at the long end of its focal length range, and a new LCD information display shows focusing distance, current focal length and the amount of vibration. Plus, it’s compatible with Canon’s 1.4x and 2x extenders if you want the lens to reach out like a 600mm. List price: $499. Contact: Canon, usa.canon.com

Fujifilm XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 OIS WR

 Photographers who use Fujifilm X-series cameras to photograph sports should target the company’s longest super-telephoto zoom, the XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OIS WR. Weather-sealed against the rigors of outdoor photography, the lens performs more like a 150-600mm lens on an X-series camera body. It features optical image stabilization up to five stops, making it possible to handhold this fairly compact lens. Nine rounded aperture blades make for attractive bokeh, and the inclusion of ED and Super ED elements, as well as fluorine coating, maximize image quality while minimizing aberration, lens flare, ghosting and moisture intrusion. Should photographers want even more reach, the lens is compatible with Fujifilm’s 1.4x teleconverter, which produces a focal range equivalent to 213-853mm. List price: $1,899. Contact: Fujifilm, fujifilmusa.com

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

This one violates the “affordability” clause for sure, but it’s such a notable lens, it deserves mention. It’s one of Nikon’s newest long zooms for pro sports photography, the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR, and it’s the first of its kind in the Nikon arsenal. Built to withstand the dust and moisture that come with professional sports photography, this zoom features a constant ƒ/4 maximum aperture for top image quality and speed across the zoom range. That range is designed to help photographers switch between shorter telephoto and super-telephoto compositions at a moment’s notice. Better still, because it has a built-in 1.4x teleconverter, the lens performs like a 250-560mm at the push of a button. Designed to be used with both full-frame and DX-format cameras, the lens performs equivalent to a 270-600mm on a DX camera such as the Nikon D500, and with the teleconverter engaged it’s like a whopping 378-840mm zoom. Four stops of vibration reduction help steady the lens, though it’s physically long, and at the 400mm end, steadying with a monopod is ideal. List price: $12,399. Contact: Nikon, nikonusa.com

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm f/4.5 TC 1.25x IS Pro

For photographers who want extreme focal reach in an all-around manageable package, Olympus has announced an ideal new lens. Due out soon, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm f/4.5 TC 1.25x IS Pro packs a massive focal length into a fairly fast and constant ƒ/4.5 maximum aperture. That may not seem super fast for a 400mm lens, but because it is designed for Micro Four Thirds cameras, the crop factor makes it equivalent to a 300-800mm super-telephoto zoom. As if those focal lengths aren’t enough, the lens has a 1.25x teleconverter built in, turning the lens into a whopping 375-1000mm zoom. (The built-in teleconverter cuts a half stop of light, turning it into an ƒ/5.6 lens.) Add Olympus’ new 2x teleconverter, and it performs as a 750-2000mm lens. That’s practically a telescope! List price: Not yet announced. Contact: Olympus, getolympus.com

Sigma 60-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport

High-quality, long-focal-length lenses can be a bit pricey, but Sigma does its part to make them as affordable as possible. Case in point is the 60-600mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport superzoom. The variable maximum aperture helps keep it compact, while 25 elements (including FLD and SLD glass) minimize optical distortions and maximum color and contrast across the zoom range. Built-in optical image stabilization reduces camera shake by four stops, and its relatively compact size (for a 10x focal range zoom) makes handholding a possibility. Minimum focusing distance is 24 inches, but the front element does extend when zooming. The lens is available for Nikon, Canon and Sigma mounts, and it’s also compatible with Sigma’s 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. List price: $1,999. Contact: Sigma, sigmaphoto.com

Sony FE 200-600 F5.6-6.3 G OSS

Brand new this year is a Sony superzoom ideal for serious sports photography. The FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS is Sony’s longest zoom yet. Optical image stabilization helps steady the camera for sharper shots even at 600mm. The variable maximum aperture keeps the lens from being too cumbersome, and five ED elements and one aspherical element help to eliminate aberration. Nano AR optical coating minimizes reflections and the contrast- and color-sapping effects of lens flare too. The out-of-focus area of an image is especially important with long lenses because of the shallow depth of field, and with an 11-bladed circular aperture, this lens produces beautiful bokeh. It’s an internal zoom, meaning the length of this lens does not change during zooming, making balance easier to maintain, and the lens is sealed against dust and moisture, so it won’t mind a little weather, either. For those who want even more reach, it’s compatible with Sony’s E-mount 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. List price: $2,000. Contact: Sony, sony.com

Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2

Available in Canon, Nikon and Sony mounts, the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 is a Tamron Di-series lens that can be used with both full-frame and APS-C sensor cameras. When used with the latter, it is effectively a 225-900mm zoom. The lens includes Tamron’s Vibration Compensation image stabilization for up to 4.5 stops of correction and offers 3 VC modes: standard, Mode 2 for panning and Mode 3, which prioritizes stabilization of the captured image but doesn’t stabilize the viewfinder image, meaning that the system doesn’t engage until the shutter is actuated. The lens also features a Flex Zoom Lock mechanism that allows you to lock the zoom at any focal length to prevent accidental slippage and maintain consistent composition. The lens is compatible with Tamron 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters for even greater reach, up to 1200mm on full-frame or 1800mm with APS-sensor cameras. List price: $1,399. Contact: Tamron, tamron-usa.com 

See more of William Sawalich’s work at sawalich.com.

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