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Top Lenses for Sports Photography

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Mason Resnick is the editor of the Adorama Learning Center and a lifetime photography enthusiast.

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Top Lenses for Sports Photography

Want to catch the action? Here’s a quick guide to the gear—especially lenses--you need. Updated for Fall 2013.

Whether you're shooting with a DSLR or a high-end Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Compact, there's a plethora of choices when it comes to lenses. Which are best for catching the action?

There is a wide range of lenses that can be used for sports photography; if you're just dabbling, a lower-cost lens may be sufficient (until you gain experience) but if you want the ability to shoot publishable sports shots, there are lenses specifically made for this purpose. Here's a very brief overview of lenses available at the Adorama lens department. (NOTE: Lens availability and pricing are current as of mid-August, 2013)

Getting started

Pretty darn good: I shot this using an enthusiast rig: Canon T3i DSLR, Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 lens. Photo by Mason Resnick

A low-cost sports photography rig should give you a combined range of around 18-200mm (35mm equivalent: approx. 28-300mm). This can include one, two or three zoom lenses. A kit lens and a lower-end tele zoom will do you fine and should cost in the $300 range. An all-in-one superzoom will cost a bit more.

The advantage of kit lenses is that most now have built-in image stabilization, and are lightweight. The disadvantage is that they are slow—the widest apertures are around f/3.5-4.5, and they get smaller as you zoom to longer focal lengths. To compensate, you need to choose higher ISO settings so you can still use action-stopping shutter speeds. It will not produce ultimate image quality. This setup will let you capture your kids' sports activities.

“Kit” lenses:

Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 USM
Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G with Vibration Reduction
Pentax 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6
Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6
Sigma 18-50mm f/3.5-5.6 DC

Consumer tele zooms generally cost less than $250: Off-brand lenses are about the same quality as the manufacturer’s lenses, so you can save by buying a Sigma or Tamron.

Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6
Olympus Zuiko 40-150mm f/4-5.6
Pentax 50-200mm f/4-5.6 ED Weather Resistant
Tamron 55-200mm f/4-5.6 DI-II LD
Sony DT 55-200mm f/4-5.6

What about MILCs? Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Compact cameras are a growing category but the number of lenses suitable for sports photography is currently limited. Only a handful of these cameras have no shutter lag and focus fast enough to capture the action, and any focusing problems are magnified by longer lenses. However, the combination of an Micro Four-Thirds  Olympus OM-D E-M5 and a lens like the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm (35mm equivalent: 80-300mm) f4.0-5.6 Zoom works well.


Want to increase your lens’s range even further? Consider adding a 1.4x or 2x tele extender. But remember that in addition to magnifying your subject, it will magnify your lens’s optical faults. So you may want to use an extender with a higher-quality lens,

While a basic kit such as the one described above might be fine for your use, if you decide you want to get serious about sports photography, you'll need to invest in quality lenses.

Getting serious

Even better: This was of New York Giants Defensive Lineman Jason Pierre-Paul using pro gear, including a longer, faster telephoto lens. It’s sharper, and has better contrast. Photo © Evan Pinkus.

When the grain produced by choosing a high ISO starts to bother you, and you want sharp, high-contrast images like the pros get, and you are ready to earn a few bucks in this competitive field, it’s time to upgrade.

First, you need a DSLR with a fast burst rate and the processing power to let you keep shooting while images just captured are transferred to the memory card. (When you’re shooting 100 RAW frames at 10 fps, this becomes a real issue.) Full-frame DSLRs such as the Nikon D4 and Canon Canon EOS-1D X are sports shooter favorites that cost in the $6-7,000 range; you may want to consider lower-cost newcomers the Nikon D600 and Canon EOS-6D, both of which are available at Adorama for a little over $2,000 and are therefore within reach of weekend warriors and serious enthusiasts. (There are other factors in considering a pro-level DSLR, including autofocus speed and accuracy, which are beyond the scope of this article.)

Now you need to haul glass: Fast fixed-focal length or (if you can afford 'em) high-end zoom lenses are necessary for the sharp, contrast pictures you desire. Look for zooms with a maximum aperture of f/2.8; this maximum aperture should remain constant throughout the zoom range. The engineering and extra glass elements that go into making this possible are what boost the prices of such lenses. Be prepared to spend over a grand in some cases.

You can save a bundle by buying the slightly older, non-stabilized versions of these lenses. You won’t really need stabilization in most cases anyway; here’s why:

Because these lenses are too heavy to handhold, you will also need to invest in a monopod. A tripod is too bulky to have with you in the field, and a monopod with a good
ballhead will give you the right combination of stability and portability that you need.

I recommend the Benro C38F Classic Monopod, Bogen-Manfrotto Professional, or the Bower VT6000 Duo Flex 2-in-1 monopods. (Depending on the model, you may also need to buy a ballhead so you move your camera more easily. If the features do not list a ballhead, you’ll need to buy one.)

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L USM
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM II
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 ED AF
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 G ED-IF VR
Olympus 35-100mm f/2 EZ
Olympus Zuiko 300mm f/2.8 E-ED 
Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8


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