Best Camera for Sports Photography
Buying a camera for sports photography used to be easy. You had two choices: Canon or Nikon. But the industry has seemingly been turned upside down with the introduction of the mirrorless camera ten years ago and the proliferation in the last five years.
So, what is best camera for sports photography? Is it really a question of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) versus mirrorless cameras? It’s not that simple.
I first took on the question of mirrorless cameras for sports in my 2018 review of the Sony a9. Since then, it seems photographers have only become more distracted by the the bells and whistles of mirrorless cameras. In my opinion, the selection of a sports camera shouldn’t come down to DSLR versus mirrorless. The best camera for sports comes down to just a few features presented here.
What makes sports different from than other types of photography? It’s not like event photography, or marketing photography, or portraiture photography, or landscape photography or any other photography where you control nearly all the variables. And the variables you don’t control usually occur slowly, so you have time to adjust.
In sports photography you control nothing, not the lighting, nor subject, nor the speed at which event progresses. You only control what is in your hands. The perfect image will occur in 1/1000th of a second, usually in less-than-optimal lighting, and will never be repeat. You must get it right the first time and your equipment must be up to the task.
To photograph sports well you must have a camera well-suited for sports. And what makes one camera better for sports than another? It’s the camera’s sensor and the available lenses.
Shifting Technology Landscape
You can’t have any conversation about cameras without understanding the evolution from DSLR to mirrorless cameras.
A DSLR camera has one lens that sends light to both the viewfinder and the sensor. The light entering the lens is reflected to the viewfinder by a mirror. The mirror moves out of the way when the shutter button is depressed to take the photograph. The shutter then opens and closes, allowing light to fall upon the sensor and the mirror returns to its original position.
A mirrorless camera has two lenses, one that sends light to the sensor, and a second lens that sends light through the viewfinder. When it’s time to take the photograph, the shutter button is depressed, and the shutter opens and closes allowing light to fall upon the sensor. Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter because there is no moving mirror.
DSLR camera sales have steadily decreased since 2012 with the explosive growth of smartphone cameras. Surprisingly, mirrorless cameras have grown, despite the dominant presence of smartphones in the camera market.
Canon continues to lead the overall digital camera market at 47.9% share, followed by Sony and Nikon at 22.1% and 13.7% market share, respectively. Fujifilm and Panasonic rounded out the top five at 5.6% and 4.4% market share, respectively. Looking just at mirrorless camera market share, Canon and Sony are neck-and-neck at 35%, Fujifilm at 12%, Nikon at 8%, Panasonic at 5%, and Olympus at 4%.
The Shiny New Toy Phenomenon
The proliferation of the mirrorless camera sales is a result of something I call “the shiny new toy phenomenon.”
Customer will spend money for something only if it provides a perceived advantage over what they already have.
In the year 2000 there was a disruptive technology change, moving from film cameras (i.e., SLRs) to digital cameras (i.e., DSLRs). That technology change created a massive market opportunity because digital cameras offered significant advantages over film. Canon, the long-standing #2 runner in the film camera market, exploited the shift to digital cameras and displaced Nikon as the market leader in 2007.
A similar market shift occurred with mirrorless cameras. Sony, long known as a producer of camera sensors, shot out of practically nowhere to become the second leading manufacturer of digital cameras, displacing Nikon.
The advantages mirrorless cameras have over DSLRs are less significant than the advantages DSLR cameras had over film. Is replacing a moving mirror with a digital range finder really a game changer, or are their other advantages to the mirrorless camera? More importantly, are the perceived advantages unique to the mirrorless camera, or is it just a ploy to get you to buy a shiny new toy?
I content the debate between DSLR and mirrorless cameras is really a distraction when it comes to the selection of a camera for sport photography. The real debate should center on the capabilities of the sensor within the camera and the lenses attached to it.
The sensor is what makes digital photography possible: the importance cannot be overstated. There are two sensor qualities to consider when selecting a sports camera: light sensitivity, and autofocus system.
The sensor’s light sensitivity, referred to as ISO, is of critical importance in sports photography. Sports photography captures fast moving images. High shutter speeds (e.g., faster than 1/1000th sec) are required to capture an image that is not blurred. Very little light hits the sensor at high shutter speeds because the shutter is open for such a short period of time. To make matters more challenging, sports are often played at night or indoors where the amount of light is far less than in daylight. Depending upon the quality of venue light, ISO settings of 6400 to 12,800 are common.
The sensor’s ISO capabilities is expressed as a “normal” range and an “extended” range. It has been my experience that images begin to appear grainy when exceeding 25% of the normal ISO range. I recommend your sports camera have a maximum normal ISO range no lower that 51,200.
· I consider using the extended ISO range as a matter of last resort because of the degraded image quality.
· Never use an on-camera flash to supplement poor when photographing sports. The flash can be distracting to the players.
Auto Focusing System
There are two auto focusing systems found in cameras: phase detection and contrast detection.
Phase detection is the fastest to acquire and focus the image, and is the most common auto focusing system for sports photography. The phase detection works by splitting the light into two images and then focusing the lens until the two images converge as a single image on the sensor. Phase detection is found in most all DSLR cameras and is a component of the focusing system use in some mirrorless cameras.
Most mirrorless cameras, point-and-shoots, and mobile phones use a contrast-detect focusing system. Contrast detection works by analyzing pixels on the camera’s sensor. The sensor tells the camera to keep changing focus until the contrast from one pixel to the next is the highest possible. The subject is in focus when contrast is the greatest.
The contrast detection system provides a sharper focus. However, the system is also slower because camera must push the focus point of the lens back and forth to hone in on the maximum contrast. The back-and-forth actions also consumes more battery power.
More advanced mirrorless cameras employ a hybrid focusing system, using phase detection and contract detection in tandem. The phase detection sensors acquire the initial focus and the contract detection sensors fine tunes the focus.
It is painful to purchase a camera body to photograph sports only to find out later the lenses available from that manufacturer are not well suited to sports.
Lenses are available from the camera manufacturer (i.e., the brand-name) and from third party vendors. A different between a brand-name lens and a third-party lens is level of software integration between the camera’s and the lens’ firmware. Firmware is the proprietary software that enables the hardware to operate. The manufacturers of third-party lenses do not have access to the camera body’s software specifications and have reverse engineered the software integration.
I prefer brand-named lenses because the performance has been optimized and the occasionally compatibility problems can be avoided.
Lenses with the largest aperture are preferred in sports photography. This is especially important when photographing in indoor venues or at night. The largest aperture allows the maximum amount of light to hit the camera’s sensor. These type lenses are often referred to as “fast glass” because more light allows a faster auto focus. An f/stop of f/2.8 is usually preferred, but an f/stop of f/4.0 is a good option.
Make sure your camera manufacturer provides a range of lenses that are suited to sports photography. While you will start with just one lens, it’s important that there is flexibility to grow. Your camera manufacturer should provide three types of lenses, with f/stops of f/2.8 or f/4.0, to accommodate growth.
Standard Wide-Angle Lenses (Focal Length < 100mm)
Standard wide-angle lenses are ideal for candid moments like celebrations, disappointments, and private conversations where you are close to the subject. They can also be used for action play when you are very close to the players like in basketball or volleyball.
I prefer using the 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens for wide angle action shots. The f/2.8 allows twice the amount of light to enter the camera than the 24-70 f/4.0 lens, but it also costs nearly twice the price. If your camera can produce high quality images with a smaller aperture, I suggest using the 24-105mm f/4.0. It gives you a little greater reach when photographing court sports at a lower price.
Telephoto Lenses (Focal Length 100 to 300mm)
The most important lens in the sports photographer’s bag is the 70-200mm zoom. It gives the perspective of a wide-angle lens, when the subject is further away, but also the reach achieved with a longer focal length lens.
My second all-time favorite lens is the 300mm prime. It allows very tight images when the subject is near, and produces excellent quality images when shooting court sports at a distance.
Super Telephoto Lenses (Focal Length >300mm)
The 400mm prime lens is an absolute necessity if you want to shoot open field sports like football, baseball, or soccer. The preferred lens is the 400 mm f/2.8, if you can afford it. This lens produces sharp images with a very fast auto focus response time. The 400mm f/4.0 is a cost saving alternative
Most purchasers of mirrorless cameras probably already own a DSLR camera. Unfortunately, lenses for DSLR and mirrorless cameras are not interchange because of the absence of the mirror. Fortunately, adapters are available for DSLR lenses on mirrorless cameras. As was the case with lenses, I prefer brand-name over and third-party adapters.
The question of which camera is best for sports photography is not a debate over DSLR versus mirrorless cameras. The best camera for sports photography is depended upon the light sensitivity and the autofocus system of the camera, and the availability of suitable lenses for sports.
Sporting events are usually held indoors or at night, requiring ISO settings of 6400 to 12,800. Images may begin to appear grainy when exceeding 25% of the normal ISO range. Cameras with normal ISO ranges up to 51,400 are recommended.
Phase detection is the fastest to acquire and focus the image, and is the most common auto focusing system for sports photography. Phase detection is found in all most all DSLR cameras and is a component of the focusing system use in some mirrorless cameras. More advanced mirrorless cameras employ a hybrid focusing system, using phase detection and contract detection in tandem.
Lenses with the largest aperture are preferred in sports photography. This is especially important when photographing indoor venues or at night. Make sure your camera manufacturer provides a range of lenses that are suited to sports photography. While you will start with just one lens, it’s important that there is flexibility to grow. I recommend that your first sports photography lens be the 70-200mm f/2.8 from the same brand as your camera maker.
About the Author
Andy Nietupski founded TTL Sport Media in 2015 after a corporate career of business start-ups and turn-arounds. TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques. TTL Sports Media publishes thousands of pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items. On behalf of its client interests, TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes 1000’s of social media posts.
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