The Addiction of Sports Photography: Your Go-To Lenses
Conventional photography wisdom says invest in lenses. But what lenses are best suited for sports photography? The possibilities seen endless. Canon, for example, the leading provider of digital camera equipment, offers greater than 80 lenses. They all seem wonderful, but also very pricy.
Thankfully, you’ll find that your life will be complete with two or three lenses, if you select wisely. This chapter call-outs the lenses best suited for sports and ways to save money.
Lenses don’t change that much. A particular lens model seems to upgrade about every ten years, while camera bodies tend to upgrade about every four to five years. You may consider upgrading your body if your skill as a photographer has progressed, or if your body is greater than two version upgrades old. Upgrading your camera body is especially relevant with the advances in light sensitivity of camera sensors.
The lens you need depends upon the sports you intend to photograph and the shooting locations you have access to. You’ll find using two, and sometimes three, lenses provide the greatest versatility.
The pace of play for most sports is faster that your ability to change lenses and still catch the shot. This is acceptable for the beginner, and sometimes intermediate, sport photographer where missing a shot is not the end of the world. But there will come a time that you should consider using multiple camera bodies, especially if missing an important shot will cause you distress.
As a general rule, we prefer lenses with the largest aperture. This gives you the greatest flexibility in light management for indoor and outdoor venues, and daytime and nighttime events. This also provides a shallow depth of field (i.e., blurred background), which comes in handy when you can’t control the looks of the background.
Usually an f/stop of f/2.8 is preferred. However, given the improvements in sensor light sensitivity, f/4.0 are very viable. Higher f/stops easily accommodate outdoor sports in the daylight, but are not practical for indoor or nighttime competitions.
Standard Wide-Angle Lenses (Focal Length < 100mm)
Standard wide-angle lenses aren’t given enough consideration in sports photography. Beginning photographers like to zoom-in for the tight action shots, but these shots lack context (i.e., what’s going on around the action). I find wide-angle shots are more compelling and tell a more complete story, but are harder to take because you have no control over the composition.
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 lens for wide angle 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 is capable of producing 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. 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. It allows very tight images when the subject is near, and produces excellent quality images when shooting court sports at a distance. The 300mm f/2.8 can also be used for open field sports like baseball, football and soccer when used with a 1.4x extender to create a 420mm f/4.0 lens. More on extenders later.
The 300mm lens is prime lens, meaning it has a fixed focal length. Prime lenses produce a significantly sharper image because they have fewer lens elements than zoom lenses. Zoom lenses need a higher number of lens elements to support the zoom function, which also increases the diffraction and produces a slightly lower quality image.
And like the wide-angle zoom lenses, the telephoto lenses are available as an f/2.8, and as the less expensive f/4.0. An important consideration with the f/4.0 lenses is not only the aperture the size, but also the number and type of supported focus points. Generally, f/4.0 lenses support a lower number of less capable focus points that affect the quality and speed of focus. This concept is discussed in much greater detail in the chapter entitle “The Limit of Lenses.” The f/4.0 lenses are an acceptable alternative if your camera has a high light sensitivity (i.e., high ISO range).
Super Telephoto Lenses (Focal Length >300mm)
The sports photography bug has really bitten if you are seriously considering a super telephoto lens. These lenses are so large and heavy that they require a one-legged stand called a monopod to support them. This category of lenses is truly the “Big Glass”.
If you want to shoot open field sports like football, baseball or soccer you absolutely need a 400mm focal length. The preferred lens is the 400 mm f/2.8, if you can afford it. This prime lens gives you sharp images with a very fast auto focus response time. The 400mm f/4.0 is a cost saving alternative, but it suffers from the aperture and focus point limitations discussed above.
There is a super telephoto zoom lens, the 200-400m f/4.0. The lens has a built-in 1.4x extender that converts it to a 280-560mm f/5.6 with the flip of a lever. The lens provides massive magnification, but it is very large and suffers the limitations of all f/4.0 lenses.
Don’t give up on shooting open field sports if you can’t afford a 400mm lens. You’ll just need to limit yourself to subjects near the sidelines, or consider extenders.
Extenders, sometimes called teleconverters, are secondary lenses mounted between a camera and the primary lens that magnifies the image of the primary lens. A 1.4X extender increases the magnification by 40% and a 2X extender doubles it. Extenders are a less expensive way of increasing magnification, but there are drawbacks.
First, a 1.4X or 2X extender will lose one or two f/stops in aperture, respectively. The decrease in aperture may be acceptable, depending upon what you shoot, where you shoot, and the ISO sensitivity of your camera body. An f/stop of 4.0 is acceptable for low light venues (i.e., at night or indoors); however, an f/stop of 5.6 will only work for daytime events.
Second, the 1.4X extender reduces the autofocus speed by 50%, and a 2X extender by 75% because of a decrease of the number of usable focus points, as well as the quality of those focus points. Third, image stabilization may not work on lenses equipped with an extender, or on certain camera bodies. And finally, not all lenses are compatible with extenders.
No discussion of lenses would be complete with mentioning third-party lenses. Use of third-party lenses can, but not always, be another way to reduce the cost of lenses. Some third-party lenses are more expensive.
A wide variety of compatible third-party lenses are manufactured by Sigma, Tamron, Zeiss and others. In some cases, I am told, that these lenses are made in the same factories as the brand-name lenses.
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 specifications and have reverse engineered the software integration. The use of these third-party lenses is not supported by the camera manufacturer.
Sometimes compatibility problems arise. For example, a colleague and long-time hockey photographer had been using a Canon 7D body and a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. He upgraded to a Canon 7D Mark II and found the auto focus on Sigma lens didn’t work because of compatibility issues. He resorted to buying a new Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II, which cost as much as the camera.
Personally, I prefer brand-named lenses because their performance has been optimized. Great shots on the playing field don’t happen often, and I don’t want to lose the image because of a lag in the auto focus. But for cost reasons these third-party vendors might be your best choice.
Lenses for Cropped Sensors
A theoretical way to reduce the cost is it to use lenses specially designed for camera bodies with cropped sensors. Cameras with cropped sensors were discussed in an earlier chapter. In practice, however, I’ve not often seen this often done.
Before DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras there were SLR (single lens reflex) cameras that used 35mm film. The digital equivalent to 35mm film is a full frame sensor. Some camera bodies use a sensor size smaller than full frame to reduce cost. Those reduced sized sensors are call cropped sensors.
There are lenses specifically designed for cropped sensor cameras. The cropped lens projects a smaller image, just large enough to cover the cropped sensor. Cropped lenses are smaller and lighter, and are less expensive.
In practice, however, most photographers like using standard lenses with cropped sensors because it gives the appearance of a larger image, when compared to full frame sensors.
There are several limitations to the use of cropped lenses. First, not all cropped lenses are interchangeable with cameras with full frame sensors, as is the case with Canon.
Second, when lens mounts are interchangeable, a cropped lens will project an image only on a portion of the full frame sensor, leaving the outer portion of the image appearing black. This is an issue for Nikor lenses and Nikon cameras.
And finally, cropped lenses generally aren’t suited to sports photography because of their limited f/stops and focal lengths.
There is a lot to consider when selecting lenses for sports photography. Most of us are cost sensitive and we want the greatest value on our purchase. You also want confidence that the lens you purchase is the best for the task.
First, the type of sports you will be photographing influences the focal length of the lens. Wide-angle and telephoto lenses work well for court sports like basketball and volleyball. Telephoto and super telephone lenses work nicely for open field sports like football and baseball.
Next, the lighting conditions influences the maximum f/stop of the lens. Shooting at indoors or at night under the lights requires an f/4.0 or lower. Nearly any f/stop lens can be used to photograph sports in daylight.
And finally, understand the limitations when pursuing cost saving alternatives with higher f/stop lenses. The camera sensor is optimized for lenses with a maximum f/stop of 2.8. Using f/4.0 lens, with or without extenders, saves money, but gives up the speed and crispness of auto-focus. This topic is discussed in great detail in the chapter entitle “Limits of Lenses.”
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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