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Equipping Yourself for Sports Photography: A Three-tiered Approach

By: Jeff Cable

July 17, 2018

There is nothing more exhilarating than photographing athletes in action and capturing them at the pinnacle of their performance. As a six-time Olympic photographer for Team USA, I have had the luxury of photographing some of the best athletes in the world, in great lighting, with good-looking backgrounds, and with the absolute best Canon equipment. But, trust me, I did not start this way. Like many of you, I started with a less expensive camera (an EOS Rebel) with one of the less expensive lenses, photographing at my kid’s school competitions. And you know what? Those can yield some awesome shots too!

In this article, I am going to give you some advice on equipment, shooting locations, settings and more. And I am going to do so in three categories, starting with the lower cost DSLR and lenses, moving up to moderate priced equipment, and then ending with the big-boy equipment that you see on the sidelines of your favorite professional sporting events.

Soccer player kicking a ball

You may have heard that good photos do not depend on the camera and lens, but the photographer behind the camera. And this is true in many cases. Sure, having the best cameras that can take 14 pictures per second is nice, but you can get some awesome sports photos with a mid-range DSLR kit.

Whenever someone contacts me and asks for recommendations for sports photography gear, I usually answer them with some questions of my own. I will typically ask the following:

  • What sports are they shooting?
  • Are they shooting those sports indoors or outdoors?
  • Are they typically shooting in the daytime or nighttime?
  • How close are they to the action?
  • Ultimately, what are your aspirations? (Just to get nice pictures of your kids? To really develop your sports photography skills? To ultimately become a working professional?)

The answers to these questions helps me determine the level of gear that they will need to be successful.

 

First Level for Getting Started in Sports Photography

If you are taking photos outdoors during the daylight (maybe an afternoon soccer game or a local swim meet), you can use almost any DSLR that has a capture frame rate of at least five pictures per second and less expensive lenses. Cameras like the EOS 80D and EOS 7D Mark II have the ability to capture seven or ten frames per second, respectively, and are perfect for photographing the peak of action at local sporting events. But any camera that can shoot at about 3fps or faster will be a good starting point, as you get into sports photography.

For most sports, when I want to freeze the action, my goal is to shoot at a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th sec. This works well for almost all sports other than bobsled, where they are traveling at crazy fast speeds. Since most daytime outdoor sports provide a lot of ambient light, it is not a necessity to have the biggest and fastest lenses to capture images at fast shutter speeds. You can keep your ISO at a reasonably low setting (maybe around ISO 200 or 400), and achieve those fast shutter speeds with relatively lightweight, moderate-aperture zoom lenses.

One of the most important elements of gearing up for sports photography is your choice of lenses. The size of the playing surface, the distance you’ll be from your subjects, and the light you’ll be shooting in all play a part in making good choices here, along with your budget and so on.

For daytime, outdoor sports where you can get relatively close to the athletes, for example swimming (if you can walk right up to the edge of the pool), you may get by adequately with a standard zoom lens, like an 18–55mm. However, you’ll get more flexibility with a more extended-range zoom, like an EF-S 18–135mm, or perhaps an EF 24–105mm lens if you shoot with a full-frame camera.

A swimmer doing breastroke, in the upward portion of the movement

 

For outdoor sports on larger playing fields, such as soccer, baseball or softball, and football, you need more telephoto power for effective, “tight” shots from the sidelines. Lenses like the EF-S 55–250mm, or the longer EF 70–300 lenses (there are several options in the 70–300mm category) will give you a lot more reach, to fill the frame with athletes. In daytime, their relatively modest f/5.6 maximum lens apertures won’t be a problem, as long as you’re not shooting in deep shade, or late in the day at dusk. On overcast days, expect to use higher ISOs to maintain the fast shutter speeds you need. Don’t be shy about using ISOs like 800 or 1600 if the light isn’t ideal, with these lenses.

Indoors, you need to think about lenses that let more light into the camera. Fortunately, there are some affordable options here. For sports like basketball, if you can position yourself under a basket (usually off to one side, so you’re out of the referee’s way), a lens like an EF 50mm f/1.8 is a wonderful way to suddenly “turn the lights on,” so to speak — it lets much more light into the camera than a standard zoom lens will.

A lens that’s affordable, but provides that elusive combination of added reach and still lets a lot of light into the camera, is the EF 85mm f/1.8. Like the 50mm just mentioned, it’s not a zoom — but especially with cameras using smaller APS-C size image sensors, it’ll give you added telephoto power, for sports like gymnastics, where you can’t get right up to the athletes.

The biggest problem for indoor sports, as you’re getting started in sports shooting, comes when you cannot get close to the action — think of sports like ice hockey, or night sports like football, soccer, or field hockey “under the lights.” (Or even indoor sports, if you are shooting from the stands.) Sometimes, the best answer is to simply crank-up the ISO on your camera to 6400 or even higher, and use a tele zoom lens, like one of the 70–300s mentioned above. Another option — which represents a bit of an investment — is to consider a fixed focal length, wide-aperture lens, but one at a price point that’s within reach of a dedicated amateur photographer. The EF 200mm f/2.8L II is a great example, and it’s a lens that effectively “acts” like a longer 320mm lens if you attach it to an EOS camera with the APS-C size image sensor (like an EOS Rebel, 80D, or 7D-series camera).

 

Second Level: the Serious Sports Photo Enthusiast

Us sports photographers tend to put our cameras through some abuse and for that reason, I highly recommend cameras with metal bodies and shutters designed with added durability, for high-volume sports shooting. For the more experienced sports photographer I would recommend either the EOS 7D Mark II or the EOS 5D Mark IV. The 5D Mark IV for sports? I like using the 5D Mark IV because now that the 5D can fire off at seven frames per second and has the increased resolution of 30.4MP, it has become a solid contender for this type of photography. Both of these cameras also handle high ISO shooting nicely for situations where you are shooting in low light.

For someone getting serious about their sports photography, stepping up to lenses with wider apertures (for low-light work), and sometimes to longer focal lengths, can change the look of your sports pictures. Investing in the right lens(es) can be a key element in raising your sports photography game.

The best choice of lenses to use really depends on which sports you are wanting to shoot and how close you will be to the action. If you are very close to the action, then a wider lens can provide some great shots with the athletes appearing large in the frame. You see this a lot in football, where the photographers will carry a secondary camera with a 16-35mm lens to capture images of the players’ touchdown celebrations, which are often just feet from the photographer on the sidelines.

If you are trying to photograph a sport with a smaller field of action (like basketball or hockey) you can most likely use a moderate zoom lens like the 70-200mm. Investing in a faster, f/2.8 version of the 70–200 really opens up possibilities for indoor sports, or night shooting when you can get close. Canon shooters should keep in mind that there are actually two versions of the EF 70–200mm f/2.8L lenses — the popular “IS” version, with Image Stabilization, and also a less-expensive version without Stabilization (no “IS” in its model name). If either of the 70–200mm f/2.8 zooms are a bit out of range price-wise, another option is the same EF 200mm f/2.8L II lens we mentioned above. It delivers good telephoto power for sports like basketball, gymnastics or indoor swimming, for example, along with a fast f/2.8 aperture, which will make a huge difference in low light.

Gymnast doing a handhold position, using the circles to hold himself at a 90 degree angle

 

A big problem with amateur-level, indoor sports is the level of light. In typical high school gyms, municipal skating rinks, and so on, it can vary from acceptable to downright terrible for photography. Another option if you find yourself confined to really poorly-lit situations, to avoid shooting everything at super-high ISOs, is a fast, fixed focal length lens. Sometimes, even an f/2.8 lens isn’t wide enough to give you the fast shutter speeds you need! A go-to lens here is the EF 135mm f/2.0L lens, which is a full stop faster than any currently-available Canon zoom. It does not have super-telephoto reach, but in sports where you can get a little closer to the action, this is a superb alternative, when zooms simply don’t let enough light into the camera. In fact, if you normally work with a “daytime” lens like a 70–300mm f/4–5.6, the 135mm f/2.0 might be an ideal “next lens” for expanding into good, indoor sports shooting in available light.

Parenthetically, one of the advantages of a camera like an EOS 7D Mark II is that with its smaller APS-C size image sensor, any lens you attach will act like a longer lens, in terms of the angle of coverage you see in the camera’s viewfinder. There’s always a 1.6x effective crop factor, making any lens seem to have more telephoto coverage than its marked focal length would suggest. That 135mm f/2.0, for example, will give you coverage equivalent to what you’d get with a 216mm f/2.0 lens, on a full-frame camera — and it’s a whole lot lighter and less-expensive than Canon’s high-end, EF 200mm f/2.0L IS lens would be!

For sports with a larger field of play (like football and soccer), I choose to use a longer zoom lens to get me closer to the action. As good as the 70–200mm L-series zoom lenses are, you’ll find that for outdoor sports on larger fields, like soccer, football, or baseball, that a 200mm lens simply doesn’t have enough telephoto power for effective, tight shots when you can’t get close to the athletes. You’ll be forced to be patient, and wait for action to come close to you. This is especially true if you shoot with a full-frame camera. Many sports shooters consider a 300mm lens the minimum really needed for effective, outdoor sports pictures in these cases.

Middle school football player running with the ball tucked under left arm

 

The Canon EF 100-400mm lens is one of my favorite sports lenses since it has a great focal range and is not difficult to handhold. It does have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at 400mm, but with the newer DSLR cameras being able to shoot clean at high ISOs I find that this lens works in most outdoor situations. Don’t confuse the 100–400mm lens with the much larger and more expensive 200–400mm f/4 zoom I’ll mention in a moment — the 100–400mm lens is a great hand-holdable choice for daytime, outdoor sports.

And again, as you’re building your lens system for more serious sports shooting, don’t ignore the benefits in cost and weight by considering a fixed focal length alternative. Two immediately come to mind: the EF 300mm f/4L IS, which is a very hand-holdable and versatile lens — and works well with either the Canon EF 1.4x or EF 2x tele exenders. And, there’s the more powerful EF 400mm f/5.6L, which again is lighter than the 100–400mm zoom, and is legendary among sports and wildlife shooters for its fast AF speed.

 

Third Level: the Aspiring Professional Sports Photographer

If you are serious about sports photography, this is where equipment will really begin to make a difference. You’ll want to use the same equipment that full-time, professional sports photographers rely on day in and day out. It begins with your camera, and for Canon users, you will want to try the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, which can burst out an impressive 14 frames per second. This is really helpful to grab that photo at the peak of action when shooting the fast action sports. Not only is the EOS-1D X Mark II able to capture images quickly, but it also can focus faster and offload its buffer faster than most cameras. These are both critical for sports photography, since we rely on the autofocus for most of our photography, and need the buffer clear enough to capture images at any moment. The EOS-1D series cameras are also supremely durable and weather-resistant, so they can be used even in harsh conditions.

An ice skater going for max speed, in a race

 

When it comes to lenses, for outdoor sports, a 400mm lens is pretty much considered the standard lens among pro sports shooters. That’s not to say they don’t rely on other lenses too, when shooting from the sidelines, but the 400mm is probably the first box you want to check when it comes to equipping your system.

My go-to lens for most sports, where I am not close to the action, is the Canon EF 200–400mm f/4L IS Extender 1.4x lens, with the built-in 1.4x teleconverter. This lens is a real game changer for me, as it allows me to effectively shoot anywhere from 200mm to 560mm. Its built-in 1.4x extender means I can just flick a switch on the side of the lens to add a 1.4x extender, or remove it when it’s not needed. Having all this focal range in one lens is just awesome, as it saves me carrying many different large lenses. For closer action, I rely on my Canon EF 70–200mm f/2.8L IS lens, since it is fast focusing and tack sharp.

The other pro-level powerhouse for sports is the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens. Along with the relatively new EF 200–400mm f/4 I just mentioned, this is the standard-bearer for pro sports shooting. With its wide f/2.8 maximum aperture, it’s even better suited for outdoor night sports, and tight, “cover shot” images with indoor sports like gymnastics, hockey, or even basketball. These are big, heavy and expensive lenses — expect to use a good, strong monopod to support the lens when you’re working with either one.

A gymnast doing a flip during her balance beam performance

 

Both of these lenses are a substantial investment, and we realize there are serious sports shooters that aspire to work high-level sporting events who simply can’t afford these tools early in their careers. Another pro-level alternative is the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II, along with tele extenders. The 300mm f/2.8 gives you excellent telephoto power for indoor sports shots, and if you add the Extender EF 1.4x III, you’ve got the equivalent of a 420mm f/4 lens — that’s light enough to hand-hold. This is a major difference if you’re comparing a 400mm f/2.8 or the 200–400mm f/4 options, which really require a monopod for effective shooting for any length of time.

Even 400mm coverage sometimes isn’t enough for truly long-range coverage. Depending on the sports and the venues you shoot in, for effective, tightly-composed shots, you may need to get even closer to the athletes you photograph. Adding an EF 1.4x extender is one way to get even more from a lens like a 400mm f/2.8L IS II, giving you coverage equivalent to a 560mm f/4 lens when it’s attached to a full-frame camera. But for serious sports photographers, there are several longer lenses to consider:

EF 500mm f/4L IS II
The key thing this lens offers is a potent combination of longer telephoto power, an f/4 maximum aperture (fast enough for night shooting, in well-lit outdoor venues like college football stadiums), and most importantly, light weight and portability. You’ll still want to use a monopod most of the time, but this lens is famous among motorsports shooters for its ability to easily follow fast-moving motorcycles and race cars. It’s far easier to maneuver when trying to keep an elusive soccer player or running back in the frame than the heavy 400mm f/2.8 lens would be.

A motocross athlete performing a superman move during a jump

EF 600mm f/4L IS II
The 600mm lens now gets you into “magazine cover” potential, for outdoor sports. This lens is powerful enough to deliver a tightly-composed, full-length vertical shot of an athlete (with a full-frame camera) from over 100 feet (30m) away. For things like coverage of outfielders in pro-level baseball stadiums, along with tight shots of batters and infielders, it’s another step forward in your imaging arsenal. And it separates your images from those of many competing sports photographers on the sidelines at outdoor events, who are often working with 400mm lenses. With an f/4 maximum aperture, again, it’s actually useable in well-lit indoor environments, or well-lit outdoor stadiums at night as well.

EF 800mm f/5.6L IS
Many users look past the 800mm, considering it too specialized for sports photography. In fact, for outdoor sports, this lens can be a potent tool for tight action shots with sports like soccer, shooting football from end-zone positions (where action tends to come more directly at the camera), and so on. I probably wouldn’t suggest it as the first lens an aspiring pro should invest in, but don’t ignore its potential as your career develops.

 

If you shoot a lot of indoor sports at a high level (Division I college sports, professional sports, and so on), you want to be properly-equipped as well. The starting point for indoor sports like basketball, assuming you can shoot from a floor-level position, is the EF 70–200mm f/2.8L. In well-lit venues, this will be effective, as long as you can get sufficiently tight compositions.

The f/2.8 speed is really helpful many times when you shoot indoors, but sometimes, a 70–200mm lens just isn’t powerful enough. If you’re shooting ice hockey or figure skating, for example, you may want more telephoto power. We mentioned the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II and the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II lenses, which give you exactly that. Again, the 300mm may have an advantage, being hand-holdable —it can be a lot easier to follow fast-moving hockey players from an ice-level position, if you’re not shooting through the rink’s glass, because a monopod isn’t a requirement.

Two hockey players

 

An exquisite choice for low-light shooting, when you can get relatively close, is the EF 200mm f/2.0L IS lens. A full stop faster than any of the f/2.8 alternatives, this lens is superb in terms of things like sharpness or focus speed. You can hand-hold it, although it’s a lot heavier than a 70–200 f/2.8 zoom, and for long term shooting, you may want to consider a monopod. An important factor with the 200mm f/2.0 lens is what it offers with tele extenders: with the 1.4x or 2x extenders, it becomes the equivalent of a 280mm f/2.8, or a 400mm f/4 lens, respectively. For some, this means ONE lens that can be their primary tool for both indoor and outdoor, pro-level sports shooting.

Even though most people cannot get extremely close to the athletes during sporting events, at some point you may have that opportunity. For those times, I usually have an EOS-1D X Mark II mounted with the EF 16-35mm wide-angle lens or even the EF 8-15mm fisheye lens. If the action gets very close to me (so close that my 70-200 is too much lens or will not even focus), the wide lenses are perfect, making the athletes even larger than life.

As you can see, there are many choices in equipment for the sports photographer, ranging in capabilities and prices. Your proficiency with the camera and its settings, and the environment you are shooting in, will determine the best equipment for you to use. And, of course, all these cameras and lenses are the tools you will use to create your art, but there is a lot of learning and practice to make sure you are getting the most out of that equipment. The real challenge is to get the right equipment and then push yourself to capture unique and amazing photos. Equipment alone won’t make you a great sports photographer!

Two cowboys wrangling a steer

 

As a photographer who captures thousands of images per week, I am still learning and pushing myself to try new things with the gear to better myself, and my photos. That is what makes photography so much fun!

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.