Sport Photography: Which lenses should I be considering?

TORONTO, ON – MAR. 3, 2017: Sheridan fans react after Paul Williams drains a basket (in the foreground) and gets the foul.

Sport photography will push the technical limitations of your camera equipment; especially when shooting at night or indoors.

As such, expensive is the first word that should come to mind when considering your lens requirements.

Because your shutter speed needs to be in the realm of at least 1/1000th of a second, you need lenses with the widest apertures to keep your ISO settings at an acceptable level.

When dealing with shorter lenses (under 200mm), the costs of these lenses are manageable. It’s the extreme telephoto zoom lenses that are the problem, with pricing comparable to a home down payment!

Disclaimer

A brief disclaimer:

There are two schools of thought that sport photographers subscribe to.

  1. Purchase zoom lenses, and compromise on aperture – to ensure you never miss the shot.
  2. Purchase prime lenses, and compromise on versatility – to ensure the lowest possible aperture.

Personally, I favour versatility – and this article will be biased as such.

Some additional notes:

  • I am a Canon shooter, but all of the focal ranges that I reference in this article are fairly standard. Even if you can’t find an exact match, you will always be able to find something fairly close.
  • This article assumes some familiarity with photography – it isn’t intended to be a comprehensive article on the functions of a lens.

Recommended Camera Lenses

Sigma 120-300MM f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports Lens - 5

With an unlimited budget, I would consider the following six lenses to be the absolute best for all types of sport photography:

  • 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye Lens
  • 16-35mm f/2.8 Wide-Angle Lens
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 Mid-Range Lens
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 Telephoto Zoom Lens
  • 120-300mm f/2.8 Telephoto Zoom Lens
  • 400mm f/2.8 Super Telephoto Prime Lens

With a much more reasonable budget of $5000 CAD, I would consider the following two lenses to be effective for most sports – especially when paired with a teleconverter:

  • 24-70mm f/2.8 Mid-Range Lens ($1500-2500 CAD)
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 Telephoto Zoom Lens ($1500-2500 CAD)
  • 1.4x Teleconverter ($500 CAD)

15mm f/2.8 Fisheye Lens

$500 – $1000 CAD

Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye

Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye Lens

While fisheye lenses are not the best for general purpose photography, they are incredibly useful for sport photographers.

These will allow you to photograph action effectively in very confined spaces (think locker rooms, hallways, and crowded team celebrations). It can also be used to capture the environment of an arena or stadium.

The shape of the lens distorts the image, due to its curvature – creating an extremely distinct look.

For all intensive purposes, if it is in front of a fisheye lens, it will appear in the camera frame.

Examples

In the examples below, have a close look at the ceilings. You’ll notice the support structures are curved, especially in the corners of each photograph.

This is the fisheye look: a bending of the image to capture an extremely wide field of view!

16-35mm f/2.8 Wide-Angle Lens

$1500 – $3000 CAD

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM Lens

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM Lens

The 16-35mm f/2.8 lens is a standard offering from most camera manufacturers. This ultra-wide zoom lens will produce stunning rectilinear photographs that enable you to capture close-up action!

Rectilinear means that the lens is built in a way that won’t distort your photograph in the same way that a fisheye lens will.

These can come in handy when you’re not looking for the extreme distortion offered by a fisheye lens, but you still need a wide shot and some versatility with a short zoom.

24-70mm f/2.8 Mid-Range Lens

$1500 – $3000 CAD

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens

The 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is another standard offering from most camera manufacturers, known for being a versatile ‘walkaround‘ lens.

For sport photography, this lens will provide you with a fairly wide field of view, but still enable you to punch in a little closer when necessary.

It is an excellent choice for indoor court sports, such as volleyball or basketball. You’re generally close enough to the game for a tightly-framed photograph, but the action can abruptly move toward you at any moment.

70-200mm f/2.8 Telephoto Lens

$1500 – $3000 CAD

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens

Personally, I believe that this is the first lens you should purchase. It is insanely versatile, and can be used to photograph just about any sport.

The 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is one of the most popular telephoto focal ranges offered by most camera manufacturers.

If you’re on a budget, I would strongly recommend pairing this with a 1.4x teleconverter – it will effectively become a 98-280mm f/4 lens. If you go a step further, and attach that pairing to a crop sensor camera body (1.6x crop), you’re looking at a hypothetical 156-448mm f/4 lens!

Teleconverters can be used to increase the apparent focal length of a lens, at the cost of overall sharpness and lens speed. To learn more, click here.

120-300mm f/2.8 Telephoto Lens

$3500 – $4500 CAD

Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM

Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Lens

This telephoto zoom lens will sting your wallet, but it is extremely unique: Sigma is the only manufacturer of the 120-300mm f/2.8 focal length.

If you want this lens, you’ll need to also look at investing in a sturdy monopod. It weighs nearly eight pounds, and can’t be handheld comfortably for extended periods of time.

With that said, this lens is extremely effective for general coverage of just about any sport. Furthermore, if you throw it on a crop sensor camera (1.6x crop), it effectively turns into a 192-480mm f/2.8 – which is incredibly useful!

I prefer this lens over a less versatile prime lens, like the 300mm f/2.8 it is usually compared to.

If you’d like to read my detailed review on this lens, click here.

Examples

400mm f/2.8 Super Telephoto Lens

$13000 – $15000 CAD

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens

The estimated cost of this lens is not a joke.

The 400mm f/2.8 is in the realm of a down payment on a home, but the optic quality afforded by this lens is completely unparalleled. For most sport photographers, this is the dream purchase.

There are far less expensive alternatives, which many photographers will settle on. Nonetheless, I chose to incorporate this into my list of suggestions so that you can work your way down from the highest starting point.

Other options are:

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