Lenses for Sports Photography

Last Updated on September 30, 2020 by Susheel Chandradhas

Photographer with large Canon lens and camera by JanneM

Most of you have already seen the lenses that photographers use at sports events. You see them all the time, sitting at the sidelines at every sports event (the photographers with the lenses that is… not the lenses alone), with massive lenses perched atop tripods or monopods in almost any kind of weather…

I’ll be dealing with those lenses and the real reasons why photographers choose, and need, to use these lenses over other – not so big – lenses in 3 sections.


Focal Lengths for Sports Photography

Photograph of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari by elyuyu

Outdoor sports events usually call for telephoto or super-telephoto lenses, more often Super-telephoto than plain telephoto. Super-telephoto lenses are generally lenses with a focal length of more than 300mm.

If you’ve ever tried photographing a soccer event you’ll know why these photographers use these lenses. A moderate telephoto lens of 70mm or 135mm will give you a rather wide view when photographing a player at the other side of the field and almost nothing if you’re photographing from near the opposite goal post.

Additionally, its usually difficult and/or dangerous to get too close to some of the action. Imagine having to sit 10 feet away from a racetrack to get frame-filling pictures of Formula 1 cars with a medium length telephoto lens! Both dangerous and impractical… also, you’d never get permission from the organisers!

600mm and 800mm lenses help magnify the players/drivers so that they fill up the frame and bring all the gritty action right up into the photograph. Also, if you want to capture the speed of the cars you can use a relatively slow shutter speed and pan your camera to blur the background; Impossible if you are too close…

Should I Use Zoom Vs Prime Lenses for Sports?

Sports photographers have to deal with a constantly changing environment. Very often incidents occur so fast that its not possible to change a lens. Zoom lenses are invaluable at these times. Imagine being able to frame a race-car 200 feet away one moment and the next swivel around to take a photograph of a car crash happening 30 feet away and then a portrait of a distressed driver as he walks past you, all without having to change your lens once! Sigma’s 50-500mm f/4-6.3 EX DG HSM Lens could enable you to do just that!

However, do keep in mind that super telephoto lenses are very specialised lenses and their optical design is very complicated. This is why you will find more prime lenses than zoom lenses at this end of the focal length spectrum. Prime lenses offer superior image quality to zoom lenses because they are designed optimally for a particular focal length while zoom lenses strive to offer decent quality at all focal lengths. Many fail in comparison with prime lenses.

Lens Aperture Considerations for Sports Photography

Photograph of a racing car at wide aperture by hirevimaging

Capturing movement means that many times photographers will need shutter speeds that are upwards of 1/1000 sec. Most sports events are held in relatively well lit areas in the day, but at night, even the brightest floodlights are a poor substitute for the sun.

However, even in bright sunlight, it helps to use a large aperture to blur out the audience or scenery in the background and to keep the action alone in focus. This separation of the sports action from a cluttered background is one of the defining features of these lenses.

Also, lenses with larger apertures generally perform better at two levels:

  1. They focus faster and more accurately.
  2. They have a higher level of sharpness at their intermediate apertures.

Large apertures are even more important when it comes to indoor or night photography. Light levels are bound to be lower while the action is still at the same pace. Of course, you can compensate by increasing your ISO settings, but not everyone is willing to pay for the trade-off with higher noise levels. In this situation, larger apertures offer the sports photographer an added advantage of a brighter image in the viewfinder, thus making it easier to get better framing and composition.

Image Stabilisation & Vibration Reduction

Image Stabilisation and Vibration Reduction are Canon’s and Nikon’s terms for their proprietary shake and movement reduction technologies. Many of their lenses are now equipped with these technologies, making it inevitable that we take a look at them. I’ll use the term ‘Shake Reduction’ to refer to these technologies though I prefer the term “Image Stabilisation”.

Shake Reduction technology can mean the difference between a razor sharp and blurred picture at the same shutter speeds or the difference between the ability to hand-hold a lens for a photograph that would otherwise have to be tripod-mounted. Some older lenses of this genre do not perform well on tripods and instead introduce shake where there is none. Others have a panning mode for tripod mounted use and corrects shake only on one axis.

Shake Reduction does not fix all your shake problems; rather, it helps you increase your efficiency. If used well, it can be used to really push the limits of hand-held photography.

Wide-Angle Lenses

Photograph of a skateboarder with wide angle lens by ElectrikCandyland

Wide angle lenses are not practical for most sports applications. However, if you’re photographing a relatively low-impact sport (where damage to the photographer is ‘relatively’ low in a worst case scenario), say skateboarding or roller-blading for instance, you could use these lenses for great effects.

Here are some lens recommendations for Canon & Nikon cameras with links to their specs pages.

Canon Lenses for Sports

Nikon Lenses for Sports

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You can also find out more about lenses for different kinds of photography at The Lens Resource index post.

3 comments Add yours
  1. What happened to the venerable Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8? That should be at the top of the list!

  2. @ Paul: Thank you for your encouraging comment. I appreciate it.

    @ Momentography: You’re right! Thank you for pointing out its exclusion. I’ve added it to the list.

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