Sports photography can be as rough and tumble a photography niche as the sports you’re shooting. That’s why you need the best equipment to keep up and get great image quality. As a sports photographer, you’ll have to deal with fast-moving action, variable lighting conditions, and the fans.
To be successful, you’ll want to make sure you have the kinds of lenses that will give you maximum flexibility coupled with high quality images.
Before we get to the specifics of the lenses, let’s talk a little bit about what you want in general from your lens for professional image quality. The features you want your lens to have for sports photography include the following:
- Fast Lenses: You want a fast lens to freeze the action. What does it mean to say fast lens? Basically, that means you want lenses that have a low aperture f-number, such as f/2.8. The lower the number, the wider the aperture, and that allows you to deal with those variable lighting conditions you’re inevitably going to encounter. While fast lenses tend to be more expensive, if you’re serious about getting those memorable sports shots, you’re going to need this kind of lens.
- Fast autofocus: This is an absolute must if you want to capture the action clearly. One of the things you want to look for on Canon lenses is the letters USM. That stands for Ultra Sonic Motor, and it refers to the motor in the lens body. That USM motor will allow the lens to focus faster than the standard lens.
- Focal Length: The focal length depends on how close you can get to your subject, and this will vary depending on the sport your shooting. If you have a crop sensor camera, it will crop out the edges of the frame, which increases the focal length. For example, a camera with a crop factor of 1.6 will give a full frame 300 mm lens a field of view equivalent to a 450 mm lens. That can be a big advantage if you can’t get very close to your subject. Of course, if you’re shooting something like a football game, you’re going to need a longer telephoto zoom lens than if you’re shooting something like a roller hockey event.
Something that can help with this is a teleconverter. A teleconverter is a secondary lens mounted between the camera body and your primary lens. It can effectively double the focal length of your primary lens, so it’s important to make sure you buy a telephoto lens that is compatible with teleconverters just to give yourself that option. You’ll also need a wide angle lens for getting those all inclusive shots of the game, the fans, and the playing field.
- Image Stabilization: Because you’re dealing with fast-moving subjects, and you’re on the move as well, you’re going to want lenses with image stabilization to help prevent camera shake, particularly for low light conditions. That will help keep your photos clearly focused and your image quality high.
- Zoom Choices:As we’ve already discussed, you’ll need a zoom lens, but rather than buying a lens that covers a standard range, it’s better to opt for a longer zoom range like a 70-200 mm. That gives you enough range to capture those dynamic changes in the sport you’re shooting.
With these features in mind, let’s take a look at seven of the best Canon lenses for use in sports photography to get those high image quality shots. We’ll look at both indoor and outdoor sports lenses and what works best in each setting.
Indoor Sports Photography
Indoor sports present some unique challenges not found if you’re shooting outdoors. Lighting conditions can be variable as they can outdoors–although you have to contend more with low light conditions indoors–but artificial light sources like fluorescent lights can cause unique problems. Additionally, there tend to be fewer options with respect to where you can position yourself vis-a-vis the athletes. With these problems in mind, let’s look at how various Canon lenses deal with these challenges to help you achieve great image quality.
How do Canon lenses solve indoor sports photography challenges?
One of the first challenges with shooting indoors is getting enough light into the camera. So, you want a sports lens that will let more light into the camera than the standard zoom lens. The first lens on our list does just that.
1. Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8: This is an affordable choice with a wide aperture to let in much more light that results in great image quality. With an APS-C camera, which has improved light performance, this lens will have an 80 mm effective full frame focal length. The pros who use this lens claim it “turns the lights on!”
While the EF 50 mm is a great sports lens for low light conditions, you might need more reach depending on the indoor sport you’re shooting. The next camera on our list gives you that desirable combination of added reach and lots of light.
2. Canon EF 85mm f/1.8: This is another affordable lens that offers some great features for indoor sports photography. It’s considered a medium telephoto lens, but with a maximum aperture of f/1.8, it lets in lots of light. And, if you’re using a camera with a smaller APS-C size image sensor, you’ll get additional telephoto power. It also has a ring-type USM that will bring your subject quickly into focus. This lens is great for those sports, like gymnastics, where you can’t get very close to the athletes.
Another big problem for indoor sports photographers is those sports where you can’t get very close to the action–sports like ice hockey or soccer, for example. If you’re a serious sports photographer, you’re going to need a sports lens that can get you in close and let in enough light to capture crisp, clear images. These next two lenses allow you to do just that.
3. Canon EF 200mm f/2.0L IS lens: This telephoto zoom lens is for the serious professional sports photographer, and it involves a considerable investment. But, it delivers high image quality if you’re shooting in low light conditions. It offers a full stop faster than the f/2.8 alternatives, it has a USM focus as well as fluorite and UD lens elements that help with chromatic aberration correction.
It’s heavier than a 70 – 200 mm f/2.8 lens, but you can still hold it in your hands. It also gives you the equivalent zoom range of a 280 mm f/2.8 lens with a 1.4x extender. With a 2x extender, you get the equivalent of a 400 mm f/4 lens. That means that for some photographers, this will give you one lens that can be used both for indoor and outdoor professional quality sports shooting.
This last lens recommended for indoor photography gives you great image quality as well as the reach you need to get in close.
4. Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L: This lens is more comfortably priced than the EF 200 mm, and it allows you to capture high quality images. It is considered one of the bet telephoto zoom lenses in Canon’s EF line. It has four UD glass elements to correct chromatic aberrations, it’s f/2.8 aperture lets in lots of light, and it has a USM focus that produces sharp, high-quality images. It’s also compatible with 1.4x and 2x extenders for added reach.
Now that we’ve discussed some great indoor sports photography lenses, let’s look at some of the best outdoor sports photography lenses.
Outdoor Sports Photography
Outdoor sports photography presents different challenges than the indoor arena. You do sometimes have variable light conditions, but the bigger challenge is getting in close enough to the action and freezing the action. So, for outdoor sports, the features that are most helpful in a lens are zoom lenses and fast speeds. Let’s look at a few options.
5. Canon EF-S 55-250 mm: This is an affordable telephoto zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/4, which usually works fine in outdoor settings. If you’re shooting in deep shade or on overcast days, you can simply use higher ISOs to maintain faster shutter speeds. Even ISOs as high as 800 or 1600 work fine with this lens if the light isn’t ideal.
If you want to take your sports photography to a more professional level, this next lens is considered standard for the pros.
6. Canon EF 200–400mm f/4L IS Extender 1.4x lens, with the built-in 1.4x teleconverter: This is the high end lens for sports photography professionals. It will definitely put a dent in your budget, but if you want to go pro as a sports photographer, this is the go to lens. If offers image stabilization and USM focus for sharp images, and the 1.4x extender converts the focal range and maximum aperture to 280-560 mm and f/5.6. It also has one fluorite and four Ultra-low Dispersion optical elements to correct for chromatic aberrations. This will get you in close to the action and produce sharp, clear images.
Another problem faced by outdoor sports photographers is low light conditions when shooting at night. This next lens offers a wide aperture combined with high quality images.
7. Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens: This is another high end lens for sports photography that will dent your budget, though not as much as the EF 200-400 mm above. It offers image stabilization, a USM focus, and weather-sealed construction. With its f/2.8 aperture, it’s ideal for low light conditions encountered when shooting at night. It can also be used in some indoor venues. It also has two fluorite elements to reduce color fringing and chromatic aberrations. If you’re serious about sports photography, this is a great lens that offers more flexibility for a variety of shooting venues.
One thing to consider with both the EF 200-400 mm lens and the EF 400 mm f/2.8 is that they are heavy lenses and you will want a good, strong monopod to support them.
These lenses are great high quality Canon lenses for every level of sports photography. If you’re a sports enthusiast who just wants great shots, we’ve discussed a few less expensive options that might be right for you. Likewise, if you’re a professional sports photographer or someone who aspires to go pro, we’ve discussed some higher end lenses that you’ll want to consider.
All of these lenses offer the features required for indoor and outdoor sports photographers to get great image quality for all of their photos. They’ll let you get close to the action and capture those compelling, thrilling sports images.
Frequently Asked Questions
Natural light can be great for sports photography. It can create stunning images, but its variability means that you’ll have to assess your lighting situation for every shot. You’ll have to decide what part of your subject matter is most important and make the appropriate adjustments for the proper exposure.
There will certainly be a need to get in as close as you can to the action, and that requires some level of zoom. But, there are also those situations where you might prefer a wide angle lens for getting the bigger picture. That’s one reason you could need multiple sports lenses.
Image stabilization and USM autofocus features will help create crisp, clear images that are zoomed. You might also consider using a prime lens instead of a zoom lens, which can improve image quality. If you go with the prime lens, extenders and teleconverters can extend your reach.
This really depends on the sport you’re shooting, and how close you can get to your subject. For sports where you can’t get that close, like baseball, football, and soccer, you’ll likely need at least a 300 mm lens.
Most professional sports photographers use shutter speeds in the neighbourhood of 1/1000th of a second to stop the action. That can require you to adjust some of the other settings if you’re shooting in low light conditions.