Which Canon camera for Sports Photography? by Zamani Feelings

Which Canon camera should I buy for sports photography?

In the top five questions I am asked by photographers who are looking to invest in a new camera body for sports photography, close to the top of that list is “which camera should I purchase for sports photography? As a new sports photographer I was in that same position just a few short years ago and I understand the pressure of those choices amongst the dozens of possibilities that exist and even more now in 2018. Since 2013, I have rented and experimented and shot sports with a wide variety of Canon cameras as well as others brands. Even today I have given some of the cameras that are considered "non sports cameras" a run just for the experience and also for the benefit of giving advice to others I may encounter about those cameras.

I don’t intend to discuss do any detailed analysis of each camera as their are literally hundreds of reviews, articles and videos available online to give you that information. This is also an OPINION based piece that I am writing and is not to be taken as gospel but as the perspective of someone who having used all of these cameras for short or long periods of time has formulated an idea of which cameras offer the best outcomes for my sports photography needs.

Note: I am not opposed to other camera companies or brands. I chose Canon for my sports photography needs mainly because I was already invested in Canon cameras as a portrait and event photographer. Switching systems wasn’t economical of convenient for me at the time. If anyone is interested in passing on a D5 and a 400mm 2.8, I would gladly take it and put it to good use :)

Before I begin......Just a note on frames per second and it’s importance.

Before I speak about the cameras, I want to talk about frames per second. It is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) distinguishing feature of a sports photography camera in the modern age. The ability to capture simultaneous focused images from an action sequence. It is why the sports dedicated cameras are sought after but also generates a bit of controversy in sports photography circles. The debate generally centers around the issue of “timing” shots and anticipating action as opposed to shooting continuously and choosing the ideal frame. Continuous shooting is often mistakenly confused with the approach of simply pressing and holding down the shutter at every moment without being strategic or having any sense of what is an appropriate time to capture and when it would be better to wait. This often gets labeled as “spraying and praying”. There is a time for timing and even capturing individual frames but there is also a time for continuous shooting and I would say that generally for sports where the subjects behavior, direction and subjects around are unpredictable the intelligent continuous shooting method is what dominates for most sports shooters.

The photo above was one of 15 shots of a long run by this Temple running back running for a touchdown. This shot was the one that contained the best facial expression, intensity and body movement. This is where frames per second helps because you cant really anticipate which one of these shots will be the ideal capture because its out of your control because you have no idea of what he will do with his face or body. Timing is important but in some situations you want to capture as much of the action as it happens (especially since the average football play lasts only 6 seconds) and then your creative eye determines which one or more of the frames is the ideal one. This is deliberate and thoughtful use of multiple frames per second that is much different from a spray and pray approach where you are just firing off randomly and hoping to capture something good. It doesn't mean frames per second wouldn't get you this shot but the likelihood is HIGHER when you have them. Certainly there were outstanding photos taken in times where cameras had no burst modes but those same photographers will also admit that there were alot of photographs that they also missed because of those limitations. People were able to travel long distances in horse and carriages in the past, now we have automobiles.

In this photo the Steelers tight end leaps over two defenders in the midst of a run. This was part of a 10 frame sequence that started when he caught the pass. There is no way to "anticipate" when he caught the ball that he would decide to jump over the defenders instead of simply being tackled. Tracking him from the time he got the ball until he was tackled was the smarter approach.

There was no way to anticipate or time the fact that this quarterback was suddenly going to dive for the end zone. The best way to get this capture was to track him for the length of his short run which surprisingly ended with a dive.

Here is a clip from Scott Kelby on the importance of higher frame rates.

Here is an example of how I use the my frames per second to cover a running play in football.

Ok, now on to my suggestions for the best sports cameras.

The Canon 1DX and Canon 1D Mark II

Where Canon cameras and sports photography is concerned, the 1DX series (Mark 1 and Mark 2) are the cream of the crop. Essentially Canon took the best of what was offered in their 5D series of cameras and merged it with their 1D series of sports cameras and turned the 1DX’s into sports photography powerhouses. The focusing systems are the most advanced in any Canon cameras, the tracking ability, the weather sealing the frames per second, ISO sensitivity and the buffers are all the most advanced in the Canon lineup. For a beginner who has the budget for purchasing a sports dedicated camera, the 1DX series would be the best choice possible for a Canon shooter. For beginners who have the funds, I recommend to them purchasing the original 1DX camera instead of the 1DX Mark 2 only because of the price of the latter. While the 1DX Mark 2 is superior in autofocus performance, ISO sensitivity buffer depth, megapixels and frames per second, I still find the original 1DX to be more than adequate for any beginner. Given that even a used 1DX Mark 2 will cost you around $4,500 dollars and a used original 1DX about 2,500 dollars, I usually recommend the latter and putting money towards a lens if necessary. If money is absolutely no object, then definitely spring for the 1DX Mark 2. These are the creme of the crop of sports photography cameras for the Canon mount. Again if budget isn’t an issue, this is where I would start.

Canon 1DX, 400mm 2.8 lens


If the 1DX cameras are out of your price range then my second recommendation is always a tough one but generally I recommend one of the latest Canon 5D cameras as a second recommendation for a sports photography camera. That’s is often in conflict with what would be my normal second choice which is the Canon 1D Mark IV. For anyone who will be primarily shooting in good to moderately good lighting the 1D Mark IV is what I would suggest. Despite it’s relative age, I still find it to be the best sports dedicated camera for the price, however since most novice sports shooters will be covering sports in relatively challenging situations where lighting is concerned, I usually recommend the 5D series.

Canon 5D Mark 3 and 4

Canon 5D Mark 3 and 5D Mark 4

The specific Canon 5D series cameras I would suggest are the Canon 5D Mark 3 and the Canon 5D Mark 4. Those cameras offer the great advantages of the full frame sensor image quality and really good low light performance as well as good action tracking systems. They are not the equals to the 1DX cameras (despite the advertising) but they are quite capable. Where they fall behind the dedicated sports photography cameras like the 1DX and even the 1D Mark 4 are in the area of buffer/processing power (especially for raw shooters), frames per second and overall build quality. The build quality and sealing aren’t as much of a concern for me with these cameras as the former mentioned items. The 5D Mark 3 shoots 5fps and the Mark IV 7FPS. If shooting in Raw on the 5D3 you will be able to shoot 18 Raw files before the camera freezes and 61 jpegs on average. The 5D Mark 4 averages 21 Raw and an option of nearly unlimited jpeg shooting. “Timing” is often used as a reasoning for the lack of need for higher frame rates and timing is certainly one aspect of sports photography, however there is a time that necessitates shooting a consistent succession of frames of a subject and no amount of anticipation will assist you in capturing all of those moments. With that said, sports is as much chance as it it strategy, so certainly anyone shooting 5-6 frames per sec will not be handicapped in capturing certain images, there will just be frames that are missed which may or may not be important ones. The 5D series offers you beautiful files and ones that can meet the challenge of low light situations if you are shooting with relatively fast glass. So for anyone who will be shooting sports in lower light situations consistently, the Canon 5D Mark 3 and Mark 4 are the cameras I would recommend. One advantage for sports shooters that the 5D Mark 4 has over the 1DX is the 30 megapixel sensor. It will allow you to crop the photos and still save a bit more resolution than you are able to in the 1DX's 18mp image or the 1DX 2's 20 megapixel image.

Currently the 5D3 is selling used for under $2,000 dollars. The Canon 6D Mark and 6D Mark II is sort of the little sibling of the Canon 5D series. It offers a similar image quality and high ISO ability to the 5D series but without the same tracking ability and buffer capability.

Canon 5D3 (Top two photos) Canon 5D 4 (photo above)

5D3 Frame rate and buffer test.

Just to give you an idea of what the frame rate and buffer capacity is of the 5D series

Canon 1D Mark IV

Canon 1D Mark IV

The Canon 1D Mark 4 is right below the 5D series for sports in my opinion and in good light, I would choose this one over any of the 5D cameras. The 1D Mark IV is an awesome camera that can hold it’s own with the aforementioned cameras but only suffers a bit in one area and that is in the higher ISO’s. I have shot with it comfortably at 8,000 to 10,000 ISO but after that the image quality begins to deteriorate without the need for some serious post processing. As a sports camera in good lighting it will offer as good or possibly better focusing than the 5D series and also offers more frames per second (10fps) and a better buffer for raw files than the 5D Mark 3. It is also a 1.3 crop sensor camera so it gives you the advantage of the crop sensor as well. It can also be purchased under $1,000 dollars online. I still use it frequently for football despite owning two of the 1DX cameras. If you think that you will be shooting in conditions that won’t demand more than 8-10,000 ISO, it will definitely deliver as your dedicated sports camera. I still own two of them and use them almost as frequently as my 1DX cameras.

To read more on why I recommend it click the link below

Canon 1D Mark IV, 400mm 2.8 lens
Canon 1D Mark IV, 400mm 2.8 lens

The photo above was taken at a high school football game with the Canon 1D Mark IV at 10,000 ISO !!

Canon 7D

Canon 7D

My final suggestion is the 7D series of cameras. I have to say that I have only had experience with the original 7D camera and not the 7D Mark 2. So any opinions on the 7D Mark 2 would be solely based on speculation and feedback from reviewers I have read and personal accounts from other photographers. The 7D is a consumer sports oriented dedicated camera and offers many of the features of the higher end sports cameras at a much lower cost. The focusing system seems to be close to the same as the latter 5D models but not on par with the 1DX series. My experience with the original 7D was that it was an adequate sports camera but I wasn’t pleased with the image quality and focusing ability. It is widely understood that the camera is limited at certain higher iso levels making it (in some situations) fairly unusable in certain lighting conditions. I advise anyone using it to be particularly careful about tuning the micro focus adjustment with their respective lenses. Currently I have seen the original 7D priced at around $800 dollars or lower.

Canon 7D, 300mm 2.8 lens.

Thanks for visiting and reading


By Zamani Feelings at www.Zamanifeelings.net

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