Choosing lenses for sports photography: The Basics By Zamani Feelings

Lens choice is generally considered slightly above our choice in camera body. Image quality is highly dependent on it and sports photography heightens the importance of choosing the right glass. A quality lens with good care will generally outlive our camera shelf life, providing us with many years more of service. Novice sports photographers are often perplexed about choosing the right lens and even more so today when there are a multitude of options and multiple companies creating lenses for the same brand of cameras. For sports photography there are generally three categories of lenses that we utilize. Short range zooms like the 24-70mm. Medium range zooms like the 70-200mm, 75-300mm. Primes lenses like the 85mm, 135mm lenses. Telephoto primes lenses like the 300mm and 400mm lens. Telephoto zooms like the 120-300mm and the 200mm to 400mm and wide angle lenses like the 24-70mm.

Focal Lengths

Photographing sports requires that a great majority of your shooting with have you focused on trying to fill the frame with your subject as much as possible. There are times when you will photograph subject wide and that is important but most of your time will be capturing subjects that won’t be as close to you and that you cannon direct in your favor. So having a good understanding of the sport you are covering, what your general proximity will be to the subject and then making an assessment of how capable that lens will be of achieving those things is most important. For field sports like football, the ideal is to have at least 300mm of focal length between your lens millimeter and also the crop ratio in your camera. Even more ideal for field sports is between 400mm and 500mm. This could be accomplished by purchasing a very expensive prime lens or it could be from putting a 75-300mm lens on a 1.5 crop sensor camera. Despite some of the potential limitations this will still get you in the range that you need to be able to capture the action at a distance close enough to make a usable frame with cropping if needed. If you are covering basketball or indoor gymnastics, then your range can be much more limited because those sports don’t require really long millimeter lenses for general coverage. For basketball I generally use lenses from the 24mm to 200mm range and occasionally a 300mm lens for action at the other side of the court. So the first consideration in purchasing a lens for sports should be if this lens and camera combination will allow me to get close enough (or far away enough) from the action with regularity, even if/when my mobility is limited.

Image Quality

While lens image quality can be somewhat subjective, there are some general quality observations that can be made about certain lenses and there is a universal sort of standard for judging them. Sharpness around the frame, color rendition, pleasing contrast etc. are all things that factor into how our final images will render when using certain lenses. Certain lenses will just be natural sharper, adjust better to challenging light conditions and render an overall more pleasing image in the same scenario with the same settings and camera body. The natural assumption is often that the more expensive glass is the more optimal glass but this is not always factual. There are a number of lenses that are able to hold their own in terms of image quality despite having a much lower price tag than the traditionally top of the line lenses in the company lineup. Doing your homework on certain lenses in terms of reading multiple reviews, asking other sports photographers about their experiences and (of course) testing them in the actual fields to compare is the best way to go.

Low Light capability

Sports photographers (when money is no object) will almost always opt for the faster glass, which in most scenarios means lenses that will offer a 2.8 stop. This is partially due to the need to photograph sports in low light conditions often and also because of the subject isolation that comes from shooting with the shallow depth of field and blurred backgrounds that those apertures can provide. While those may be the lenses of choice for most there are a host of lenses that are f4 and higher that can still be used skillfully to capture pleasing images. The area that those f5.6 lenses become a major challenge is in low light shooting situations. So taking an honest assessment of the types of lighting conditions you will normally be shooting in and the ability of your camera to perform well at the ISO’s those lenses will require is crucial in making your choices.

Focus Acquisition and tracking ability

As sports photographers we are often more demanding with regards to what we need and expect from our camera lenses. In addition to focal length, image quality and speed (f-stops) we also need lenses that will acquire focus quickly and maintain that focus on fast moving subjects. Many times we might assume that a lens that is highly rated in terms of image quality will also be one that is equally as competent in tracking action and that isn't always the case. So the latest and greatest lens with the highest rating on DXO-Mark may be as awesome as they say it is but they don't generally test their ability to track action before making conclusions about their usability for photographers. So you have to be careful about reading/watching reviews of lenses by photographers who use certain lenses only for portraits, landscapes and still life who find them to be great performers but have never tested their focus speed and tracking ability.

Unless it is a sports oriented lens, most reviewers won't test the focus, acquisition and tracking speed of the lens and if they do it is almost never on a really fast moving subject.

There are a few lenses that I use for my portrait and wedding businesses that I can't live without but that are often not the best choices for tracking action. In fact my go to lens for portraits is the Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens which out performs my much cheaper 85mm 1.8 Canon in every way except for action shooting in which the Canon 85mm is much faster. When you are considering purchasing a particular lens, I actually would recommend seeking out the advice of experienced sports photographer community to get their input (in addition to the other information that is available online) because we have a different criteria for what makes a lens useful than the majority of the buying public and many of us have put the majority of these lenses under scrutiny on the fields and in the gyms.


There are lenses that are designated for sports photography and those lenses are generally relatively expensive. There are many lenses that remain outside of our grasp due soley to the costs. Today there are so many options that didn’t exist in earlier times. As digital sports photography has had well over a decade of development many of the older lenses have come down in price and some are reaching affordability for some. Serviceability aside, many people can now own a 300mm 2.8 lens for under $2000 dollars which was unheard of 10 years ago. The option of renting camera lenses is also a fairly new reality that has also become less expensive as the demand for photography gear has increased.

Use what you have

One of the most unfortunate things I have seen is people essentially frustrated by what they perceive as their lack of quality lenses (and gear in general) that they sit on their hands, assuming that they can’t make quality photographs with what they own. In that time they cheat themselves out of not only some potentially great captures but also the learning and development process that takes place from being out there and actually trying and when they do get access to the equipment they want they are still behind in their overall skillset. If all you have access to is a 55-250 then go out and challenge yourself to capture the best of what you can with that lens. I guarantee you it will make you a better photographer in the long run and you will appreciate the challenges that experience brought to you.

Happy Shooting..


Zamani Feelings Photography

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