The Basic Gear for Sports Photography

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Even as COVID changes the rules of everything related to sports, including sports photography, there is still one basic truth in photographing sports—access is everything. If you are not near the action, you will not get a photograph. Does this mean you need a sideline pass at the Super Bowl or a family member in the NBA “bubble?” No. Those are good to have, and media credentials for a Super Bowl is a professional feather in your cap, but “access” can be found in many places and many ways. A good sports photo does not even have to be on-field action, so do not let a lack of access intimidate you, but understand that to join the upper echelons of sports photographers, you will have to earn or otherwise acquire access to the events you want to cover.

New York City Marathon, 2011
New York City Marathon, 2011
Marcela ‘La Tigresa’ Acuna knocks down Jackie Nava en route to winning the WBC World Super Bantamweight championship. April, 2009
Marcela ‘La Tigresa’ Acuna knocks down Jackie Nava en route to...
The “12th Player,” soccer fans in Buenos Aires, 2003
The “12th Player,” soccer fans in Buenos Aires, 2003

Regarding “events you want to cover”—while one day you may photograph Wimbledon or the Kentucky Derby, photographing the sports you know and love is the best way to start your engagement with the craft. These do not have to be the major spectator sports. Mountain biking, table tennis, rock climbing, sailing, frisbee—all can provide the dynamic action and beautiful backdrops for a great sports photograph, and if they are activities in which you participate, then enjoy your time, take many pictures, edit well, and look for a corresponding publication to submit your work.

Photographs © John Harris 2020

If you are interested in the major sports of our day and cannot just saunter into a professional stadium, then look for smaller-scale venues to hone your craft. Minor league baseball, high school football, summer league basketball, and even cricket in the neighborhood park, can give you an opportunity to practice. You may not get press credentials to big games, but think about pre-game warm-ups, training camps, or even a celebration photo after a game has ended. Also, look for opportunities to create a unique image of a high-profile athlete off the field. A sports photo to start your career could be a personal moment between legends at a golf event or a great smile courtside. Also, do try to get credentials for regional events and tournaments that might be off the radar of the major news cycles. Never fib, but point out any past experience you have or perhaps mention that you want to tie the photos to an article or get the pictures posted on a site related to that sport. The opportunities exist.

Hot Dog Vendor, Yankee Stadium, 2004
Hot Dog Vendor, Yankee Stadium, 2004
New York City Marathon, 2005
New York City Marathon, 2005
Final Game at Shea Stadium, September 2008
Final Game at Shea Stadium, September 2008

Also, study the work of others and note the difference between the images in the daily news outlets and those of online features and weekly or specialty magazines. Remember, sports photos in the daily news need to tell the story of the most recent game and are often quickly composed or not even an interesting shot, but they illustrate the story of the previous game. There are even sports publications that are devoted to the photo essay and to portraiture, for example, Victory Journal, which publishes online and a twice-annual large format print version. Regardless of where and how you would like to have your images published, to be an all-around sports photographer, ready for any job that might come your way, there is a standard set of cameras and lenses with which you will need to be comfortable. And remember that renting lenses and cameras that you can’t yet afford is a very common practice.

Cameras

Of course, one can use almost any camera to photograph a sports moment, but to capture high-speed action and withstand the rigors of open-air elements and the day-to-day tumble of sports and action photography, we recommend buying a professional DSLR or mirrorless camera. These cameras have the best assortment of lenses available, specifically, fast zooms and long telephoto lenses. While mirrorless cameras like the Sony Alpha a9 II Mirrorless Digital Camera and the more recent offerings from Canon and Nikon are becoming a part of the sports photography landscape, the high-end DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, and Pentax are still the preferred choice of the professionals. For example, the Nikon D6 DSLR and the Canon 1DX Mark III are the flagship DSLRs from their respective brands and bring with them features for fast capture, including state-of-the-art autofocus systems, fast continuous shooting, high ISO capability, and connectivity systems to deliver images immediately. They are very able video cameras, as well, with a robust build and weather proofing. Also, take a look at the Pentax K-1 Mark II DSLR. While not as fast as the Nikon and Canon flagships, it is significantly more affordable and one of the “toughest” full-frame DSLRs available.

Sony Alpha a9 II Mirrorless Digital Camera
Sony Alpha a9 II Mirrorless Digital Camera

It’s important to re-emphasize that while the high-end cameras, when used to the best of their abilities, can expand and improve your work, there is no need to start with those and they are not the only choice of professionals. Incredible sports photography is made with everything from smart phones to medium format systems. However, the fundamental criteria for general sports photography still apply—a camera that can focus fast, one with rapid continuous shooting and is supported by a variety of lenses. The Olympus OM-D E-M1X Mirrorless Digital Camera is such a camera, in the Micro Four Thirds format. Despite its smaller sensor size, it provides features to match the best DSLRs, including strong processor specs and an integrated vertical grip with dual batteries. Also, the crop factor of the smaller sensor creates a longer equivalent focal length, which can be advantageous when shooting from the sidelines, especially given the cost of prime telephoto lenses.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X Mirrorless Digital Camera
Olympus OM-D E-M1X Mirrorless Digital Camera

If you look at the lineup of DSLRs from Canon and Nikon, there are many options to find that personal balance between performance and budget. If you are buying your first camera, perhaps consider a Nikon D500 or D7500 or the Canon EOS 80D DSLR. These cameras have smaller sensors than their full-frame cohorts but are suited for the needs of sports photography and compatible with the best of their respective brand’s lenses. This is important because if you do continue in sports and eventually move up the ladder to the high-end cameras, you can bring along the lenses you buy now.

Canon EOS 80D DSLR Camera
Canon EOS 80D DSLR Camera

If you already have an entry-level DSLR, you certainly can start shooting with it, but if you are buying new, I would not recommend a “beginner” DSLR; they are often not robust enough nor do they offer the speed and options you will eventually need. I would also shy away from the “bridge cameras” with integrated long focal length lenses. While these affordable multi-taskers serve many purposes and can capture sharp images at a distance under ideal conditions, they lack the speed (maximum lens aperture, focus speed and continuous shooting) and durability for comprehensive sports work.

There are also cameras like the Nikon D850, which is the highest-resolution Nikon DSLR and does not prioritize continuous burst like the Nikon D6, but its focusing sensor, detailed resolution, and body size make it desirable for many sports photographers. The same goes for the cameras of Canon’s 5D series. I also recommend the Nikon D750, which is still sold new and the most affordable way to get your foot in the Nikon full-frame door.

Nikon D850 DSLR Camera
Nikon D850 DSLR Camera

Lenses

While cameras come and go, your best lenses will stay with you a long time and it’s often suggested to save money on your first camera and invest in a quality lens. For sports photography, while you do not want to limit yourself with an underperforming camera, I think this adage holds true. To jump into the game, look to get yourself a couple of quality zooms and maybe a prime telephoto lens and get to work. The prime telephoto lens is often a financial hurdle, but remember also the possibility of renting long lenses for specific events and consider teleconverters and the improvements made in resolution and image stabilization as you research the options. Also, while sideline and pit shooters may need to capture facial expressions from fifty yards, not all sports photography does. Work with what you have.

Canon Extender EF 2X III
Canon Extender EF 2X III

Most of the major camera systems have their version of a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and they are a good place to start. One might also consider a 24-105mm f/4 lens and add a 400mm lens. When choosing a 400mm lens, one will quickly note the price differences between varying models, and this generally relates to the maximum aperture or “speed” of the lens. In addition to optimized optics and features, the more expensive lenses have an f/2.8 maximum aperture, which enables more light to pass through the lens and, in terms of sports, allows for faster shutter speeds to freeze action. In daylight, such a “fast” lens might not be necessary and, with the improvements in image stabilization, consider your needs well before investing in an f/2.8 prime ultra-telephoto lens.

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

With a combination of the above lenses and a teleconverter to extend the focal length of your long lens, you will be set for whatever comes your way. Note that a teleconverter will create a degree of “light loss” when attached to your lens. Other more affordable options include using an ultra-telephoto zoom lens such as the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens, with its versatile set of focal lengths, or even the Sigma 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 lens, which offers a broad focal-length range but would need steady control when working in less than ideal lighting.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens

Modern telephoto zooms have made great strides in recent years and two noteworthy models are the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR lens and the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens. Both offer a versatile zoom range, fixed aperture, and a built-in teleconverter to extend the focal length to 560mm at f/5.6. For its Micro Four Thirds system, Olympus has introduced the M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm f/4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO, which also integrates a 1.25x teleconverter. Add the teleconverter to the crop sensor’s equivalent focal length, and you will have an effective 1000mm equivalent focal length lens. Many sports photographers prefer prime telephoto lenses for their faster maximum aperture and sharpness, and the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS lens is just one example of these incredible tools, but their size and cost are understandable concerns when starting out.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR Lens

Telephoto lenses are specifically important to sports photography, but normal and wide-angle lenses are no less necessary. The 24-70mm f/2.8 was mentioned earlier as an important building block for your lens kit, but you will also find 85mm primes and especially extreme wide-angle zooms, such as the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens, in the camera bags of many sports photographers.

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

Accessories

Cameras and lenses aside, there are few accessories that are particularly important for sports photography. Support for heavy lenses and maintaining a steady hand during the course of a long game is crucial and, while some lenses prefer tripods, the mobility offered by monopods makes them the support of choice. You may not always want to or be able to use an on-camera flash, but for indoor sports you should have one, ideally as powerful as you can afford. Because continuous burst shooting is common, memory cards with fast read and write speeds are a must. Also, extra batteries will definitely be needed, and don’t forget to charge them. Working in the rain and other inclement conditions is common in sports work so be sure to have protective coverings for your camera and lenses.

Oben CTM-2600 6-Section Carbon Fiber Monopod
Oben CTM-2600 6-Section Carbon Fiber Monopod

Whether you are just beginning your sports photography career or a seasoned veteran, let us know your tips and gear suggestions in the Comments section, below.

2 Comments

i'm not selling Sony, but you really glossed over it.  AP news recently announced they are switching their fleet of cameras to Sony, and i suspect the only reason Canon and Nikon still dominate the field is that its expensive to switch over.  That said, your article was written for someone starting out, and in that situation, Sony is quite viable.  The A9ii is almost as fast as the Canon 1DXii (which i used to own), and their long lenses include the 600mm, 400mm, 200-600mm and 100-400mm, plus others useful for sports.  I live in Los Angeles, where it never rains, but people i know from other places report that its weather seals are pretty good (...so far, Canon and Nikon do have more history here).  Me thinks you gave Sony short shrift.

Thanks for the comment Paul.  The first camera I mentioned was the a9II, but I understand where you are coming from... the thrust of the article does focus on DSLR options. And from my understanding, while other brands are growing their lens lines and making models more suited for sports photography, in general, the majority of sports shooters are still working with Canon and Nikon. As you pointed out, that may be changing, and certainly the Sony is winning converts in all areas of photography, sports and action included. Thanks again...and for reading Explora.

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