Equipment for Sports Photography
In addition to your own skills and talents as a photographer, successful sports photography is dependant on your lenses and camera equipment. This is especially true if you want to push the limits of shooting available-light at dimly lit high school gyms.
Today, the world of photography is dominated by digital cameras. These are divided into two basic types: point-and-shoot snapshot digital cameras that do not have removable lenses, and Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras with interchangeable lenses.
Snapshot Digital Cameras
The snapshot type cameras are usually difficult to use for sports photography because the small sensors they use just don’t produce the same quality images as cameras with larger sensors, and because of the time lag while the camera focuses and the shutter opens. It is tough to shoot peak sports action with these cameras. On some you may be able to pre-focus on where you expect the action to happen, and then ride the shutter button so that the shutter will open in a reasonable amount of time after you press it.
Most of these cameras are also not very good under low light conditions because they have very small pixels which cannot collect a lot of light and consequently suffer from high noise.
Snapshot cameras will usually have built-in zoom lenses. These may be ok to shoot sports where you can get relatively close like basketball, but not long enough for sports like baseball and football. These zoom lenses also get slower in their focal ratio when they are zoomed to long focal lengths. Combined with their poor high ISO noise performance, you may not be able to find a combination of zoom length and focal ratio that will stop the action at an ISO with acceptable noise.
DSLR cameras, especially the latest generations, are pretty good for sports photography. Naturally, the latest and greatest are the most expensive, but the generation that they replaced can usually be found at reasonable prices.
Inexpensive DSLR’s usually come with a kit lens that is a short-to-medium focal length zoom, such as an 18mm to 55mm zoom. The problem with these lenses are that they are usually fairly slow in terms of focal ratio and autofocus slowly. The Canon 18 to 55 that comes with many of their DSLR cameras is f/3.5 at its shortest focal length, but slows down to f/5.6 when zoomed. This is ok for use in the daytime, but will be difficult to use inside under dim available-light sports gyms. This Canon zoom lens is very inexpensive and its optical performance is going to be ok, but not spectacular when used wide open. Canon’s top of the line lenses, such as the L series 16mm to 35mm f/2.8 zoom is, naturally, much better, however it costs about ten times as much!
There are, however, alternatives for fast lenses if you want to shoot available light in high school gyms. Consider a Canon or Nikon 50mm f/1.8. They are very reasonably priced and perform well when stopped down one stop to f/2.5, and this will let you shoot at a one stop faster shutter speed, which may be just enough to stop the action under available light, whereas a slower zoom might not.
For football, you will need a lens that is at least 200mm to 300mm in focal length. There are plenty of zoom lenses that go this long such as the Canon Zoom Telephoto EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS Image Stabilizer USM Autofocus Lens that costs about $550. These are fine for daytime sports.
For night football at most high-school fields, you are just not going to be able to get around the fact that you will need a fast telephoto lens with a large maximum aperture that gathers a lot of light. These can get quite expensive. Unfortunately, some fields are so poorly lit that even a fast focal ratio of f/2.8 is not going to be enough to get you a high enough shutter speed to stop the action if your camera has high noise at a high ISO. To solve this problem, you will also need the latest, greatest, and naturally most expensive, DSLR body which will have exceptionally good high ISO noise characteristics. With these cameras you can shoot at ISO 3200 or even 6400 when the light is really dim. At most poorly lit high school fields you can get a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second at f/2.8 at ISO 3200 or 6400.
Don’t worry about how many frames a second a camera can shoot, or how many megapixels it has. Peak action comes down to timing, reaction and knowledge of the game. And you won’t see the difference between an 8 megapixel camera and a 10 megapixel camera, no matter what the camera salesmen tell you.
On the other hand, you do get what you pay for usually in the top end cameras. These cameras have the latest technology in them, and that usually means the best noise performance. For sports photography, this is one of the most important considerations in the images final quality.
If you are really on a tight budget, you can start out with a low-end Canon or Nikon DSLR and the kit zoom lens that comes with it. If it is basketball season, get a 50mm f/1.8 lens. If it is football or soccer or lacrosse season and the games are played in the daytime, get a 70-300mm zoom lens.
If cost is not a problem, still get the 50mm f/1.8 for indoor basketball, but also take a look at the fast high-end zooms with a minimum fixed aperture of f/2.8.
One thing I am really good at is spending other people’s money. So, if money is no object, then get the latest high-end pro-model DSLR from Canon or Nikon, a fast wide-angle 16-35mm f/2.8 zoom, a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom, and a fast super-telephoto lens like a 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8 for football, lacrosse or soccer.
If you want to become a professional, there is, unfortunately, no getting around the fact that you will need to invest a lot of money in equipment. Today, virtually everyone wants digital images, and this equipment is quite expensive.
You will need professional-level digital cameras and long, fast telephoto lenses to shoot with. To shoot indoors or night games you need fast lenses with large apertures that let in a lot of light. You won’t be able to get by with just a 35-70 f/3.5 – 4.8 zoom lens. You’ll need something like an 85mm f/1.8 lens for basketball, and definitely a 300mm f/2.8 lens for football, baseball, and soccer. This is at an absolute minimum.
Good sports photographers don’t shoot straight flash on-camera as the main light. This is the method of the amateur snap-shooter. If there is not enough light to shoot a high enough shutter speed to stop the action, you need to learn how to use flash correctly as a fill light on-camera or as the main light off-camera. To use flash on camera as a fill light you have to dial the power way down so that it is just a little bit stronger than the available light and you have to match the color temperatures of both. To use flash as the main light, it has to be off camera, usually in a multiple strobe setup where the strobes are triggered by radio or infra-red remote control. This is not trivial and it’s not inexpensive.
In addition to the photographic skills and equipment required to be a professional sports photographer, considerable computer skills are also required to handle the digital images. You will need computers to process the digital images, usually including an expensive laptop to transmit from remote locations and events.
Expect to spend a lot of money on equipment, especially with new professional digital cameras coming out every 18 months.
Most professional sports photographers have, at a minimum. the following set of equipment:
- 3 top-of-the-line digital camera bodies ($5,000 each)
- 3 Extra batteries ($100 each)
- Extreme wide angle 14mm f/2.8 ($1,500)
- Wide angle zoom lens 16 – 35mm f/2.8 ($1,500)
- Fast short telephoto 85mm f/1.4 ($1,000)
- Telephoto zoom 70-200 f/2.8 ($2,500)
- Fast Telephoto 300mm f/2.8 ($5,000)
- Fast Long Telephoto 400mm f/2.8 ($8,000)
- Teleconverter 1.4x ($600)
- Teleconverter 2x ($600)
- 2 Monopods ($150 each)
- Tripod ($450)
- 2 Flashes ($500 each)
- Radio Remotes ($500)
- Light stands, umbrellas, misc lighting equipment ($2,500)
- Laptop with extra ram ($2,500)
- Photoshop ($650)
- Other software ($500)
- Rolling camera case ($400)
- Rain gear ($500)
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