The Best Telephoto Lenses for Sports Photography
There are few subjects more dynamic and tension-filled than sports photography. The competition and drama that's packed into the image of a game-winning catch or the moment a racer crosses the finish line is hard to beat.
However, it's going to be impossibly difficult to see the look of victory on a competitor's face if you're sitting in the stands and shooting with a wide-angle prime lens. Spend any amount of time researching photography and you'll find that it's not the gear that makes an image great, but if you can't get the shot with the equipment you've got, then it's time to re-evaluate.
Most sporting photographers use some version of a telephoto lens in order to get right up close to the action and allow the viewer to feel like they're just feet away. This longer focal length typically pairs best with a wide aperture to allow the photographer to keep their shutter speed short. By doing this, the shooter can freeze the action without motion blur, down to every falling drop of sweat.
Below, you'll find some of our top lens picks for sports photography. These wide-aperture telephotos don't usually come cheap due to their exceptional imaging power, but buying used gear gives you a deep discount that you won't find at other retailers.
70-200mm f/2.8 (Various)
Possibly one of my all-time favorite lens designs, the 70-200mm range is as versatile as it is prominent. Nearly every manufacturer out there has a version of this lens for full-frame systems. Don't believe me? Take a look.
Each one of these offerings is a little different, but the thought remains the same. The wider end of the lens gives you a relatively short telephoto focal length, perfect for when you don't need much reach. The telephoto side allows you to get in closer, although not outrageously so.
Those who are looking to save a bit of money and a bit of excess weight in their bag could also consider the also-popular 70-200mm f/4 lens. In many cases, you won't need the extra aperture anyway.
Many lenses of this make also offer stabilization technology as well, giving you a premium wide-aperture zoom lens that fits nearly any occasion where you aren't seated too far from the action.
100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (Various)
There may be times, however, when you just can't get as close as you need to. Particularly if you're trying to shoot action across the length of an entire field, you're going to want some extra reach.
The majority of manufacturers who make those aforementioned gorgeous 70-200mm lenses also make a wonderful 100-400mm. By adding a little more length on the wide end and a lot more on the long end, they've made a telephoto zoom that's versatile enough for sports, events, and even birdwatching.
150-600mm f/5-6.3 by Sigma or Tamron (Various)
With an extraordinary range, this telephoto beast merges excellent optics, relative portability & elegant design into an affordable lens that can zero in on the game-winning catch from all the way across the field. As relatively lightweight as it is, we still recommend bringing along a monopod or tripod for this one.
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM
This may draw a scoff from more seasoned professionals, but this ultra-budget zoom for Canon APS-C cameras is no joke. For under $200, you can get a stabilized zoom lens with the fullframe equivalent focal length of 88-400. This is a great, cheap choice for budding photographers who are still learning.
Heck, my first non-kit lens was a 55-250mm for my Rebel T2i. It may not be the sharpest lens in the bag, but it's certainly capable of giving you game-winning shots for sharing on Facebook or Instagram.
Olympus Zuiko 75-300 f/4.8-6.7 II
There's a tendency in the photo gear world to lean toward the old saying 'bigger is better.' Micro Four Thirds pioneers Olympus and Panasonic would beg to differ. With smaller cameras typically come smaller lenses, and this telephoto is no exception.
With an equivalent reach of 150-600mm, this lens truly gives M43 shooters the ability to see across a field without causing any excessive back strain from trying to hold a heavier telephoto.
Fujinon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 XF
The Fuji X system is fun to use, with classic stylings and killer film emulations. The cameras have become incredibly popular among street photographers and wedding professionals for their compact size and maneuverability.
This stabilized super-telephoto gives any Fuji X camera the reach needed to effectively shoot both wildlife and sports. A smooth and accurate autofocus system allows for quick changes, and 13 different weather-resistant dust and moisture seals allow you to keep shooting when the forecast calls for light showers.
Canon 400mm f/2.8 L IS
Foregoing the need for zoom, this fixed-length telephoto is possibly one of the best action and sports lenses ever made for Canon. Quick-focusing capabilities, near-bulletproof construction and reliable image stabilization technology meets wide-aperture f/2.8 performance. Photos taken with this superstar lens will absolutely have a leg up on the competition.
Nikon AF-S 300mm f/2.8 G ED VR
Nikon also offers a variety of long prime lenses specifically made for sport & wildlife photography. Offering extra sharp images with high contrast and accurate colors, this lens also brings internal vibration reduction, quick & accurate autofocus, and custom operation buttons. It's truly a lens for the ultimate professional sports photographer.
An often-overlooked lens accessory, the 1.4x or 2x teleconverter is an excellent way to stretch your focal length and get more distance without sacrificing sharpness or metering capabilities.
Most companies make some form of teleconverter for their respective lens mounts, and many of them only work with certain lens models. Make sure you check for compatibility before picking one up.
They're typically very inexpensive for the additional performance they can provide. You'll never think of a teleconverter as a cheap add-on again once you see the difference one can make in your kit.