best camera for sports photography

So, it's a great question. What is the best camera for sports photography? There're so many good cameras on the market, you're probably wondering where to start. This post will help you find out what to look for to get the best sports camera. There is one distinction you want to know about first. That's the differences between a sports camera and an action cameras.

Sports photoCanon DSLR, 400mm lens, 1/1000 second

Action cameras are for the young at heart that want to record their activities as they participate.  This post is all about choosing a good camera to use when you photograph sports as a spectator. Here are the 5 features to look for in comparing sports cameras.






This is no longer a discussion of who makes the best sports cameras, Canon or Nikon. Those days are over, accept for professional photographers. These two companies were both the clear leaders at one point amongst all of the digital camera makers, but now there are many other companies that have candidates for the best sports camera.

Canon and Nikon are still pretty much the only cameras that professional sports photographers use, but don't let that fact fool you. Don't focus on a particular brand for a sports camera. 

Rather than just give you a list of the best sports cameras-I know you'd love to get the quick answer-I am going to give you what you need to look for first. Let's dive into the most important thing to recognize and then we'll visit the 5 features to watch when your figuring on which sports camera to buy.

what's the most important factor to consider?

Point and shoot cameraToo slow for sports

CAMERA TYPE.  DSLRs are easily the winner when it comes to the best kind of camera for speed and quality in shooting sports. The type of camera you use is the easiest way to separate good sports cameras from mediocre sports cameras.  DSLR cameras are better for sports photography because they focus faster, can shoot more frames per second, have less of a shutter button delay, and have a bigger memory buffer.

More on that in a minute. DSLRs also have a huge assortment of quality sports lenses to choose from in terms of how powerful (magnification) they are and how fast (maximum aperture) they are. DSLRs also have optical viewfinders. This makes it much easier to follow fast paced action.

Point and shoot cameras, bridge cameras, and cell phone cameras cant possible perform to the level you need when you're photographing the fast action of sports or other activities that involve fast motion. 

the 5 features to look for

1. VIEWFINDER.  This is a must have feature. It's very awkward to try and follow action by looking at an LCD screen on the back of a camera. A good camera for sports photography needs to have a viewfinder.

2. FRAMES PER SECOND (FPS).  How many photos can a camera take within a one second time period? The less time that passes between each photo taken means the more likely you are to have successfully captured the best photo at just the right time. It really depends on the sport and how fast it is to estimate the minimum FPS needed. Generally speaking, 5-7 frames per second is a minimum for professional level sports.

I shot tennis star Jelena Jankovic with my Canon 5d at 3 frames per second. It was barely  fast enough to record her serve. The newer Canon 5d Mark III shoots at 6 frames per second.

The Sony Alpha SLT-A77 can shoot at an amazing 12 frames per second. It's not cheap, but it's definitively a remarkable example of camera technology that you would brag about if you own one. The Sony SLT-AT77 uses a Translucent Mirror and it is a whole lot cheaper than the high-end Canons or Nikons that professional sports photographers use.

3. FOCUSING SPEED. Your camera and lens combination must be able to focus fast when you have a moving target. Even the slightest delay can mean the difference between a sharp and a blurry action shot.

4. LENS MAGNIFICATION.  How much zooming power you need depends on distance to your subject. If you can get a lens with a nice range of zoom, like 5x or more, you'll find it more versatile to use.

The quality of lens is also important, but you don't need to buy a pro lens to get some great shots of your daughter playing soccer. A long time ago I made the mistake a cheap 100-300 Sigma zoom lens for $100 on ebay before I had the money to buy one of Canon's "L" telephoto lenses. The Sigma budget lens was going to be used to photograph the local high school soccer games.

Boy was I disappointed. I used it with an early model DSLR which had a crop factor of 1.6 for it's sensor. So I thought that the corresponding 160 to 480 zoom range would be great. The photos were bad. They were un-sharp and the lens produced a lot of chromatic aberration.

5. SHUTTER LAG. It's that annoying delay between the instant you press the shutter button and when you actually take your photo. Traditional point and shoot cameras have a significant delay which makes timing your shot just right very challenging.

additional factors for a good sports camera

MAXIMUM SHUTTER SPEED. This isn't too much of a factor anymore. Nowadays just about every camera can give you extremely fast shutter speeds. My first SLR was a Topcon Auto 100, made in the 1960s, and it's top shutter speed was a paltry1/500 second.

That would be acceptable for sports where the action is only moderately fast, but not good enough for faster professional sports to stop the action effectively.

CONTINUOUS SHOOTING. How many total photos can you take in a real quick sequence before the memory buffer fills up? The buffer refers to the number of back-to-back shots the camera can take and save to memory before the camera freezes up.

best place to buy the best camera for sports

It's just a personal preference for me-I like shopping from home and I like reading the reviews that consumers have written about the products.  You have dozens of choices on where to buy a good sports camera and that's an in depth topic for another day. No matter where you buy, Amazon is a great place to read the reviews on a given product first, BEFORE you buy.

what camera settings for sports photography

Sports mode camera settingSports Mode

Most beginning sports photographers want to know the exact camera settings to get the best shot. There are two ways to go. It does vary a bit, depending on the type of sports action you are shooting and the lighting conditions at the time, but here are the quick guidelines to use.

Most pros shoot sports use a shutter speed of 1/000 of a second as a starting point and they often set their aperture of the lens to its widest setting. Rather than just take the "set it and forget it" mentality of your camera's SPORTS MODE, adopt the curiosity of a child and try these two camera settings instead. You can read about all of the camera settings, including sports mode, in this post on camera settings.

SHUTTER PRIORITY. To get that sharp look where the action appears to be frozen, you need a really quick shutter speed. Shutter priority mode lets you set the shutter speed and the camera will take care of the rest to give you a properly exposed photo.

No matter what camera you use for your sports photography, this is the preferred setting to give you control over the exact amount of sharpness (or motion blur) you want.

The key is to know the sport you are photographing enough to pick the right shutter speed.

Frozen action1/800 Second

The shutter speed chart below gives you a few starting points  for the best shutter speed to use for various sports. Your distance and your angle to the movement of your subject both affect what shutter speed your camera needs to be set on to get perfectly sharp photos.

You won't know the exact perfect shutter speed until you experiment a little. It's best to go a little faster than you need to and then you know you've got it covered.

Sports shutter speed chart

APERTURE PRIORITY. Particularly when you have changing light conditions, like sun and shade or uneven lighting on the sports field, you might want to simply set your aperture at it smallest f/stop number (its widest opening).

If you combine that with setting the ISO (the camera's sensitivity) manually at a high number, your camera will then give you the fastest shutter speed it can and still maintain a proper exposure.

Using aperture priority sounds counterintuitive when you want to control shutter speed, but essentially you're optimizing the camera to get the fastest shutter speed with the conditions that are present.. 

Steer wrestlerAperture = f/2.8

 Tips for Taking Sports Photos 

MOVE IT. Find a position where the angle you choose gives you a nice background behind your subject. I can't tell you how many otherwise good sports photos are ruined because of distracting backgrounds. Shooting at a wide open lens aperture will give you a shallow depth of field which may help make the background blur. Change your position on the sidelines to anticipate a good spot where the background is plain when you photograph the moving sports target. 

ISO. Use the highest ISO where you still satisfied with the quality of image that your camera delivers. Sometimes, when the light is low, you'll have to really max out your ISO just to get into the right range of fast enough shutter speeds.

closing thoughts on the best camera for sports

underwater sports camera

Battery Life.  Most pro sports photographers use battery grips, accessories that double the number of photos they can take without a recharge and make vertical orientation less taxing on their arms and wrists. 

All of these consideration come into play as well as your personal preferences and the specific sport that you are photographing.

So in conclusion, there simply isn't one best camera for sports photography. There are  many factors to consider. The good news is that you have many choices to consider.

Enjoy the search for your best sports photography camera and have a blast.  Just don't take too much time.  You might miss that one great shot. Have a blast shooting sports!

Article published by Bruce Lovelace

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