Cameta 101: An Introduction to Shooting Sports (Part 2)

In Part 1 of our introduction to shooting sports, we discussed some techniques and terms to give you a basic understanding of shooting sports. In this article, we will discuss how equipment upgrades can help take your shots to the next level.

Obviously, unless you have access to the playing field, shooting sports requires the use of a telephoto lens, so I am going to focus on that for now. A typical (i.e. affordable) telephoto lens has a focal length between 200mm and 300mm for most brands, and the maximum aperture usually falls between f/4 and f/5.6 at the longest zoom. This is a significant limitation of the entry level lenses. If you look at your lens and it reads f/3.5-5.6 or f/4-5.6, it will be difficult to capture fast action in anything less than perfect lighting.

For example, if you are using a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 lens, your aperture starts off at a respectable f/4 when you are zoomed out at 70mm. As you zoom in, however, the f/number gradually goes up to 5.6, which cuts some of the light out and slows your shutter speed down by about half. For a game during the day, or a very well-lit venue, this may not be an issue. But if you don’t have a lot of light it can mean the difference between getting good shots or blurry ones. You can raise your ISO to compensate, but as I explained in our previous article, raising your ISO too much can result in very grainy pictures. This is where an upgrade in lenses comes into play.

 

Long focal length, but a small max aperture A little shorter, but constant, bright aperture

 

The first thing that many higher-end lenses will feature is a constant aperture. This will let you zoom in and out with no loss of light. Typically, high-end lenses will have a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/2.8. Those large apertures will be fixed, meaning that if you zoom your lens will stay at the selected aperture, unlike lesser lenses that will change the aperture to higher numbers (smaller opening) when zooming, cutting out light. I will say, lenses like this are more expensive, and they are usually heavier. Generally, the reason for the higher prices and increased weight is due to additional high-quality glass elements that provide a significant performance boost. In addition, these lenses will focus much faster, the images will be sharper and will have better contrast. One downfall is that most telephoto zoom lenses with a large fixed aperture top out at 200mm, so unless you are really willing to break the bank, you may not have the zoom power you’re used to.

For Nikon cameras, your high-end options include the 70-200mm f/4 VR and the incredible 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II.

For Canon cameras, you have a few more options, with or without IS image stabilization. In order of their performance, these are the 70-200mm f/4, 70-200mm f/4 IS, 70-200mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II.

If you have clicked some of the links for these lenses, there may be some sticker shock going on. I get it. I have gone through the same thing, and I have my own perspective on this: these are pro lenses, and so are the prices. However, one thing that I would explain over the counter to a parent who just wants good photos of their children is that these lenses hold their value very well. Unlike automobiles, which will be outdated in a matter of years thanks to new models and new technology, lenses can have a decades-long lifespan. In fact, many photographers seek out old lenses because as long as it’s well-cared for, good glass is good glass, no matter when it was manufactured.

Great telephoto zooms with fixed apertures for Nikon (left) and Canon

Now let’s be clear… I am in no way suggesting that you will make all of your money back when selling your lens a few years from now, but assuming you keep the lens in great shape, you might get closer than you think. After all, professionals buy used equipment all the time, so there is definitely a market for slightly-discounted, high-end optics. And even if you eventually lose a few hundred dollars on the deal, that’s a lot cheaper than renting a lens (which usually go for $100 per week, not including insurance) for all your family’s big moments like sports tournaments, graduations, or anywhere else you have to shoot from a distance. Plus, you’ll have some priceless images that you wouldn’t have been able to capture with a cheaper lens.

Full disclosure: I personally own and frequently use the Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR II, and I couldn’t be happier with the decision to bite the bullet and spend the money. The lens is great for all my children’s memorable sports moments, and because it zooms out to 70mm, it’s also useful for just about anything beyond portrait length. When the kids are done playing sports, I may sell it, but I have a feeling I’ll get attached to the great photos it produces.

One other upgrade that can be considered for better sports photography is a higher-end or newer camera body. The megapixel war is over, so manufacturers are now producing cameras with increasingly better low-light sensitivity. These days, even entry-level DSLRs have high-quality image sensors that allow you to boost the ISO significantly without the image becoming too grainy. However, my feeling is that lenses hold their value much longer and will make a bigger difference in the overall picture quality, so if you already own a relatively new camera, a fixed-aperture telephoto lens is probably the way to go.

Questions? Feel free to email us at cametacares@cameta.com or call (800) 991-3350 to speak to a knowledgeable salesperson to see which lens is best for your needs!

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