Whether just for fun or for profit, sports and action photography is an exciting genre of the art and craft of photography. The same requirements for sports and action photography also apply to wildlife photography.
The best cameras for sports photography are available in budgets friendly for everyone from entry level to professional. Sports, action, and wildlife photography require good equipment and excellent skills in order to achieve the best results.
You’ll find there is a lot of overlap in sports and wildlife photography, which is why we will discuss them both together as we examine methods and equipment. Basically, anything said here about sports photography will usually also work for wildlife.
How to capture jaw dropping sports photography images
One of the fundamentals of photography in general is the concept of capturing the moment. Capture the moment applies to sports photography in a very big way. Generally speaking, the player going back to the dugout or sideline is not as impressive an image as the pivotal action. Same with wildlife, the back end of the tiger usually is not as exciting as the leap it just took.
As we said, generally speaking. Sometimes after or before the action is the best way to capture the moment. A pensive look as a player or group of players is considering strategy or what just happened.
What are some of the methods used or skills needed in order to get the images you want?
- Follow the motion. You’ve seen those photographers on the sidelines with the huge lenses. Those lenses don’t aim themselves. A decent awareness of what’s going on and a knowledge of the game is vital. This means paying attention to more than what’s in the viewfinder.
- Peak action. Since you know the game and are following the action, you can gauge when to take the decisive shot. Peak action can be described as the moment between the rise of the jump and the fall back to the ground. The action is peaking and time seems to stand still.
- Alternatively, peak action could also be when the most important aspect of the action is occurring. The leap across the goal line, the throw to the plate, the block of the penalty shot on goal.
- Burst shooting. With the current crop of digital camera, shooting a burst of several images at once might give you the option of choosing which image is the best one for presenting the decisive action. Some cameras can shoot bursts of 40 or 50 shots at 10 frames per second or more. Many times, one or more of those images will capture peak action.
- Shoot video. Most current digital cameras are very good at video. Some offer video features that can help in action photography. One such feature is video still, which lets you pull a still image off of the video recording. Slow motion effects are another way to portray action to your viewers.
- Remote triggers. Corded and cordless remotes are a basic part of most photographer’s gear bag. There is a type or remote trigger that operates on motion, light, or sound. Used a lot to get lightning pics, these can also be set up in an area where you know there may be action (or wildlife), and the motion or sound of the subject will trip the shutter.
- High speed strobes. The shorter the duration of the image capture method stops faster motion. To get an extremely short duration exposure, a high speed strobe can be used. While many cameras have shutter speeds as short as 1/8000th of a second, a strobe can emit a burst of light as short as 1/50,000th of a second.
- Pretty much a specialty method, but it can be useful depending on your subject. Think of those photos you’ve seen of a bullet piercing a milk filled balloon.
What cameras and lenses are best for sports photography?
While you could use almost any camera for action shots, there are definitely some features you should look for in order to get the best action photographs.
- Through the lens viewing. This covers both DSLRs and mirrorless. Since you need to see the action in or to capture it, viewing through the picture taking lens is important.
- Interchangeable lenses. Since you will often be somewhat removed in distance from the action or wildlife, the ability to change to other lenses is helpful. Fast telephotos and telephoto zooms are often recommended.
- Fast lenses. When a photographer talks about a lens being fast, they mean it has a wide maximum aperture. With current digital cameras, fast autofocus is also something to look for. Those huge lenses you see at sports events are usually very fast, long telephoto lenses.
- High speed shutter. The faster the shutter speed, the faster the action you can freeze. Sure, sometimes you are better served with motion blurring, but stopping action is a good technique to master. Shutter speeds of 1/2000th to 1/8000th of a second are common on better cameras.
- Fast motor drive. Even though we’re not transporting film through a camera, the motor speed is still important, resetting the shutter for the next exposure. Frames per second ranges from 5 to 12 or 15 on modern digital cameras. Mirrorless cameras or prosumer level DSLRs tend to be faster.
A couple of tutorials:
Kit lenses are fine lenses, often very sharp. But they tend to be lacking in two important areas. Speed and durability. Kit lenses maximum apertures are very often rather slow. If you are familiar with the exposure triangle, you know why this is important when attempting action photography.
The autofocus motors built in to kit lenses are also rarely top end. Fine for general photography, but it can hamper your action photography efforts. The faster aperture prime and zoom lenses often have extremely rapid focusing action.
Besides the speed of the lens, kit lenses are not as heavy duty as lenses optimized for action or wildlife. You really don’t want your breaking or going out of alignment just because a player or a tree limb may have bumped you.
As I said, though, kit lenses often have very good image quality. Sometimes as good as the higher end lenses. But you’ll probably want the better lenses if you’re perusing this list of best cameras for sports photography.
How I found the Best cameras + lenses for sports & action photography
- Image Quality. One of the top considerations when choosing any camera, it’s also very important for sports, action, and wildlife. If the image quality is not top end, not much can be done to compensate.
- Relates to image quality, but also to other factors. Full frame, APS-C, or MFT are the main choices here. A larger sensor size will give better results for the same MP count, but it also means larger cameras and lenses. The crop factor of smaller formats gives a boost on the tele end of things.
- Durability. It has to be able to take the heavier use that will come with action photography. If the camera or lens falls apart or stops working, your imaging stops.
- Lenses are already going to be big and heavy for most of this type of photography. A larger camera can balance things out or it could add difficulty to the whole process. It’s a question to consider with most aspects of digital photography.
- Not as important as some other differences, but the brands with pro cameras often have better repair support. They also tend to have the specialty lenses in a variety of sizes, focal lengths, and price points.
Top 7 Best Cameras for Sports Photography + Lenses
1. Canon Digital SLR Camera Body [EOS 80D] Review + Lens
A prosumer camera with several features that make it a great choice for sports and action photography. The 80D is an APS-C format camera with a high megapixel count. A good number of sports and wildlife photographers opt for a cropped format camera because of the how the crop factor affects effective focal length.
If you are using a focal length you are familiar with in 35mm film photography on a smaller format camera, the crop factor of 1.5X or 1.6X means that same lens will now act like a longer lens. It isn’t really longer, it’s just the crop factor doing that. A 200mm lens on full frame 35mm format gives the effective angle of view of a 300mm or 320mm lens.
If this seems confusing, look up crop factor for some examples and a more detailed explanation. We’ve actually covered it in several articles here.
Autofocus for action photography is one of the things that Canon cameras excel in, this camera follows that trend. The 45 focus points are spread wide across the frame and they are all the cross type sensors that are very precise and quick acting.
High speed motor drive to 7 fps, burst shooting of 25 RAW files, high ISO of 16,000, and superb video round out features that are very useful for action photography. High shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second is usable in all still imaging modes.
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
An extended range telephoto zoom lens, the 100-400mm is a little slow in aperture, but the L-series image quality combined with professional caliber focus speed and durability helps ensure capturing amazing sports and wildlife images.
Mounting this lens on the APS-C format 80D camera gives an effective focal length compared to full-frame of 160-640mm. Again, this is not real focal length, it’s a product of the crop factor compared to full-frame 35mm.
The lens comes with a removeable tripod mount. Use it on a monopod or hand held, this lens balances well on the 80D which is a larger camera than Canon’s entry level DSLRs.
2. Nikon D500 DX-Format Digital SLR (Body Only) Review + Lenses
Here is Nikon’s professional camera body in APS-C format, also known in Nikon nomenclature as DX format. Full-frame format is called FX by Nikon.
This camera body is the long awaited successor to the adored D300/D300s DX format camera. The D500 is called by some photographers the Baby D5, just as the D300s was looked at as a junior version of the D3s. Basically, it’s a superb camera in any format, and one of the best cameras for sports photography and wildlife photography from any brand.
It has a 20.9MP DX format sensor with a crop factor of 1.5X. Most APS-C format cameras have the same 1.5X crop factor as Nikon, Canon standardized early with their 1.6X sensor size. There’s not really too much difference between the two formats.It has a native high ISO of 51,200 that can be extended to 1,640,000. That gives you options virtually unheard of before the advent of high quality digital photography. High ISO is also available for video, just not quite as high as for still imaging.
Some other good action features are 153 focus points (99 are cross type) and an extremely large image buffer. The focus system works with lenses that have built in motors and with those that rely on an in camera motor. Either way, focusing is extremely quick and accurate.
Image buffer holds 200 files, the camera can cycle at 10 fps, and it has a slot for the ultra quick reading XQD cards. It has another slot for SD cards, capable of using the highest speed new cards. This speed capability puts the D500 near the top of rapid image capture capabilities.
Fastest shutter speed is 1/8000 and high speed flash synch is available with compatible Nikon strobes, or synch at the fast speed of 1/250 for additional capability.
A battery grip holds extra rechargeable batteries for extended use at high motor speeds. A tiltable viewscreen can be used for playback, camera menu controls, or as a live view screen.
Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED Zoom Lens
Fast, heavy duty, and sharp, this lens is the perfect choice to pair with the D500 for wide to short telephoto focal lengths.
Sports photographers often find themselves lenses in this range, plus it’s a great general purpose lens.
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S Nikkor Zoom Lens
Pair the shorter lens with this high speed telephoto zoom lens and you’ll have most needs covered in a fine way. Usable on DX or FX format Nikon cameras, the 70-200mm f/2.8 is almost legendary in its performance.
Portrait artists and wedding photographers also prefer this amazingly sharp and capable lens when telephoto is needed.
Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED Zoom Lens
Photographers needing even more reach will enjoy this ultra telephoto zoom lens. A bit slower at f/5.6, it is also very compact for its focal length range. Use on a tripod with a gimbal head to get the most out of its capabilities.
You could try to hand hold it, but the crop factor of 750mm would be better served by tripod or monopod use.
The first two lenses could cover most anything a photographer might run into, adding a fast wide angle and the 200-500 makes for a formidable gear kit.
All of the above lenses are very well made professional lenses that can be used on full frame or APS-C format cameras. Dust and weather sealed with built in focus motors, these lenses give extra capability to photographers shooting sports and wildlife.
Figure in the crop factor to see how much these lenses could add to your APS-C format camera kit. Also usable on full frame, these ultra tele lenses are excellent performers.
Tamron and Sigma (Tokina, too) make alternative lenses in consumer style and professional level for several different camera brand mounts. Besides the Nikon mount listed here, they make lenses for Canon, Sony, Pentax, Sigma, and some others.
For the same focal lengths and f-stops, third party lenses tend to be somewhat less expensive than comparable camera brand lenses. Those lines are getting blurred now, though.
3. Canon EOS Rebel T6 Digital SLR Camera (Body Only) Review + Lens
Can an entry level DSLR be used as a sports and wildlife camera? Yes, especially if the entry level cameras are made from reputable manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Fuji, or Sony.
An APS-C sized 18.0MP sensor provides excellent image quality at a budget friendly price. A full range of features, including video, are packed into a very lightweight and compact package. A motor speed of 3 fps, fast shutter speed of 1/4000, and nine AF focus points work quite well to capture amazing sports images.
The kit lenses from Canon are very good in optical quality and performance, but you will need other glass in order to create one of the best cameras for sports photography out of an entry level DSLR.
Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM Telephoto Fixed Lens for Canon SLR Cameras
A prime focal length lens, this f/2.8 telephoto is quite compact for a fast telephoto. Matched up with the Rebel T6, this is a small, light rig for wildlife and sports.
Though a little expensive, it is still an attractively priced lens to consider as a lens choice for this smaller camera.
The ultra low dispersion glass and the speedy ultrasonic focus motor make this one of the best lenses in the Canon arsenal.
4. Sony a7 III Full-Frame Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Camera Review + Lens
Many sports and wildlife photographers demand the superior performance and image quality that come with using full frame format digital cameras. Cameras of this format have tended to be rather large and heavy compared to the APS-C models, even the pro and prosumer models.
Which is why Sony created the full frame mirrorless interchangeable lens camera system. Using the A-mount lenses and E mount lenses, plus a wide variety of other brand’s mount lenses, Sony users can choose almost any lens ever made for 35mm photography on a compact, but still full frame camera. Sony has also made these cameras as full blown professional models.
The 24.3MP sensor can record in 14 bit, and has an ISO range up to 204,800. Top shutter speed of 1/8000, 10 fps motor cycling, and a buffer than can hold 89 RAW image files give this camera a lot of firepower for action photography. Video capture is outstanding as well.
Superb autofocus is provided by 693 AF points, 425 of them being contrast detection style. This allows for amazing AF performance for both still imaging and 4K video.
Very well made, rugged, and durable, the Sony a7 III is a true professional camera, which its high price also bears out. If you need it, though, it’s still one of the better bargains in the format.
Sony SEL85F18 85mm F/1.8 Medium-Telephoto Fixed Prime Camera Lens
Besides the marvelous Sony zooms and fast ultra tele lenses, the 85mm f/1.8 is an awesome lens to use for sports photography. If you are close to the action, as some sports venues allow, this short telephoto with a very fast aperture of f/1.8 will let you capture images of amazing sharpness and detail.
A little big, the lens is actually quite a bit smaller and lighter than the marginally faster f/1.4 version of this focal length. It also costs way less than the faster lens. The difference between F/1.8 and 1.4 is less than one full stop. Image quality of either lens is stunning.
5. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body Review + Lens
One of the best full frame DSLRs on the current market, the 5D offers a 30.4MP full frame sensor and excellent professional features to make it one of the best cameras for sports photography.
It is also an excellent camera to shoot high quality video with. Canon DSLRs are actually very good at video capture. They are on par with dedicated to cinemagraphic use only cameras in many aspects. Shooting 4K quality video with quickly responsive autofocus and the excellent Canon lenses adds a whole new world of opportunity for sports and wildlife photographers.
Wedding photographers, too. And commercial product photographers, studio portrait artists, or anyone wanting great looking videos and pics for any reason.
The autofocus performance comes from 61 AF points, and the 5D can cycle exposures at 7 fps. A large buffer and an ISO range up to 102,400 add to the features of this excellent professional camera.
Shutter speeds up to 1/8000 and a touch screen tilting viewscreen add to the already impressive workload this camera can handle.
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens for Canon SLR Cameras
So many lenses to choose from! Take a good look at this extremely sharp, fast telephoto zoom lens. A focal length range of 70-200mm at f/2.8 is one of the standard lenses of choice for a wide variety of professional and other serious photographers
Canon’s version of this lens is absolutely superb. It is also fairly light for a professional caliber fast tele zoom. One of the basic lenses that many serious photographers add to their kits, this lens adds some serious dexterity to your photographic potential.
6. Fujifilm X-T2 Mirrorless Digital Camera Review + Lenses
If you love the old school look, feel, and even function of classic cameras, this Fuji is right up your alley. If you like cutting edge digital imaging performance, this camera gives you that as well.
A true hockey puck of a camera, this professional level APS-C format mirrorless with a 24.3MP sensor can deliver images of amazing quality and is usable in freezing weather, wet weather, even arid dusty weather with suffering any loss of performance.
Fuji went with dials, buttons, and levers for the most used camera controls, while still having a deep menu of extra operations accessible via the LCD screen.
Autofocus works wonderfully fast, even in video. It also has rapid fire still imaging of up to 14 fps continuous shooting.If you don’t know the Fuji brand, they deserve a look from professional and other serious APS-C format shooters.
Fuji has long been a front runner in electronic technology related to photographic imaging. The company made a stellar reputation in 35mm film and medium format film and digital cameras, as well as being one of the largest film manufacturers in the world for decades.
Top shutter speed of 1/8000 and superb handling make this a desirable camera system for any genre of photography. In the APS-C digital format, Fuji is a pro level contender.
What lenses should be considered for sports and wildlife as well as general photography?
With this trio of professional lenses, you have very fast wide angle and normal primes and a very fast telephoto zoom lens. You would be covered for most situations that photographers find themselves in, from wedding and portraiture, commercial product imaging, to sports and wildlife photography.
Fuji professional lenses are moisture and dust sealed, impact resistant, and exceedingly sharp. Check out all of Fujifilm’s X series lenses, but this group of three will provide a huge range of capacity for excellent still imaging and video recording.
7. Sony a9 Full Frame Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Camera Review + Lens
A truly remarkable camera, this mirrorless full frame format has a unique hybrid shutter that lends itself well to action photography. Shutter speeds up to 1/32,000, frame rates of 20 fps, and a buffer that hold over 240 RAW files are just some of the main highlights on this outstanding imaging tool.
The sensor is a full frame format 24.2MP with 4K video recording in the large Super35 cinema format. By comparison, many DSLRs severely cut down the sensor area for 4K video.
Dust and moisture resistant magnesium alloy body construction make this a very heavy duty professional camera.
The dial and lever controls add to the ease of use in a rapid fire environment, while the high quality EVF provides eyelevel viewing indistinguishable from optical viewfinders.
An amazing camera, it also has a very high price. Not quite as high as some of the full frame pro competition, but it’s close. For what it offers, though, some photographers will call it a bargain.
Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5–5.6 GM OSS
There are quite literally thousands of lenses you could mount to this camera. With the right adapter, you can mount lenses from Exacta, Contax, Alpa, Leica, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Minolta, Bolex, Arri, and the list goes on. If Sony doesn’t make the adapter, several other manufacturers also make adapters.
The Sony 100-400mm is an excellent lens for sports and wildlife with this camera. Not quite as fast an aperture as some lenses, it is still decently fast for the focal length range.
The range is very useful for this genre of photography. Besides that, this lens is sharp. Very high image quality and rather robust in construction.
Another brand of lenses that deserves consideration, especially when using this Sony as a cinema video camera, is Rokinon. Their cinema lens line, known as Cine, includes several primes optimized for superior cinema recording. Paired with Super35 4K recording, you could almost do a feature film with that set up.
The best cameras for sports photography and wildlife photography might be the best camera for you, regardless of your specialization. Maybe you’re not specializing, look at these as all around superior performers. To learn more, you can see my post on the best monopods for sports photography.
Somewhere in this list of cameras and lenses, you’ll find the right choice, or the right inspiration for your own personal list.