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How to Select a Good Camera for Sports Photography

Updated on March 31, 2013
From the NJ girls basketball tournament. Action shots like this require high shutter speeds, open apertures, and high ISOs.
From the NJ girls basketball tournament. Action shots like this require high shutter speeds, open apertures, and high ISOs. | Source

If you've ever read a photography blog or forum, you've probably come across a piece of advice like this:

Gear doesn't matter. Learn photography, and you can make amazing photos with the equipment you have.

I hate to break it to you, but sports photography is a completely different game. If you're photographing flowers, house, or maybe even models, the above might be true. But when your goal is action photography, your gear can be an extremely limiting factor.

So what should you look for when selecting a good camera for sports photography, and what are a few examples of good cameras?

We'll start with a quick overview of camera settings for sports photography. Then, we'll use that to assemble a quick list of features to look for. Finally, at the end we'll take a look at a few cameras that are great for sports photography.


Appropriate Settings for Sports Photography

Before we get into specifics of what camera you might want to buy, let's talk a bit about settings. This will help guide your choice later when purchasing a camera and a lens.

High shutter speed. When you're shooting sports, you need a high shutter speed. This freezes the action and eliminates blur. A shutter speed of 1/250 is about the slowest you'll want to go, while 1/400 or faster is ideal. You can read more about shutter speed in this hub.

Wide Open Aperture. In order to compensate for the shutter speed, you'll need a wide open aperture to capture enough light for a well exposed picture. This also creates a shallow depth of field, which helps blur distracting backgrounds like spectators. Depending on the lighting conditions, f/2.8 to f/4.0 is usually ideal. You can read more about aperture in this hub.

High ISO. There's plenty of light outside on a sunny day, but a lot of sports happen under less than ideal conditions - on overcast days, at night under lights, or in a questionably lit arena. For these situations, you'll need to crank up the ISO - anywhere from 1600 on an overcast day to 6400 or 12800 in an arena. You can read more about ISO in this hub.

Continuous Mode. Sports happens extremely quickly, and the best moments come and go in a fraction of a second. In a burst of action, like shooting a basketball, tackling a football player, or going over a hurdle, a fraction of a second can be the difference between a great picture and an average picture. To have a greater chance of capturing these perfect moments, you'll want to shoot in continuous mode.


So What Features Do We Want in a Good Sports Camera (and Lens)?

You don't necessarily need to buy the most expensive camera in the world to do great sports photography. But you do need to buy a modern camera.

In some ways, digital cameras don't change much. Resolution (in other words, megapixels) have reached a plateau, kind of like the clock speed in a computer. The difference between 18 megapixels and 24 megapixels may seem meaningful on paper, but it's usually meaningless in practice.

In other ways, cameras continue to make great strides and improvements on a regular basis. Five years ago, a typical consumer level digital camera maxed out at 1600 ISO. Now, a camera like the Canon t4i can reach ISO levels of 12800, and professional grade cameras come in at 25600. In order to give yourself the most flexibility in shooting situations, you definitely want to get a newer camera that has a high ISO capabilities, at least ISO 6400.

Next, you'll want to consider the drive speed of the continuous mode - measured in FPS (frames per second). Something in the neighborhood of 3 FPS is pretty slow. An FPS of 5 is good for consumer level cameras, and it will work. But if you want the professional experience, you'll want a camera that can deliver 7 to 8 FPS.

Auto-focus is also important. In a high speed action situation, you'll need to constantly refocus on moving subjects. More autofocus points and more cross-type points will help you do this more efficiently.

Weather sealing is one last camera feature to consider. Professional and semi-professional cameras are weather proofed (to some extent). This means you can use them out in the rain - during a football game, let's say - without fear of frying your extremely expensive toy.

Finally, you've got to consider the lens in this. You need a good telephoto lens that is "fast" (has a large maximum aperture). It's also preferable to get a USM, HSM, or similar type of autofocus motor in the lens. A halfway decent camera with a great lens can take great pictures; a great camera with a halfway decent lens will only take halfway decent (or crappy) pictures.

Canon EOS Rebel T4i DSLR (Body Only) (OLD MODEL)
Canon EOS Rebel T4i DSLR (Body Only) (OLD MODEL)

Great entry level camera. Paired with a good lens, you've got everything you need to be a sports photographer.

Canon EOS 7D 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera Body Only (discontinued by manufacturer)
Canon EOS 7D 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera Body Only (discontinued by manufacturer)

Best bang for your buck if you want a "professional grade" sports camera.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III 22.3 MP Full Frame CMOS with 1080p Full-HD Video Mode Digital SLR Camera (Body)
Canon EOS 5D Mark III 22.3 MP Full Frame CMOS with 1080p Full-HD Video Mode Digital SLR Camera (Body)

A truly professional grade camera, for both sports and studio work. It's awesome. And it's expensive.


Enough Talk. Let's Look at the Options for Sports Photography

Sorry for the long winded explanation, but it's necessary to really understand the different options. With that out of the way, let's look at 3 choices that would make good cameras for a sports photographer.

Canon EOS Rebel t4i / 650D. This is an entry level, consumer grade camera. Nonetheless, it is a drastic improvement over the Canon t1i released a few years ago (see this comparison of the Canon t3i vs t4i for more details). The t4i has a maximum ISO of 12800. It shoots at 5 fps in continuous mode. It lacks the weather sealing of a professional grade camera, but it meets the basic requirements for a sports photographer. Paired with a great telephoto lens, this is an excellent option for a hobbyist or amateur that wants to get into sports photography.

Canon EOS 7D. This is an awesome camera. It's a bit more expensive than the Canon t4i / 650D, but it's cheaper than the full-fledged Canon 5D. It also shoots up to 12800 ISO, but it can achieve a whopping 8 fps in continuous mode. It's got a much better set of autofocus points (21). It has a more durable body and better weather sealing than the consumer level cameras, although it's not completely weather sealed. In my opinion, this is one of the best cameras on the market for sports photographers that delivers what you need without over delivering (and costing more money).

Canon EOS 5d MK III. The Canon EOS 5d is an amazing camera. It's the gold standard for professional cameras, and it works equally well in sports and studio settings. It can reach amazing ISO levels of 25600, and it has an unparalleled number of autofocus points (61 points). If you can afford it, there is no reason not to buy a Canon EOS 5d MK III. But, it retails for $3500, about 2 to 3 times the cost of the Canon 7D. So price alone is a great reason to opt for the cheaper camera.

So which cameras should you avoid for sports photography? In my opinion, the Canon 60D is now pretty much obsolete. The Canon t4i has progressed to the point where the Canon 60D (technically a higher end camera) is a questionable upgrade, and it typically makes more sense to either stick with the Canon t4i or the Canon 7D. The new Canon 6D looks interesting, but it seems more like a Canon 5D stripped of its sports shooting capabilities. It's an excellent choice for a studio photographer, journalist, or landscape photographer. Just not for sports.

Finally, you might have noticed that I only talked about Canon cameras here. Sorry. I'm a Canon dude, and that's all I know...

That doesn't mean Nikon is bad, though. Despite the fierce loyalty people have to their brands, both Canon and Nikon make excellent cameras. It would simply make this article way too long to go through Nikon's line of cameras as well.

Rest assured they have similar offerings to Canon, and if you apply the same principles we did to these Canon cameras you should be able to determine the best camera for your needs as a sports photographer.

Just remember. The lens is as (or more) important than the camera. So don't splurge on the camera and cheap out on the lens. You'll regret it!


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    • Express10 profile image

      H C Palting 4 years ago from East Coast

      Thanks for writing this. Gear is very important as is some knowledge of the sport and being able to anticipate certain moves to get the best shots. I am a competitive figure skater and know this firsthand by having a couple of photographers that were probably best for still shots attempt shooting me. Their gear and timing were completely off. The low light conditions and fast action were too much even for experienced photographers with little knowledge of the sport and without the right gear. Canon is a good brand with a wide variety of options for different subjects. Voted up and useful.