It depends on capturing that moment, that second, that split second in most cases, that perfectly encapsulates an event, an emotion, a triumph or tragedy in the flood of split seconds, the rush of moments that make up a full event, in a way that will take everyone who sees the photos back to that exact instant, ten years, twenty years, two hundred years from now, and let them live it again in every grain of nuance.
You miss the moment, it’s gone forever.
There are no do-overs in sport photography. No resets. No waiting for better light or a better angle.
It’s here and now, come and gone, one half of a heartbeat and forever.
To deliver really great sport photography, you need the instincts of an athlete, the right place to stand, and the best, crispest, most precise lenses you can get to bridge the gap between the observer and the observed in a meaningful way.
Canon is a market leader in lenses that deliver this kind of impact. But even the identifying names of camera lenses are a bewildering code for their capabilities, their focal lengths and ranges.
With such precision available, such confusion possible, and the prices of lenses high, how do you know which are the best Canon lenses for sports photography?
How do you make the right choice from the vast array available?
Snap! We’ve captured some of the best Canon lenses for sports photography right here, so let’s take the guesswork out of the process.
Originally an update for Canon’s fast image-stabilized telephoto zoom, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II has become a favorite for sport photography, particularly when it comes to capturing those split-second moments that make and break indoor sporting triumphs.
It delivers a combination of fantastically crisp image quality and a mind-bogglingly precise autofocus option for those hit-or-miss moments, which has given it that indoor sporting edge.
In particular, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II improves on its own predecessor in the Canon range at wide-open apertures, especially towards the 200mm end of the spectrum, where the previous model struggled to maintain accuracy and clarity.
The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II had a complete optical redesign compared to its predecessor when it launched – though it’s important to remember that launch was in 2010, and there’s now an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III model available, for all the gold in the land and half your kingdom to boot.
That said, the work that was done on the optical redesign means that the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II is still absolutely on top of its game.
While the cost of the lens is still considerable, coming down to the affordable realms of possibility, where photographers besides those who live or die on the minute-relevant quality of their images are able to get the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II and raise the overall quality of sports photography in the world by radically increasing the numbers of pictures taken with this lens.
In essence, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II is becoming the baseline standard for serious sports photographers.
Putting Canon’s four-stop IS (image stabilization) system, fluorite glass elements to lessen the effects of chromatic aberration, that insane autofocus, and improved weather sealing and durability into the hands of anyone with a serious intention to deliver crisp, professional-grade sport photography.
Industry-leading image crispness
Chromatic aberration mitigation
Better at wide-open apertures towards the 200mm end of the spectrum
Autofocus allows a degree of lenience
Coming down the price ladder
It’s not the latest edition of this lens series, and many will want to opt for the latest tech to learn its tricks and capabilities
The numbers tell the story here – this is a lens to use when you’re closer to the action than, for instance, you’d need to be with the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II.
But if you can get close to courtside, the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM brings its own optical upgrade to the party, including better image processing across the frame, and less distortion than its own predecessor lens.
To get technical for a second, this is a lens with an intriguing optical design, with 18 elements arranged into 13 groups, which includes a couple of ultra-low dispersion elements and a Super US aspheric element to cut aberrations down to a minimum.
What that gives you is an absolutely workmanlike camera lens, able to turn its hand to most things without batting an electronic eye, and that includes the precision and split-second crispness of image capture you need for great sports photography.
Obviously, Canon's ring-type ultrasonic motor is here, giving you rapid focusing but allowing for full manual override if you believe you’ve got the better shot.
You also get a circular aperture diaphragm, which can deliver you atmospheric background blur in comparison with the crispness of your foreground image.
For moments when you want to convey speed, or the world standing still, it’s a neat additional trick.
One thing to be aware of though – unlike our list-leading lens, there’s no image stabilization in the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM.
Does that matter?
Mmmsort of. But arguably less in sports photography than in some other areas. Image stabilization is a cool tool to have in your lens, no question, but it allows you to capture sharp images of static objects at slower shutter speeds, rather than, as is commonly believed, to capture crisp, clear images of moving objects at speed.
So if you’re taking celebration or portrait shots of your athlete of choice, IS can be useful.
If you’re trying to get an amazing action shot of them mid-dunk, or mid-swing, or overtaking their opponent on the final bend, IS is of only questionable use to you anyway, and the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM will serve you at least as well as a lens with IS built-in.
Learning when IS is useful and when it’s more of a hindrance than a help is part of the art and science of sport photography. Knowing when to have the tools and the tech in your hand is what makes you a great sport photographer.
While it’s a useful option to have in the lens you choose, the lack of IS doesn’t in any way stop the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM being a phenomenally good lens both for sport photography and for most other things you’ll want to point your camera at besides.
Workmanlike lens that delivers crisp images in almost all situations
While we’re talking about how important image stabilization is, it’s worth taking a look at the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM.
Our list-leading lens has that image stabilization capability, but if you don’t want or need to splash out the bucks for that higher level tech, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM may well be the lens you’re looking for.
Another lens with a great track record in indoor sports photography and image capture.
Is it as crisp as the list-leader?
Do you miss the image stabilization?
That depends what particular shots you’re trying to get. Again, it’s a budget-versus-capability decision – if you’re absolutely sure you need the IS tech, it demands extra things happen to the lens, which is more expensive.
If you don’t absolutely need the image stabilization, you can pick up a relative bargain in the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM that will still give you extremely good sports images.
It’ll also do that for significantly less lens-layout than the list-leading, image stabilizing EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II.
For a cheaper, almost advanced-hobbyist price, you get a lens that’s lighter than the more tech-heavy version, but which is especially ideal when used with polarized or graduated filters.
Yes, the closer you get to the 200mm boundary, the softer the focus becomes, which can be artistically useful for some applications, but is less than ideal for sports photography.
But for the vast majority of the lens’s range, the focus and the image quality is sharp and crisp.
Some of the lens elements are coated to protect against flare, and these allow for more widespread use in outdoor sport photography – with the obvious proviso that shooting directly into a light source is asking for flare, whatever you coat your lens elements with.
Overall, this is a good lens for those who are trying their hand at hardcore sport photography, but are not yet convinced of the need to bust their budget on some of the more technically enabled but more expensive options on the market.
Price – it’s significantly cheaper than some of the more tech-heavy lenses in the list
Crisp images among most of the range
Weather locked and anti-flare coated
A good introductory lens to proper sport photography
No image stabilization
Some loss of sharp focus towards the 200mm boundary
Some loss of crispness towards the edges of images at lower levels, while the center of the image remains sharp
Canon has claimed that the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5/6L II USM is as good as our list-leading EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II – and in terms of image clarity, it’s difficult to dispute that claim.
Winning accolades among reviewers around the world, the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5/6L II USM is not by any means a cheap lens, but it does deliver some impeccable sports photography in a lighter-than-expected package.
The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5/6L II USM gives you considerable reach for quite a small lens (7.6 x 3.7 inches). Sharp across its image range, it will give you a focus down to 3.2 feet at 400mm zoom, which should be quite enough to let you capture moments of sporting triumph even from quite some distance, so you can let the lens do the work for you while you concentrate on getting your composition, your moment, your unique shot.
Overall, this is a compact and a lighter option which delivers on image quality up to and including 400mm.
It’s not cheap, but it delivers time after time and gives you a degree of freedom to get sharp images across the full spectrum of its zoom, so you can ‘be there’ without needing to intrude, and can still get some incredible sports photography shots.
Lightweight, compact lens
Crisp clarity across the full range of the camera’s zoom
OK, let’s play. This is a lens that’s lottery-winner, syndication or get-your-employer-to-pay expensive, but it’s also the last word in Canon telephoto lenses for outdoor sport photography.
It bills itself as ‘the professional’s choice for a long lens,’ and goes out of its way to justify that billing, being not only 28% lighter than its own predecessor lens, but combining 16 optic elements in 12 groups, fluorite optics for unparalleled sharpness and crispness of image even in changeable weather and light levels, and the likes of a Fluorine coating which keeps finger-smudges and soiling down to a minimum.
It’s the equivalent of a Teflon lens, with a world-class photo lab inside it.
The EF 400mm f/2.8 IS II USM comes with three modes of image stabilization, including a mode which only engages the IS only when the shutter button is fully pressed, which gives you the equivalent effect of a shutter speed four stops faster for easy panning – a huge boon in effective, prizewinning, moneymaking sport photography.
This is the kind of lens you have to prove you’re good enough to deserve, or rich enough to want. You should have to unlock ownership of the EF 400mm f/2.8 IS II USM by mastering several smaller, less complex, less entirely superb lenses.
As such of course, you can obviously click the ‘buy’ button, but you should probably ask yourself questions about value for money before you do so.
This lens will do amazing things for you, it will level up the sports photography skills you have beyond almost any shadow of doubt, with crisp images at significant distance – but can you truly claim you’ll get value for money out of the lens?
If you’re confident of getting the shots that will end up in the sports pages of newspapers around the world, absolutely, go nuts, get this lens.
If you’re a retired sports fan who wants your local baseball team to feel like they play for the big leagues, likewise go nuts – and also, you rock.
If you’re not genuinely able to drop a lot of money on a single lens, think hard, think twice, think a third time about some of the less expensive options on our list, and talk to yourself about whether the EF 400mm f/2.8 IS II USM is a lens you can handle, and a lens you can afford.
Crispness of image at a distance
16 lens elements in 12 groups
Anti-smudging Fluorine coating
Three levels of image stabilization
Significantly lighter than the previous lens in its class
Price – if you’re good enough, convince someone to buy it for you
Best Canon Lens For Sport Photography – Buyers Guide
When looking for the best Canon lens for sport photography, you need to consider a few vital questions.
Indoor Or Outdoor
The demands on your camera lens will differ depending on whether you’re aiming to use it to capture primarily indoor or outdoor sports.
Decide which sport you’re aiming to capture with the lens you want, and then adjust your calculations for weatherproofing (outdoors), lightweight (both, but predominantly indoors), light reactions (shooting in sunlight or under stadium or court lighting, etc).
Use these factors to feed into your search for the right lens for you.
To Stabilize Or Not To Stabilize
Image stabilization is the big thing in sport photography, but ask yourself whether you really need it. How much do you actually gain in terms of ease of shot, quality of image and resale value from a lens with image stabilization?
If you don’t need it, don’t pay extra for it in your sport photography lens.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I need a special lens for sport photography?
Plenty of amateur photographers will tell you you don’t.
Plenty of amateur photographers will be wrong.
Sure, there are lenses that will do lots of things really well, and you can get away with using them for some time, but the knack of sport photography is capturing particular moments of action and emotion, and the likelihood of getting those can actually be broken down into technical specifications – lens elements that make you more likely to capture those once-in-a-lifetime moments in perfect clarity with no focus fade, to blur, no color aberration.
It’s those technical elements that help you get really competent, even sellable, sport photographs, and the lenses that give you those elements are worth paying for if you’re serious about sport photography.
Do I need separate indoor and outdoor sport photography lenses?
This will depend on environmental and photographic factors. As a general rule, get the best lenses that will help you get results in the field in which you’re a more regular photographer, be that indoors or out.
If you regularly shoot photographs in both environments, put more money into one at first, rather than getting two more mediocre lenses.
When you’re able to justify spending the money, you can always bump up the quality of the lens you haven’t focused on at first.
Last Updated on 2020-06-04 //Source: Affiliate Affiliates
IMPROVE PHOTOGRAPHY LLC IS A PARTICIPANT IN THE AMAZON SERVICES LLC ASSOCIATES PROGRAM, AN AFFILIATE ADVERTISING PROGRAM DESIGNED TO PROVIDE A MEANS FOR SITES TO EARN ADVERTISING FEES BY ADVERTISING AND LINKING TO AMAZON.COM. WE ALSO PARTICIPATE IN AFFILIATE PROGRAMS WITH BLUEHOST, CLCJ, SHAREASALE, AND OTHER SITES. WE ARE COMPENSATED FOR REFERRING TRAFFIC.