3 Best Nikon Lenses for Sports Photography

As one of the top camera brands, Nikon also makes many high-end lenses. If you’re buying a Nikon lens for sports photography, it can quickly get confusing just from the sheer quantity there is to choose from.

I’m Caleb, and I’ve been a sports photographer for five years. I’ve shot games in most of the major sports over the years, so I have a good idea of what lenses work in what situations.

In this article, I’ll go over some of the best Nikon lenses for sports photography and which areas each of them excel in. If you’re unsure which lens is right for you, read ahead for the complete overview.

Key Takeaways

  • Arguably, having a wide aperture is the most important thing for a sports photography lens. Not only does this let you freeze the action better, but it also helps get clean shots in low light and blurring out background elements.
  • If you can only get one sports photography lens, one with an intermediate focal length like the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR will give you the most flexibility.
  • For sports like basketball, where you’re often closer to the action, consider bringing a shorter lens like the Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR.
  • Super-telephoto lenses like the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR are the most expensive but are worth the price for the elite level of sports photographers.
Is Nikon Good For Sports Photography?

Yes. Nikon is one of the most used brands in sports photography alongside Canon, so it’s safe to say plenty of professionals see Nikon’s products as high quality enough.

What Focal Length Is Best For Sports Photography?

That depends on which sport you’re shooting. A 70-200mm lens gives the most versatility, but some sports may require a shorter or longer lens depending on things like the size of the playing area and where you’re taking photos from.

How Do I Set My Nikon Camera Up For Sports Photography?

If you want to set your camera up for sports photography, you’ll have to learn how to manage settings yourself and move away from automatic modes. Shooting in manual mode is often best, but aperture or shutter priority modes can also work.

What Is The Difference Between AF-S And AF-P Nikon Lenses?

AF-S and AF-P refer to what kind of camera is needed to use the lens. AF-S lenses can be used with any of the Nikon F-mount cameras, while AF-P lenses require higher-end cameras supporting its autofocus system.

What Makes The Best Lens for Sports Photography

Here are some things you should note when searching for a sports photography lens.

  • Max Aperture: Maximum aperture is an important spec for a sports photography lens because it plays a large role in freezing the action. Also, a wide maximum aperture means better low-light performance, which helps at many smaller venues.
  • Range: You should choose a range that fits the sport you’re shooting. If you’re shooting basketball, for example, you don’t need a super-telephoto lens in most situations.
  • Mount: Pay attention to the mount the lens is made for. Some brands have different mounts for their high-end and low-end cameras.
  • Stabilization: Not every sports photographer uses stabilization, as it can slow down shooting. But it’s still a valuable feature to have, especially when shooting slower moments where steadiness is more important than speed.
  • Autofocus: A lens with good autofocus performance will let you fully take advantage of your camera’s autofocus ability. 

The 3 Best Nikon Lenses for Sports Photography

In my opinion, these are the best Nikon lenses for sports photography. Each one covers a distinct role, so chances are, you’ll be able to find the perfect one for your particular sport here.

1. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (Best Overall)

  • Focal Range: 70-200mm
  • Max Aperture: f/2.8
  • Mount: F-mount

The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is an essential lens for sports photographers using Nikon cameras, as it covers one of the most crucial ranges for sports. Because it covers this common range, the lens is very versatile by nature.

The lens also has a wide maximum aperture at f/2.8. You won’t have any problems getting sharp pictures and reliably blurring distracting elements from the background.

Even with narrower aperture settings, however, the lens has pretty sharp performance in general. The image quality here is what you would expect from one of Nikon’s flagship lenses.

The lens has image stabilization, referred to as vibration reduction in Nikon’s branding. It features two different settings for stabilization, one for regular use and one specifically designed for shooting sports. You can, of course, also turn it off.

The most significant negative with this lens is some distortion at higher zoom levels, as well as vignetting at the edges of the image. However, these things aren’t substantial enough to place the lens at a disadvantage compared to similar models.

My Verdict: The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is an excellent choice for any sports photographer thanks to its versatile range and sharp performance.

2. Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR (Best For Short Ranges)

  • Focal Range: 24-70mm
  • Max Aperture: f/2.8
  • Mount: F-mount

Like the first lens on this list, the Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR is valuable because of its versatility. This lens is the right focal length for short-range and wide-angle shots, which are important for shooting sports like boxing or basketball.

This lens also has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, and can maintain it through the entire zoom range. This is arguably its most important spec for sports photography and impacts multiple areas like low light shooting and image sharpness.

It features vibration reduction, which is designed to reduce blurriness from camera shake up to four shutter speed stops. 

Additionally, the lens elements have coatings to cut down on the amount of glare. If you’re photographing sports outdoors and have to face the sun, this can help avoid ruined shots.

The biggest con with this lens is the price. Despite the shorter range, it’s almost as expensive as the 70-200mm one. It’s not that the lens is bad. It’s that you can fill the same role and still get a high-performance level for less.

My Verdict: The Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR is the best Nikon lens for sports photographers who need a short-range or wide-angle option.

3. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR (Best Super-Telephoto)

  • Focal Range: 180-400mm
  • Max Aperture: f/4
  • Mount: F-mount

The main advantage of the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is clear. As a super-telephoto lens, you can get shots with it that you simply can’t with a shorter focal range lens. Being able to get those shots, of course, makes you more valuable as a photographer.

The maximum aperture of this lens is f/4. While that would be poor for a 24-70mm or 70-200mm lens targeting sports photographers, it’s actually pretty good for a lens with this kind of distance. Most super-telephoto lenses have much narrower apertures, such as f/5.6.

Just like the other cameras on this list, this one includes vibration reduction. As is the case with the 70-200mm lens, this one consists of a dedicated mode for sports photography.

The autofocus performance is also good, and as a Nikon lens, it’s specifically designed to work well with the autofocus systems of Nikon cameras.

The main weakness of this lens is the vignetting at the further out focal ranges. This doesn’t ruin the lens as a whole, but you might have to do more cropping or editing if you care about getting rid of vignetting.

My Verdict: The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is a super-telephoto lens that’s well-suited for sports and is great for anyone who needs to shoot at longer ranges.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, Nikon has a lens for you no matter what kind of sport you’re shooting. 

Whether you’re shooting something like basketball at close range or using a super-telephoto lens to capture plays in the middle of a football field, there’s a lens that fits the job.

Do you like a certain Nikon lens for sports photography? Or do you know a lens that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!

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