3 Best Zoom Lenses for Sports Photography

When shooting many sports, a zoom lens is a necessity. You’ll need a lens like this if you want to catch the action from all over the field, but figuring out the right one to buy can be a tough task, thanks to all the options.

I’m Caleb, and I have five years of experience as a sports photographer. I’ve shot several sports, from football to basketball to boxing, so I’m familiar with what types of lenses work in different situations.

In this article, I’ll look at three of the best zoom lenses for sports photography and where each one excels. If you’re unsure which zoom lens you need or which one will give you the best value, keep reading for the complete overview.

Key Takeaways

  • Since you’re shooting sports, a wide maximum aperture is useful for multiple reasons. The best zoom lenses for sports offer range and a wide aperture.
  • If you need an all-around lens that covers intermediate ranges quite well, consider a 70-200mm model, such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III.
  • Super-telephoto lenses like Tamron’s SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD are great for shooting more distant sports like racing.
  • Having a shorter-range lens for some sports and situations is important, such as the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM.
Is 200mm Enough For Sports?

It depends on the sport. Generally, a 200mm lens is at least partly suited for most sports. In some, such as football and soccer, it’s good enough for catching nearby plays but not ones that are happening a long distance away.

What Lens Do NFL Photographers Use?

There’s no single lens or even type of lens that NFL photographers use. Sports photographers generally pick their own gear and use a variety of lenses for different situations and shot types.

Is A 70-300mm Lens Good Enough For Sports?

For most sports, a 300mm lens will cover most of your needs. In fact, in many sports, 300mm is actually too much range. A lens this size is best for outdoor sports played on a large field or for motorsports.

What Makes The Best Zoom Lens for Sports Photography?

Here are some things to keep an eye on if you’re shopping for a zoom lens to use for sports photography.

  • Maximum Range: Obviously, you’re getting a zoom lens because you need range. You should consider how much range you need and base your purchase on that. For example, if you’re shooting basketball courtside, a 300mm lens would probably be overkill.
  • Minimum Range: The minimum range can be just as important as the max range. Take careful note of this because it determines how versatile your lens is. For example, if your minimum is 200mm, don’t expect to get any close shots with this lens!
  • Maximum Aperture: Aperture is the most critical spec behind the range. You need a wide aperture both to freeze the action and blur the background, and it also helps with low-light shooting.
  • Mount: It’s worth noting which mount a lens uses to ensure it works with your camera. Even if the same company makes the lens as your camera, it might not work if designed for a different mount.

The 3 Best Zoom Lenses for Sports Photography

Here are my thoughts on the three best zoom lenses for sports photography. All the lenses on this list have a good combination of range and aperture, as well as other features such as image stabilization.

1. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM (Best All-Around)

  • Range: 70-200mm
  • Maximum Aperture: f/2.8
  • Mount: Canon EF

The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS III USM lens offers the versatility expected of a mode like this one. The range offered by this kind of lens is excellent for covering most intermediate-range action while also allowing for some closer-range shots with the zoom dialed back.

Like its predecessors, which are similar overall, the build quality is great. That’s obviously good for sports photography, where shooting on the sidelines usually carries some risk of getting run into by moving athletes.

Speaking of build quality, the lens is also protected against dust and moisture, making it a good option if you’re shooting certain sports like beach volleyball or rally racing, where those are a concern.

The ‘IS’ in the title identifies this lens as having image stabilization. Not every sports photographer uses stabilization because it can slow down your shooting speed a bit, but it’s helpful to have the ability. For example, you might turn it on when shooting slower moments.

As for downsides, the biggest one for this lens is the fact that it’s just not that different from the models that have come before it. If you don’t want to spend the money on this newer model, you can get one of Canon’s previous 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses and get a similar experience.

My Verdict: The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L lens is a great option if you need an all-around intermediate zoom lens that will work for most sports.

2. Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD (Best Super-Telephoto)

  • Range: 150-600mm
  • Maximum Aperture: f/5.6 to f/6.3
  • Mount: Various

The range is the main draw to the Tamron 150-600mm lens. As a super-telephoto lens, this one will let you capture even the most distant plays. It’s great for shooting things like racing, where photographers usually have to sit further away from the action.

One of the main strengths of this lens is a smooth autofocus, which is essential if you’re shooting something like football or soccer where the subjects are constantly moving around the field.

The ‘VC’ in the title stands for ‘Vibration Compensation.’ Despite the different-sounding name, it means the same thing as Canon’s image stabilization. This feature includes multiple modes, letting you pick the right amount of stabilization.

A more understated advantage to this lens is that, as a third-party one, it’s available for multiple camera brands. You can buy versions for Nikon, Canon, or Sony mounts. This makes it more accessible than some other super-telephoto lenses that are only available to users of one brand.

Its primary disadvantage is the aperture. With a maximum aperture of f/5, and a zoomed-in aperture of f/6.3, you can say goodbye to the idea of low-light shooting or getting photos with the same sharpness offered by an f/2.8 lens.

My Verdict: If you need a versatile super-telephoto lens with smooth autofocus and zooming, the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens is your best bet.

3. Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM (Best For Close-Range)

  • Range: 24-70mm
  • Maximum Aperture: f/2.8
  • Mount: Canon EF

Long-ranged lenses are great, but sometimes we have to shoot something closer. The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens excels in this area, and every sports photographer should have a lens covering this range. It’s arguably Canon’s best general-purpose lens.

The lens has great autofocus, which makes sense when considering its target market. This one isn’t just for sports photographers but also the many photojournalists using Canon’s full-frame cameras.

Like this lens’s larger 70-200mm relative, the build quality is good and includes weather sealing. Depending on what sports you shoot, this might be a necessity.

Another attribute that’s important for shooting sports is flare resistance. If you can’t shoot toward the sun without getting too much lens flare, you’ll have difficulty with many outdoor sports. Fortunately, this lens does that quite well.

You should be warned, however, that this lens has worse image quality at shorter focal distances. If you shoot a lot of really close shots, you might want to consider a lens that specializes in mainly that, instead.

My Verdict: The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is one of Canon’s best general-purpose lenses, and is excellent for any sports photographer who uses a Canon and needs a shorter ranged option.

Final Thoughts

When shopping for a zoom lens for sports photography, there are many options. Hopefully, this list has helped you sort out the noise and determine which is the best for your needs.

If you still aren’t sure, you might want to also consider prime lenses. The difference is that a zoom lens has an adjustable focal range, while a prime lens has a fixed one. Many super-telephoto lenses, for example, are prime lenses.

What’s your go-to zoom lens? Were any lenses missed on this list? Tell us in the comments! 

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