Cameras and Lenses

April 12, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Many of you have asked about the gear that I use to make my photos.  I happen to use Canon equipment.  Why Canon?  Well, it just so happens that my first 35 mm camera from back in the film days was a Canon A1, my dad bought it in 1978, and it still works just fine!  In 2004 when I was looking for a digital camera, I tried a variety of point and shoot cameras and found all of them lacking.  That meant that I had to look at SLR cameras.  Canon had a definite lead in "affordable" digital SLRs that were of a high enough quality that I found to be acceptable.  Thier combination of auto focus and a decent sensor made Canon the compelling choice of the day.  They also have an awesome collection of lenses to compliment the camera bodies.  Since that time, I have learned a whole lot more about photography, cameras, and all of the equipment needed to make great photos. 

Shooting family memories can now be done with ease using your iPhone or pretty much any point and shoot camera.  If you are planning on shooting table top still lifes and landscapes, pretty much any SLR camera will do unless you are selling your photos to top end magazines with very expensive requirements.   When it comes to sports photography, there are certainly camera body and lens choices that will help you.  Let's look at a few of those:

CAMERA BODY (Digital SLR is a given) and Canon and Nikon are easily the leaders in this category.  Features that will help you:

  • High ISO performance.  The ability to get clean pictures when it gets dark is important.  I regularly shoot at ISO 1600 and higher.
  • fast, accurate auto focus with selectable focus points.  You need to know that your camera has the ability to focus on moving targets.  Professional bodies actually give you a great deal of control over the camera's AF performance, and there is a learning curve to master it.  
  • Faster frames per second shutter release.  The pro bodies get as many as 10 fps.  You usually will not use it like this, but the fps rate is an indicator of whether your camera is "sports ready." 
  • Weather sealing.  as the price goes up on cameras, they tend to include more and more protection for the internal electronics.  A dusty softball field is a hazardous environment for a camera!
  • Crop Factor - (aka APS-C or H sensor) -- This choice is perfectly debatable, but many sports, wildlife, and bird photographers prefer camera bodies that add some extra reach to thier lenses.  Those starting out will be happy to know that these bodies are cheaper than thier full frame counterparts!
  • Canon:  1D series, 7D, and xxD series. 
  • Nikon:  D3, D4, D800, D7000,
  • Generally Speaking:  only you can know if the jump to a higher priced body or lens is worth it, but each step up does give you a higher level of performance, making it easier to capture the image.  Even a Canon REbel or Nikon 3100 will be able to get the shot, you'll just have to work harder to get the image.

LENS CHOICES - while any lens can help you make a picture, there are some qualities of the lens that will help your chances of nailing an action photo:

  • fast aperture (this means lower f-stop number) - Shooting sports, you need a fast shutter speed.  Using a lower f-stop allows you to pump up the shutter speed.  Using a lens with a faster f-stop (lower number) allows you to do this.  It also has the advantage of allowing your camera's AutoFocus system to perform at its best.  Some AF points need a lens to be at least f 2.8 in order to work or to work faster.  If your lens only goes to f 3.5, you will not be able to use that feature in your camera.  This also has the advantage of throwing the distracting elements in the background out of focus (bokeh) which helps make the subject stand out.
  • fast AF response - the truth is that AF speed is a combination of the lens and the camera body.  The lens must have the capability of performing.  The newest lenses have the latest motors in them, but you'll have to read the nitty gritty details and read reviews in order to learn about the capabilities of your lens. 
  • IS / VR technology -- This one is debatable.  The technology lets you shoot in lower light  when using slow shutter speeds.  Generally speaking, your shutter speeds for sports are fast enough that the technology doesn't really matter.  On the other hand, given the same lens with and without it, the manufacturers tend to put the higher end glass in the lenses that have it.
  • build quality - If you are shooting sports, you are going to be in some tough places, and your lens might take a beating.  Look for weather sealing, metal construction, and the manufacturer's assurance that your lens is able to take some punishment.  Generally speaking, these are the "Pro" level lenses. 

Yes, you can get a decent sports shot with your camera phone.  But you will definitely increase your odds of consistently making great memories by following the above guidelines.  Sorry, I cannot tell you what is "the best lens to use for sports."  That will depend on your tastes and the task at hand.  I use everything from fisheye to 400mm lenses to capture the moment, but here are some good choices:

  • 70-200 mm f 2.8 - whether you choose the IS/VR vesion is up to you.  This is THE basic sports lens.
  • 24 - 70 mm f 2.8 - mostly for basketball, though you can find other uses for it too!
  • 100 - 400 -- this is the long lens for daytime sports without having to break the bank. 
  • 85 mm f 1.8 - I don't yet own this one, but it is a great choice for basketball.
  • 300 mm f 2.8 -- when your budget allows for it, this lens is amazing, and takes extenders very well.

I have used other lenses as well.  But the truth about cameras and lenses is that you will always have to make a compromise.  For me, that compromise is based on what I can afford as opposed to what I would like to be using.  Unless you work for Sports Illustrated or have Bill Gates income, that will probably be true for you as well.  A little research will point you in the right direction, and asking questions of those who have done it will help you figure out the best compromise for your intended usage. 


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