Borrow lenses (and sports photography)

I received this e-mail:

Trust this finds you well. I am hoping I can impose upon your photography expertise with a question. My wife has been shooting our son’s high school football games (played at night under the lights) with our basic Cannon SLR rebel and using a borrowed Sigma telephoto lens that I think is an 18-200mm and there were some other specs but I can’t find my notes.

Anyway – knowing that the prime purpose is to shoot football games at night where the lighting is ok at best – and wanting a good amount of zoom capability – can you recommend some options in the $500 – $750 price range for me? Also a good retailer or place to buy such an item?

There are really two questions here: what is the ideal lens to buy for night (from the stands) night sports photography, and what is the best lens to buy in a given price range. The answer to the second question may be…nothing at all.

You can read on, or read an four-year-old article on the subject here.

General consideration on the lens

To shoot an outdoor at night, you need to look for two features in a lens. The first is a long zoom to reach the subject from the stands or sidelines. The second is a large aperture to get the shutter speed necessary.

Professionals use a 300mm (and longer) fixed telephoto at a large aperture f/2.8. They’re quite expensive—some are so expensive that only a magazine like Sports Illustrated has them—and a few copies at best.

Thinking outside the lens

One thing to look for is for (if you are Canon, Nikon or Panasonic photographer) is image stabilization (IS in Canon-speak). This will be an adequate substitute for a tripod.

However for sports photography, it might be best to look for a good monopod from Bogen, Giottos, or Gitzo (and others). This gives you 95% of the stability you need for sports and documentary shooting, without the hassle of setup time. (BTW, from my experience, avoid the strap monopods, the gear you might have will be too heavy for that hack.) I do not own a set myself since I don’t do sports photography, but remember if you buy a high-end monopod, you may need to buy a system: monopod, clamp, and bracketas in this example.

Lenses at that price range

The Canon body mentioned is a fine body for shooting at that range because it has smaller sensor—the only thing a more expensive body will get you for this sort of shooting is a higher frame rate. This means an effective 1.6x focal length multiplier—200mm lens will be a 310mm lens effective. That’s a lot of reach! To know if it’s enough, look at the images you have shot already in the borrowed lens, and ask yourself if the size is enough. 🙂

At the price range above, the most versatile lens will be the superzoom class mentioned. I recommend the Canon EF-S 18-200mm IS. It’s better constructed than the Tamron and will be a great “leave on the body all the time especially when travelling” lens.

If that is too much, then I recommend the Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS lens. It’s a low budget compliment to the kit lens that comes with the Rebel. The main disadvantage being only that you have to swap out lenses when shooting in different situations.

Not enough oomph?

If your photos are coming out blurry and the lens you borrowed is image stabilized, then the problem is the shutter speed isn’t fast enough and you are limited by the maximum aperture of the lens. The next level up in the Canon world is the “baby-L” f/4. But it’s not a major step up in speed (at best, you only double the shutter speed). Instead you’ll need to jump to the 70-200mm f/2.8. The current pinnacle is Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS which runs above $2k. If you are on a “budget” then for this situation the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L+a good monopod should take just a good a photo at half the price.

If your photos are currently not big enough (@200mm/310mm effective) then you need more reach. Lenses with this sort of reach are exotically priced and mostly for birding. A substituted would be to buy a 70-200mm and a teleconverter or “doubler.” Depending on the magnification needed, there are two that Canon sells: EF 1.4X II and the the EF 2x II. Be warned about the following:

  • The 1.4x decreases the aperture by a stop; two stops for the 2x. Each stop halves shutters speed. That’s why it’s important to have a large aperture zoom starting out. It’s because of this that Nikon sells a 1.7x teleconverter for those people who want to split the difference.
  • The image quality will be reduced since it is magnifying the center of the telephoto zoom. I do not believe this will be an issue unless you are planning to do a wall-sized blowup:

    Playing chicken with a pelican

    Playing chicken with a pelican
    La Jolla Cove, La Jolla, CA

    Nikon D70, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR, TC-20E II
    f/5.6 at 1/1000 second, iso 200, 400mm (600mm)

    Obviously the lighting here is better than a nighttime sport…but look at the sharpness.

  • I do not believe these work on EF-S lenses because the mount is different. Even if they did, they’d be so dark that the autofocus system would be severely compromised. You’ll need a high-quality EF “L” Canon lens for this trick

(In the original e-mail reply, I said I’d offer to lend him my 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and TC-20E II, but it’s a Nikon lens.)

Lenses outside your price range and trying before buying

Speaking of borrowing and lending glass, especially for big purchases, I suggested that he rent a lens at a reasonable rate. Perhaps even a len, teleconverter combo. Even before making a purchase it’s nice to know what you are giving up (or getting) beforehand.

He wrote back:

I did not know that it was possible to “rent” a lens. Is there a service provider that you recommend for this or should I just Google it (or Bing it)

My friends recommend so therefore I do also. In fact, I’d consider taking advantage of their excellent customer service to discuss things with them before deciding what to rent.

Unlike me… some of them actually shoot their kid’s nighttime football games. 🙂

Where to buy lenses?

There was another question in the original e-mail. Now I’ve linked in the article above, but I must confess I’ve only bought two lenses from there and my experience was so-so.

If purchasing online I recommend three vendors: B&H Photo Video, Adorama, and Roberts Imaging. If you click on the first two links before making a purchase, I get a kickback. I’ve purchased many times from all three.

5 thoughts on “Borrow lenses (and sports photography)

  1. Canon seems to make some pretty suitable 200mm primes, but I'm not sure if the street price or performance is better than the zooms you recommended.

    The other cheat would be, if their Rebel is a generation or two old, is to buy the latest in decent Rebels, stick with a cheap and slow 55-200, and reap the benefits of the large increase in hi-ISO usability in recent sensors. That would probably cost less than 1-stop-better glass, and might grant more than a stop of improved performance, depending on the camera bodies in. Question.
    My recent post Video Games Playday this weekend

    1. I mentioned the EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM in a previous post, but I decided to focus on zooms for their versatility in this sort of setting. $600 for a prime is a bit much for a family purchase.

      As for upgrading bodies, while the ISO ratings have changed, real image quality |||has only gone up 1/3 of a stop between the Canon 350D and 550D. I'm not sure I’d recommend that route. However, recommending that they use a higher ISO to stop the action is a great idea I forgot to mention. Thanks!

  2. Hey, so on a related note, what do you recommend for indoor sporting events where flashes aren't allowed (e.g. gymnastics). I think the same high speed 70-200mm IS lens you covered here would work but wondering if there aren't other considerations when you move indoors.

    Good stuff, more impressed you blogged around Canon 😉

    1. The 200mm f/2.0 (Canon and Nikon make these) was specifically designed for this shooting situation. It's too expensive (for non-pros) to own, but you can rent it at borrow lenses. The 70-200mm f/2.8 will cover this too, it’s a stop slower, so push the ISO another notch.

      For indoor shooting, you don't need zoom or reach, but you need speed to freeze subject motion. BTW, unless you can set up the flash stands near the subject in a gym, flashes won't have the reach (or be far enough off camera) either.

      As for blogging Canon, it appears most of the questions I get are from Canon shooters. It's best to craft answers catered to the questioner 😉

  3. I agree completely with what you’re saying. My only problem is that when I do try to make a change, it really works, but I all the time revert again to my same ways. Sticking to them is what I discover difficult.

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