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 bracket—as 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:
- 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 BorrowLenses.com 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 Amazon.com 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.