What is the best indoor sports lens? Let's work into the answer to that question.
The indoor sports photographer typically faces one of the biggest challenges in the photography world.
Basketball, volleyball, soccer, gymnastics, wrestling, dance, equestrian ... The lighting at these events, at best, is usually dim. And spectrum-starved. The photographer is often confined to one location while the participants move around – a lot. And they usually don't move slowly.
An indoor sports lens needs to have a very wide aperture to enable a shutter speed fast enough to adequately stop the action. And yes, "adequate" in these situations often involves a compromise. A fixed focal length (or prime) lens is often a good choice as these lenses typically get the widest apertures.
Of course, the disadvantage of the fixed focal length lens is that you can't properly frame the fast-moving athlete as they go from near to far or far to near. The results from a prime lens in this scenario often require resolution-destructive cropping when the subject is too far away – or creative framing when the subject is too close.
When it comes to indoor sports, the biggest problem with zoom lenses is that they seldom feature a max aperture wider than f/2.8. And f/2.8 is usually what I consider the absolute minimum aperture opening for a successful indoor sports shoot.
In dimly lit arenas, even a max aperture of f/2.8 may require the use of ISO settings so high that an unacceptable amount of noise in your images is the result, especially with an APS-C/1.6x FOVCF DSLR camera. I shoot indoor soccer in one venue where f/2 on a full frame body is not even adequate.
With a prime lens, you need to select the lens and position that works best for the particular situation – or carry a couple of cameras with different focal length lenses mounted.
Autofocus performance is a big differentiator between lenses when action sports are the subject and light levels are low. While most lenses can capture a distant subject running perpendicular from you across a court (a constant focus distance), it takes a good lens to be able to focus-track a rap[idly approaching or departing subject at close distances or with tight framing. Economy lenses will not typically be up to this challenge.
I will separate the recommended zoom lenses (first) from the primes (next).
The Ultimate Indoor Action Sports Zoom Lens
The 70-200 f/2.8L II IS Lens is one of the best zoom lenses available in any focal length range, but the 70-200mm range works well for many indoor sports purposes. This lens has very impressive image quality and very fast/accurate AF. It is very well-built and ready for the demands of professional use. This is my first choice for an indoor action zoom lens.
Excellent Focal Length Range, Great Image Quality, Wide f/2.8 Aperture, OS
The Sigma 120-300 lens zooms past the rest of the f/2.8 competition. This lens offers the much-needed-for-sports f/2.8 max aperture over an also-much-needed-for-sports range of long focal lengths. This is not the fastest-focusing lens, but AF speed is adequate for many sports uses. Build quality is really nice and this lens looks great as well. Optical image stabilization is there when you need it.
Beautifully-Designed Lens that Performs Beautifully
The 70-200mm focal length range works well for many indoor sports and this lens' f/2.8 aperture can stop action in many of these venues. The image quality delivered by this lens is stellar and the autofocus performance insures that image quality is realized. This lens looks great and its price is especially attractive.
Pro-Quality Lens, Very Good Image Quality, Wide f/2.8 Aperture, Fast AF
If you can't afford the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II, the 70-200 f/2.8L is a good choice for an indoor sports lens in this focal length range. The IS II is a newer lens model with better image quality and image stabilization, but the non-IS lens performs very well in an indoor venue. It is a high quality lens.
F/1.8 in a Zoom Lens is a Big Deal
This is an APS-C format-only lens, but if that is your format, this lens gives you a before-unheard-of f/1.8 aperture that is ideally suited for indoor sports action. The nice range of focal lengths will prove useful for close-to-the-action situations.
Excellent Image Quality, Nicely Built, Wide f/2.8 Aperture, Great Autofocus Speed & Accuracy
For the closer action or the big picture, the 24-70L II is an awesome choice. This lens can keep up with close/fast action and delivers image quality that is sure to please. It is a great choice for indoor sports photography.
Excellent Image Quality, Wide f/2.8 Aperture, Fast AF
This APS-C format-only lens will work well for close action or to capture the venue environment. This is not an L-lens, but the image quality it delivers is on par with those lenses bearing the red ring. Ring USM-driven AF is fast and accurate. Image stabilization, though not always helpful for photographing sports, is there when you need it.
Socres Major Points for the f/1.8 Aperture, Great Build Quality, Excellent Image Quality
The range of focal lengths on this APS-C-format-only zoom lens is not long, and the focal lengths available are wide, but having an f/1.8 aperture in a zoom lens simply rocks for indoor action. If you can get close enough to the action to make 18-35mm properly frame your subject, this lens will stop low light action and create background blur like no other zoom lens can on an APS-C format camera. Sigma delivers very impressive phyical features to accompany the excellent image quality you can expect from this lens.
Ultimate Low Light Sports Lens
With the longest focal length available in an f/2 aperture, the 200 f/2 IS lens rocks indoor sports action. This lens will stop action in 1/2 as much light as an f/2.8 lens and will create a stronger background blur than a 200mm f/2.8 lens, better eliminating the distracting backgrounds common at indoor sporting events. AF performance, image quality and build quality are as you dream they could be. As with Canon's other large, wide aperture primes, this is not an economy lens model – but it makes a great deal of economic sense for serious shooters.
Incredible Sports Lens
When your indoor needs call for the most focal length available, this is the lens to get. The price tag of this lens will set you back, but the image quality and performance it delivers will set your performance apart.
Also an Incredible Sports Lens
The 300L IS II is every bit as good as the 400L IS II in all regards, but in a wider focal length – one that I find myself using frequently for indoor action. You can expect impressive images from this lens with have an equally-well-performing camera behind it – when you do your part correctly of course.
Impressive Optical Quality Even at f/1.8, Great Lens Design
If the 200mm f/2 IS lens is out of your price range and you need/want the f/2 or wider aperture, consider a 135mm prime lens. These lenses are considerably smaller and less expensive than the 200mm f/2L IS lens option, but they offer an aperture at least as wide. The 135mm focal length is of course wider than 200mm and ideally-framed subjects will need to be closer, but this medium-telephoto focal length still has some reach.
The image quality of the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art Lens is very impressive even at f/1.8 and the ability of the 135mm and f/1.8 combination to melt even a busy background into a smooth, non-distracting blur will make your subjects pop.
Though it is not a small or light lens, the 135 Art lens is dramatically smaller and lighter than the 200 f/2 IS.
Another good 135mm option is the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM Lens. This lens will provide at least as good AF performance and though it is an older model, it still produces great image quality.
Either of these lenses also work great for portraits including weddings and other low light events.
Great Image Quality,L Lens Quality, Good Value
It is not an f/2 lens and it does not have a zoom focal length range, but the 200 f/2.8L II has the price, size and weight advantage. This is a high quality lens that will get the job done vry well.
Great f/1.4 Aperture, Great Build Quality, Excellent Image Quality
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens begs for your light-starved action venues. While image stabilization may not help you stop the action, it still helps the camera's AF system deliver better accuracy due to the stabilized image it presents. The f/1.4 aperture definitely will help stop the action and it can also turn the usually-distracting indoor sports venues into a simple color blur. This lens features great image quality along with pro-grade build quality at a price that isn't crazy.
Very Good Value, Fast AF, Wide Aperture
The Canon 85 f/1.8 is practically an equal to the 100 f/2, including image quality and AF performance. The 85mm focal length is obviously slightly wider and the aperture is slightly wider. The 85 is also slightly less expensive.
Very Good Value, Fast AF, Wide Aperture
This 100 f/2 is not at the same level of elite-ness as the 135 f/2, but it is a really good value. For a very reasonable price, you get decent image quality, a wide f/2 aperture and Ring USM AF.
Impressive f/1.4 Image Quality, Beautiful Design
The Sigma 50mm Art Lens delivers excellent image quality at an ultra-wide aperture that will allow you to stop your low light action. While I experienced some AF accuracy inconsistencies and this is not the fastest-focusing lens, this would be my 50mm lens of choice for indoor sports.
Ultra-Wide Aperture, Excellent AF, Great Build Quality, Incredible Image Quality
This lens is the complete package. The AF system can keep up with fast-moving subjects and the ultra-wide f/1.4 aperture can provide fast, action-stopping shutter speeds even in dark sporting venues. The image quality, even at f/1.4 aperture, is impressive. Build quality is totally pro-grade.
Ultra-Wide Aperture, Excellent Image Quality, Excellent AF, Excellent Build Quality
The 24mm focal length is going to be used primarily for close action, but is also wide enough to take in the big picture at an indoor event. There is no wider focal length lens available in an aperture wider than f/2.8 – 2 stops narrower than f/1.4. This is a great lens overall – including great image quality.
The list above is not an exhaustive list of lenses that can be used for indoor sports photography, but they are my top choices. Also visit the Canon Lens Recommendations page for other recommendations, including recommendations for Canon outdoor sports lenses.