What is the ultimate Canon indoor sports lens?
The indoor sports photographer typically faces one of the biggest challenges in the photography world.
Basketball, volleyball, soccer, gymnastics, wrestling, dance, equestrian, etc. events are typically held under dim, spectrum-starved venue lighting.
The photographer is often confined to one location while the participants move around – a lot.
And the participants usually don't move slowly.
An indoor sports lens needs to have a very wide aperture to enable a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action under the poor lighting conditions. "Adequate" in these situations usually involves a significant compromise between motion-stopping shutter speeds and noisy high ISO settings.
A prime (fixed focal length) lens is often the right 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 close to far or far to close. The results from a prime lens in this scenario often require resolution-destructive cropping when the subject is too far away and 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. 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 combination 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 rapidly approaching or departing subject at close distances or with tight framing. Economy lenses will not typically be up to this challenge.
The focal lengths needed for indoor sports photography vary greatly, but the 70-300mm range covers most of the requirements.
1. Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM 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.
2. Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM Lens
Great Low Light Sports Lens
This lens does not have the reach of its 200mm sibling, but it has significant light weight, small size, and low cost advantages. The L-series image quality you expect is there, and AF performance will keep up with fast-moving subjects.
3. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens
The Ideal General-Purpose Zoom Lens
The 70-200 f/2.8 image stabilized lens is one of the most crucial zoom lenses in most photographers' kits, and the 70-200 f/2.8L III IS Lens is one of the best zoom lenses ever produced. Professionals and amateurs alike typically have this lens in their hands with high frequency. Professionals use it because there is no better lens available for many jobs, and amateurs (especially parents and grandparents) use it additionally because this is the longest focal length available in an affordable, conveniently-sized f/2.8 lens. The wide f/2.8 max aperture allows action to be captured in low light (think indoor events) and, combined with the telephoto focal lengths, allows the background to be blurred away.
The 70-200 f/2.8L III IS is a completely professional-grade lens with great image quality, fast and accurate AF, and image stabilization in a solidly-built, weather-sealed, fixed-size body. An added benefit is that this lens performs well with extenders, an excellent option for when you need even more focal length. This lens's zoom feature provides great versatility.
4. Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art Lens
F/1.8 in a Zoom Lens is a Big Deal
The Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art Lens 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.
5. Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens
Also an Incredible Sports Lens
The 300L IS II is an amazing lens in all regards, and some reach is needed for indoor sports events, this lens is a great choice. You can expect impressive images from this lens – when you do your part correctly, of course.
6. Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens
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 event 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 blur of color. This lens features great image quality along with pro-grade build quality at a price that isn't crazy.
7. Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM Lens
Very Good Value, Fast AF, Wide Aperture
This 100 f/2 is not at the same level of eliteness 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.
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.