What is the ultimate Canon mirrorless camera sports lens?
Do you own a Canon DSLR camera? Our Best Canon DSLR Camera Outdoor Sports Lens recommendations page has your recommendations.
Even if you own a Canon R-series mirrorless camera, some lenses on the DSLR list may be preferable choices until Canon fills out the RF lens lineup.
There are a huge number of outdoor sports. Watching the summer and winter Olympics brings this fact to light very quickly. Soccer, football (USA), baseball, softball, track and field, field hockey, golf, surfing, racing (many variations), beach volleyball, swimming, waterskiing and other watersports, cycling, inline skating, skateboarding, lacrosse, snow skiing, snowboarding, tennis, badminton, cheerleading, rugby, equestrian, rodeo, and many more. I can't cover individual lens recommendations for all of these sports here, but I will make some generalizations and recommend some of the best and most popular outdoor sports photography lenses.
When shooting action sports, action-stopping shutter speeds are usually a top priority (1/500, 1/1000, or higher). A wide aperture is the key to get these fast shutter speeds. Outdoor sports are often played in bright daylight conditions where even f/5.6 max aperture lenses will work fine, but fast/wide aperture lenses are still a significant advantage. Wide apertures can blur the especially distracting sports venue backgrounds and can yield the fastest shutter speed/lowest ISO setting combinations.
When cloud cover moves in or the sun is below the skyline, I seldom want a lens with a max aperture narrower than f/2.8. Even at f/2.8, very high ISO settings are sometimes required after sunset. And if you are shooting outdoors under the lights, you will likely find f/2.8 marginally wide enough.
Getting the right focal length is, as usual, very important for selecting a sports lens. Many outdoor sports participants cover a wide range of distances from the photographer's position.
Professional sports photographers shooting big events will usually be using at least three cameras simultaneously, ensuring that they have the right focal length available all the time. Likely is that two will be zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are great for getting the framing right for each opportunity and for delivering a wide range of views and perspectives. But, due to narrow aperture issues, The ultimate sports lenses with focal lengths over 200mm are prime/fixed focal length lenses with ultra-wide apertures.
If you are shooting large field sports (soccer, baseball, American football), you are probably going to want a full-frame 400-600mm focal length angle of view. If you are shooting track and field with full access to the venue, any focal length from 24mm through 400mm or even 600mm can be useful. If shooting from outside of the fence or from the bleachers, you are probably going to want 200mm to 400mm or more depending on your subject distance. Longer focal lengths permit ideally-framed subjects to travel longer distances than wider-angle focal lengths where the subject is only momentarily properly framed. Understand that heat shimmer/haze/waves can negatively impact long distance image quality. Sometimes getting closer is the better option.
Autofocus performance is a big differentiator between lenses when action sports are the subject. While most lenses can capture a distant subject running perpendicular from you across a field (a constant focus distance), it takes a good lens (and camera) to be able to focus-track a fast-approaching or departing subject at close distances or with tight framing. Economy lenses will not typically be up to this challenge.
Image stabilization, a feature on many of the lenses I recommend, is not a tremendous advantage for many types of action sports photography. The required shutter speed for handholding sports lenses is not usually a concern as the shutter speed necessary to stop action is generally fast enough to stop camera shake. IS is, however, a very useful feature that you might use for other subjects at an event (people in the stands, players on the bench). In addition, image stabilization can improve AF performance by providing a still image to the AF system.
Many IS lenses have a panning stabilization mode (Mode 2) available, and this mode is especially helpful for capturing motorsports and other flat-track wheeled sports (cycling, for example) with a directional motion-blurred background. I have not found Mode 2 helpful for human runners as there is frequently too much up and down motion going along with the forward motion. Give it a try for your sport(s).
I will start the sports lens recommendations list with the best of the best, and the prices reflect this. If you are shooting professionally or you really care about the image quality of your sports photos, these are the lenses you need to be using, the investments you need to make. Buy or rent them.
Note that lenses at this quality level have historically held their value very well. Use them as long as you want, and then you will likely recoup a significant amount of your money when you resell them (such as when the kids get out of school or no longer participate in sports).
The Ultimate Sports Lens
If the assignment was to capture an amazing image at a sporting event, the RF 400 F2.8 L IS would be my first choice. This lens delivers phenomenal image quality, including an extremely strong background blur. The RF 400 has very fast and very accurate AF, is weather sealed, and has impressive build quality.
This is a lens that can be counted on to bring home the impressive shot every time.
The 400mm focal length works on the big field (in many situations), and its reach can be increased with extenders.
This is the longest f/2.8 focal length lens available (aside from Sigma's enormous and incredibly-high-priced
Awesome Overall Performance and Build Quality
When more reach than the RF 400mm F2.8 L IS Lens provides is required, when subjects are farther away than 400mm adequately reaches, this is the go-to lens. The 600mm focal length reaches deeper into the playing field, track, etc., keeps the photographer farther from any potential danger, and has a larger subject framing distance sweet spot than any 400mm alternative. The longest f/4 max aperture focal length available, 600mm will blur the background very strongly.
The overall build quality and performance of this lens, including image quality and autofocus accuracy, is very impressive.
APS-C format body owners will likely find this focal length too long for most sports uses. Also, note that heatwaves will make obtaining sharp 600mm mid-field images nearly impossible on a sunny afternoon — a 400mm option will often be a better choice on those days, shortening the subject distance for the same framing.
The Entire Package: Impressive image quality and Overall Performance, Wide Aperture, All of the Right Focal Lengths, Image Stabilization, Pro-Grade Build, Incredibly Compact
The Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM Lens is my go-to general-purpose telephoto zoom lens, and with an f/2.8 aperture, this focal length range represents the longest available without a big step up in size, weight, and cost. This lens is the right choice for a very high percentage of general telephoto photography needs, with sports being ideally covered.
Few want to compromise image quality, and this L-series lens delivers greatness in that regard. Fast and accurate AF? That box is checked. Pro-grade, weather-sealed build quality? Ruggedness is built in. High-performing image stabilzation is there for you when the tripod is not, and the wide aperture enables stopping motion in low light.
Ideal Focal Length Range for Landscape, Wildlife, and Sports Photography, High-Performing Lens with Pro-Grade Build and Image Quality, Image Stabilization
While the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens does not have the widest apertures available, this focal length range is awesome for sports, including those on the big fields. This lens produces outstanding image quality at every setting. The combination of long focal lengths, long range of focal lengths, relatively compact design, fast and accurate AF, weather-sealed professional build quality, and image stabilization make this lens the perfect companion for many pursuits.
Excellent Image Quality, All of the Right Focal Lengths, Relatively Light Weight, Modest Cost, Moderately Wide Aperture, Image Stabilization, Pro-Grade Build, Incredibly Compact
Reduce the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM Lens's aperture opening by 1/2, and you get the Canon RF 70-200mm F4 L IS USM Lens. Advantages of the narrower aperture include reduced size, reduced weight, and reduced cost. When f/2.8 is not needed, this lens is a great option.
6. Adapt a lens from the Best Canon DSLR Camera Outdoor Sports Lenses List.
Huge Selection, World-Class Options
The list above is not an exhaustive list of lenses that can be used for outdoor sports photography, but these are my top picks. Any of the recommended Canon mirrorless camera indoor sports lenses will work well for outdoor sports photography.
Visit the Canon Lens Recommendations page for additional recommendations.