What is the ultimate Canon sports lens?
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 back when you resell them (such as when the kids get out of school or no longer participate in sports).
1. Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens
The Ultimate Sports Lens
If I was responsible for capturing an amazing image at a sporting event and had to pick one lens to do this with, the 400 f/2.8L IS III would be my easy choice. This lens delivers phenomenal image quality including an extremely strong background blur, it has very fast and very accurate AF, it is weather sealed, and it has impressive build quality. I can count on this lens to bring home the impressive shot every time (at least when I do my job properly). 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 Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG IF Power Zoom Lens).
2. Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens
Impressive Overall Performance
When I want more reach than the 400mm f/2.8L IS III gives me, when I am focusing on subjects/players farther from my vantage point than 400mm adequately reaches, this is my 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. 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 impressive.
APS-C format body owners will find this focal length too long for most sports uses. Heatwaves will make sharp 600mm mid-field images nearly impossible to obtain on a sunny afternoon — the 400mm options will be a better choice on those days.
3. Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens
Who Thought a Zoom Lens Could Deliver Image Quality This Impressive?
This lens is large, heavy, and expensive, but it delivers image quality few of us thought would ever be possible from a zoom lens. That image quality, along with the versatile made-for-sports zoom range this lens offers, especially with the built-in 1.4x extender, has launched the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens to sports shooter fame. Pro-grade build quality ensures reliable operation for those whose careers depend on getting the shot.
4. Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens
Simply Awesome Lens
It is not as long in focal length as the 400mm f/2.8L IS II, but the 300mm f/2.8L IS II is at least a match in performance, and it is smaller, lighter, and less expensive. And if 400mm is too long (especially possible for an APS-C body) for your need, this is THE lens to have. Or, add an extender — this lens performs exceptionally well with them.
The f/2.8 aperture is as wide as it gets at 300mm, the image quality is as good as it gets at any focal length, and the autofocus speed and accuracy rock. This lens is built for professional use and abuse, including use in inclement weather.
5. Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM Lens
Impressive Performing Lens, Ultra-Light Weight
If the 400mm focal length works for you and an f/4 aperture is wide enough, the 400mm DO II is an excellent performer. The extreme light weight of this lens (relative to its focal length and aperture) allows comfortable handholding for most. APS-C format body owners are going to love this focal length when shooting on the big field.
6. 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 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.
Especially on a full-frame camera, this is the lens to have for capturing sports action happening relatively close to you. If you watch a professional sporting event, you often see this lens mounted on a camera hanging over the shoulder of a photographer using one of the previously-mentioned super-telephoto lenses on a monopod. When action is happening closer to the photographer, the focal length needed for the desired subject framing changes more rapidly. This makes the zoom feature even more valuable.
7. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
Excellent Focal Length Range, Fast and Accurate AF, Excellent Image Quality, Pro-Grade Build Quality
It is hard to argue with the 100-400mm focal length range for sports. The hugely-popular 100-400L IS II is an overall incredible lens featuring very impressive image quality at all focal length and aperture settings. This lens is well-built, including weather sealing. When wildlife, surfers, aircraft, large-field athletes, and other small/distant subjects are in the viewfinder, you will greatly appreciate having this lens on the camera. Still, the small size afforded by f/5.6 max aperture means that this is a lens that you can carry and hand-hold for long periods. This is one of my most-used lenses.
8. Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM Lens
Impressive Image Quality, Great Build Quality, Fast AF, Excellent Image Stabilization, Compact & Light, Great Value
If you don't need the 70-200 f/2.8L IS III Lens' f/2.8 max aperture, the 70-200 f/4L IS II will give you everything else in a smaller, lighter, and less expensive package. Without the f/2.8 aperture, you will need twice as much light to stop subject motion (at f/4), and you will not be able to create a background as diffusely blurred. But, you also give up a substantial amount of size (still fixed), weight, and cost. You give up very little in image quality or other pro-grade features, including solid, weather-sealed build quality, and you even gain a better IS system than what's found in the f/2.8L IS III model.
9. Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM Lens
Excellent Value, Very Good Image Quality, Pro-Grade Build Quality, Fast AF
If you can't afford any of the other telephoto sports lenses listed on this page, this is the lens for you. You should not expect to tightly frame subjects in the middle of a large field with a 200mm focal length, but this lens has fast and accurate autofocus along with very good image quality. It is my entry-level sports lens recommendation.
10. Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM Lens
Very Good Image Quality for a Bargain Price
If your budget is tight, this might be the right lens for you. The 55-250mm focal length is very useful, and this lens's image quality per dollar ratio is high. What is not high is the build quality of this lens, which includes a plastic lens mount. This lens is an "EF-S" model designed for the APS-C imaging sensor format (it is not full-frame compatible).
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 indoor sports lenses will work well for outdoor sports photography.
Visit the Canon Lens Recommendations page for additional recommendations.