What is the ultimate Sony indoor sports lens?
The indoor sports photographer routinely 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.
The Ultimate Telephoto Zoom Lens, Impressive Image Quality, Lightweight, Professional-Grade
The 70-200 f/2.8 image stabilized lens is one of the most critical zoom lenses in most photographers' kits. 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.
This completely professional-grade lens has impressive image quality, fast and accurate AF, and Optical SteadyShot in a solid, weather-sealed, fixed-size body. The wide f/2.8 max aperture allows action to be captured in low light and, combined with the telephoto focal lengths, allows the background to be blurred away. An added benefit is that this lens performs well with teleconverters, a great option for when you need even more focal length.
This lens is not inexpensive, but the focal length range is ideal for indoor use and the version II lens is impressively lightweight.
Compact, Light, Sharp, Affordable, Slightly Shorter Focal Length Range
Tamron continues to produce great mirrorless lenses, and the 70-180mm f/2.8 Di III VXD Lens is another big hit. Though this lens's focal length range falls short of the competing 70-200mm models, it overcomes that shortcoming by providing great image quality from a compact and affordable package.
Razor Sharp Image Quality, Extremely Wide Aperture, Relatively Compact Size
This lens is so sharp that I use it for testing Sony cameras. Combine that image quality with a mid-telephoto focal length range and an ultra-wide aperture, and you get an optimal indoor sports lens.
Ready for the Darkest Environments
While 85mm is somewhat wide for sports action in general, that angle of view works well for some indoor action pursuits, including basketball photography from behind net. The f/1.4 aperture is wide enough to stop action in even the darkest gymnasiums.
Incredible Image Quality and Performance, Big, Heavy, and Expensive
Some indoor events (soccer, for example) require focal lengths longer than 200mm. As I write this recommendation, this lens is Sony's only longer option.
Few lenses perform as well as this one, but the size, weight, and price will be influential to some decisions.
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 Sony Lens Recommendations page for other recommendations, including recommendations for Sony outdoor sports lenses.