What is the ultimate Sony 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).
The Ultimate Outdoor Sports Lens, Incredible Image Quality and Performance, Big, Heavy, and Expensive
The 400mm focal length reaches out to sports action from the outside the playing field locations accessible to sports photographers.
Few lenses can create a background blur as strong as the telephoto 400mm focal length and f/2.8 aperture combination can create. Also, few lenses perform as well as this one, though the size, weight, and price will be influential to some purchase decisions.
The Ultimate Outdoor Sports Lens, Incredible Image Quality and Performance, Big, Heavy, and Expensive
When photographing large field sports, this is the lens that goes with me. The Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS Lens is one of the sharpest lenses I've ever used — the image quality it produces is outstanding. The focal length is ideal for a significant percentage of sports photography needs, and this lens works great with teleconverters – the Sony FE 2x Teleconverter extends the focal length up to 1200mm.
The FE 600's build quality is impressive, and weather sealing is included. This lens's biggest downside is the price, and the size and weight of this lens will be intimidating to the unacclimated. That said, this is a very lightweight lens for the 600mm and F4 combination.
Very Long Focal Lengths, Excellent Image Quality, Well-Constructed, Optical SteadyShot, Weather-Sealed
The 200-600mm focal length range is outstanding for sports photography, covering most needs. This lens is compact, lightweight, and affordable, especially when compared to the 400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 options. Missing is the ultra-wide aperture, meaning that a high ISO setting will be needed to keep subjects bright and sharp in the frame, with noise especially affecting low light action results.
Need a longer focal length still? Teleconverter compatibility extends this lens's reach up to 1200mm, though the already narrow max aperture becomes up to 2-stops narrower.
This lens delivers excellent image quality, and its physical performance and build quality is high-grade.
Long Focal Length Range with Long Focal Lengths, Excellent Image Quality, Well-Constructed, Optical SteadyShot, Weather-Sealed
While the Sony FE 100-400 does not offer the long focal lengths that the FE 200-600 features, sometimes small size, lighter weight, and the 100-199mm focal lengths range features are more important. This is a great lens to chase outdoor sports with, and it is a great complement to a 600mm F4.
This focal length range, extending out to 100mm available, is suitable for environmental portraits.
This lens is also compatible with teleconverters for those times when even greater reach is needed.
While the F5.6 aperture available at the longest focal lengths is not so wide, that aperture allows the lens to be small in size and light enough in weight to be carried and hand-held for relatively long periods. The FE 100-400 is not an inexpensive lens, but it costs far less than the 400 f/2.8 and 600 F4 options.
Extra Long Range of Long Focal Lengths, Great Build Quality, Superb Image Quality, Optical Stabilization, Affordable Price
The Sigma 150-600mm OS DN Sports Lens has a highly appealing focal length range complemented by a beautiful design, impressive build quality, excellent image quality, optical stabilization, excellent overall performance, and a very reasonable price. That combination is very attractive.
Extreme Focal Length Range, Great Build Quality, Great Image Quality, Optical Stabilization
For sports photography (and most other) purposes, this lens's focal length range is unsurpassed as I write this recommendation.
Like the Sigma 150-600mm OS DN Sports Lens, the Sigma 60-600mm F4.5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports Lens has a beautiful design, impressive build quality, excellent image quality, optical stabilization, and excellent overall performance.
This lens is not small, light, or inexpensive, but it may be the only lens you need.
Long Range of Long Focal Lengths, Well-Built, Superb Image Quality, Vibration Control, Attractive Price
With this lens, Tamron provides a very attractive option for filling in a long range of long focal lengths. While this is not a compact, lightweight lens, it has those features relative to alternatives covering the 500mm. This is a fun lens to take solo for adventures making use of these focal lengths, including wildlife and sports.
Excellent Image Quality, Long Focal Lengths, Light Weight, Compact Size, Low Cost
Most photographers highly value a telephoto zoom lens with long focal lengths, a significant percentage of these photographers are looking for a lightweight, low cost option, and no one wants to give up great image quality or deal with a lens that does not perform well. The Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Contemporary Lens is the perfect choice to meet those needs.
The Ultimate Telephoto Zoom Lens, Impressive Image Quality, Lightweight, Professional-Grade
When I think outdoor sports, my mind goes to the big field. However, there are many other sports that permit closer access, including track and field. For those sports, the 70-200mm focal lengths are ideal.
Also ideal is the f/2.8 aperture. F/2.8 lenses longer than 200mm rapidly become large, heavy, and expensive. Professionals use this lens 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 version II lens is impressively lightweight.
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 Sony indoor sports lenses. will work well for outdoor sports photography.
Visit the Sony Lens Recommendations page for additional recommendations.