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Reader Comments: Lenses for Sports Photography

Get Nikon D810 at B&H Photo.

Reader Andrew P writes:

It just occurred to me that you don't use examples pertinent to sports photography that much (or at all) in your blog. I like to shoot close-range sports when I get the chance but don't know of any sites that provide the kind of image quality reviews you give, but with sports photography concerns considered as a built-in part of any testing.

For instance, this weekend I did my first-ever paid shoot (hooray) of an international basketball competition in Amsterdam. I bought the Zeiss ZA 135mm 1.8 to complement my Nikkor 85mm 1.4G for the shoot, and took the Otus along for a couple of portraits of players if the opportunity presented itself. As it turned out, I shot most of the 2 day event with the Otus, barely used the 85, holstered the 135mm after a couple of hours, and then on the second day brought a 35mm Summilux and a 15mm Distagon to do about half the work on that day.

The reason this is meaningful to me is that I wound up using MF lenses for almost all of the best shots. The reason is that the AF lenses were a pain in the neck to use. The 85mm 1.4G, though perfectly fine when zipping to focus on a person standing still for a portrait, focusing on moving basketball players was just about impossible. The ZA 135mm was better at focusing quickly than the 85mm, but it was harder to deal with because of its length. When players zipped in and around each other, the lens kept losing focus and then wouldn't take a picture. On the other hand, the Otus, Summilux, and 15mm Distagon (ZF) always fired when I wanted them to and were more often in focus than the AF lenses.

When I read about sports photography on the Internet, I see a lot of people recommending high speed large aperture AF lenses like the 85mm and 135mm that I actually used as being very good for sports. The other two I see mentioned a lot are the Nikkor 200mm f2 and 300mm f2.8. Am I missing something about AF sports photography? Or are these lenses as bad at focusing as they seemed? If this is what AF is like, I'd just as soon stick with MF. Could it be because the sport I was shooting (basketball) allowed me to be very close to the action (literally on the foul lines)? It would be interesting to see a review of MF and AF lenses that compared their near focusing capabilities against moving subjects.

DIGLLOYD: Evaluating a lens for sports photography is radically different than anything else: it’s about handling and autofocus and anti-shake support (or not) and one couldn’t say a lot about optical performance under such conditions. Or the skill of the evaluator.

Even the sports-fame Nikon D3s and D4 failed miserably for me on runners coming at the camera when I last shot cross country; they could not track focus head-on. But at the right distance and angle, autofocus rocks.

At close range I completely agree on the manual focus thing: pre-focus with anticipation is the game; try photographing a rower on an erg at close range! Manual focus is the only way to go, autofocus is completely useless under those conditions, and I would agree with the basketball situation. OTOH, out on a body of water at a regatta, autofocus with a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II is my approach of choice.

Autofocus introduces a whole set of new problems at closer range for me, so I agree on the manual focus lens thing. But I think that it comes down to style and technique and distance and so on—no fixed answer.

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