Sports Photography Lens Selection 1 - Mark McCall

Knowing where to start in building a kit for sports photography can be daunting. Professional photographers carry lenses that literately resemble cannons, while you start to game out what you can manage with a kit lens. At the same time, the most readily available advice on the subject is not all that detailed. The most read articles resulting from a quick google search can be summarized as

- Use a long lens

- Learn to use auto-focus

- Use a fast shutter speed

- Crank up the ISO and leave the aperture wide open

While this is robust advice it won’t help you decide where to best use your current gear or what gear you might want to chose if given the opportunity to rent or even buy a more capable lens.

Fundamentally, I think it’s more important to let composition and storytelling dictate gear choice as opposed to the reverse.  In this post I have tried to work through some simple principles to illustrate the capabilities of different lenses used in a sports photography setting in relation to common compositions used in sports photography, specifically rugby.

This process is certainly is a starting point to understand lens capabilities. While my preferred method of understanding where and when it’s best to use a given lens is gaining first hand knowledge through experience and practice I don't always have the luxury of renting or purchasing a new lens to try it out.

Each sport will have different framing requirements and different photographers will have different composition preferences but the range of frame lengths above should serve as a useful guide. These square cropped photos represent a useful and versatile range of composition choices available to any sports photographer.  For all of the example frame lengths the top shot illustrates the frame length when shot at a relatively close working distance to the subject and the lower shot illustrates a near identical frame length but taken when working at a longer distance from the subject.

At the lower end a frame of 0.5 metres allows a player’s face to be captured with some of the surrounding environment to provide context. At the higher end a maximum frame size of 4 metres allows large set pieces of play (like a line out in rugby) to be effectively captured without cropping out players body parts unnecessarily.  Frame sizes of between 1 and 2 metres will effectively cover most player body positions from upstanding and running to crouching for a scrum.

While skilled photographers have shown amazing results working at shorter and longer frame lengths I don't feel they should be the target of anyone starting out in this type of photography. Frame lengths over 4 metres tend to require extensive cropping, which reduces overall image quality and framing a fast moving player’s face or ball with a frame length under 0.5 metres requires significant tracking and panning skills that take some time to develop.

All of these frames are cropped square as I am primarily concerned with the vertical frame height as opposed to the longer horizontal frame width in a landscape orientated shot. The numbers below will shift if shooting in a portrait orientation.

The first thing to appreciate is that the relationship between the focal length of different lenses (f) and field of view (fov) is not linear and the field of view changes slower at longer focal lengths.  The chart below shows this relationship for both full frame and cropped (APS-C) bodies.

The angular field of view of the lens will determine how wide the image frame will be at a given working distance.  Conversely, for a range of acceptable frame sizes (such as those outlined above) the working distance achievable by each lens is simply calculated.

Below I have show the working distances for a range of common prime and zoom focal lengths.

Finally, we need to understand the typical constraints on a sports photographer - mainly being confined to the side of the pitch, often in one spot.  A football or rugby pitch is a significant piece of ground to cover.  The size of a regulation rugby pitch can be seen below as an example.

The working ranges for two common sports lenses (70-200mm and 400mm) have been overlaid on the pitch diagrams below to illustrate the coverage available with each lens on a full frame (35mm) camera.

It’s easy to see why professional sports photographers choose to opt for the super-telephoto focal lengths. The longer the focal length chosen, the wider the working distance available for composition and the greater percentage of a sports field that can be covered effectively from one position. This is particularly important in higher profile events where you may not be allowed to move around as much.

The larger working distance ranges seen in the larger focal lengths provide a larger distance for players/subjects to cover while staying within the practical working distance. 

While these factors may present only a small influence your ultimate lens selection, I hope you have found this resource useful.


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