Sports photography can be a tricky subject to shoot.
If indoors, you need to freeze the action by selecting a fast shutter speed, but you’re often limited by the low amount of light available. Most lenses don’t have apertures big enough to let in more light so you’re left with raising the ISO speed and this doesn’t always look good on every DSLR.
For outside sports, it’s a lot easier since the sun provides plenty of light. Shooting with shutter speeds over 1/250 is not a challenge, even if the lens you use has an aperture of f/5.6.
What are the best sport lenses?
Chances are, you won’t only shoot sports, so before buying a lens you should consider what else you want to shoot with it. Perhaps it’s animals, races, wildlife, portraits or anything far away.
Shooting inside most of the time? Invest in a good zoom with a big aperture (f/2.8) or a good prime lens that can go as big as f/1.4. Every bit of light helps indoors! Alternatively, you can also use any of the zooms with smaller apertures but you will have to raise the ISO speed if there’s not enough light.
Below, we share our top picks for sports photography that we feel give you the most for your money in terms of optical quality, focal length and focusing speed.
Best Zoom Lenses for Sports:
- Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
- Nikon 55-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR DX
- Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2
- Nikon 200-400mm f/4G ED VR
Best Prime Lenses for Sports:
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
- Nikon 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
- Nikon 200mm f/2G ED VR II
- Nikon 85mm f/1.8G
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
How to Choose a Lens for Sports?
1. 200mm? 300mm? How much do you need?
For the large majority of sports, 200mm will be more than enough to get either your main subject or the surroundings. If using a zoom like the 70-200mm, you’re also covered for smaller arenas.
If you know you’ll be far away from the action then a 300mm or even 400mm lens would be better (and sometimes even too short!)
One thing you should note is that if you have a DX camera (all from Nikon D3400 to D500) then every lens you put on will act as if it is 1.5x longer due to the crop factor DX sensors have. In reality, this means that a 100mm lens you put on an DX will have the same field of view as a 150mm lens on a full frame camera (100mm x 1.5 = 150mm). This is a huge benefit if you want to get as close to your subject without spending a lot of money. Both types of sensors are excellent for sports though.
Here’s a really useful Focal Length Required Calculator.
2. Fast Auto Focus (SWM)
This is a must! With people constantly moving, you want a lens that can not only quickly focus, but accurately as well.
All lenses on our list feature SWM (Silent Wave Motor) for the fastest focusing available. These motors are also really silent and will lock onto your subject with no trouble, although in super low light situations you might experience some hunting. Having A/M focus helps in such situations as it allows you to manually adjust the focus without switching any buttons; it saves you time and in sports this matters.
3. Tips & Features
Vibration Reduction is not required since your subjects won’t usually be still, but it will help stabilize the image in your viewfinder when taking a shot. It doesn’t hurt having VR, but it’s also not a big deal if you get a lens without it.
If shooting with heavy prime lenses, bring a monopod (check out our guide on best monopods this year) so you won’t get tired after a few seconds of hand holding. Your shots will be sharper too, especially if shooting indoors.
For outdoors photography we also recommend buying a rain cover just in case the weather gets bad. The majority of lenses below are weather sealed but it’s still a small investment to protect your expensive gear.
Best Nikon Zoom Lenses for Sports in 2018
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1. Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S
For indoor sports where you can often be really close to your subject, the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED is our top pick for both DX and FX shooters that want an all-around, high quality zoom.
It’s got an f/2.8 aperture at all focal lengths which is more or less a requirement for shooting movement indoors, and has great image quality and fast auto focus.
The length is good for close sports and also for a ton of other things; from weddings, portraits, traveling etc. In a way, this could be the only lens you use!
There’s a cheaper Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 with Vibration Reduction and similar image quality. However, what ultimately led us to go with Nikon was more solid build quality and construction, and a faster, more reliable AF system even in low light. You can check out the comparison at Camera Labs, where both corner and center performance look similar for both lenses. As of 2015, Nikon also sells their own 24-70mm f/2.8 VR but it’s at around $2,200.
2. Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR DX
If you know you’ll mostly shoot outdoors and don’t want to spend too much, check out the Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G. It costs more than the 55-200mm yet offers better quality, focus and 100mm more reach.
Since this is a DX only lens, it means it’ll actually be equivalent to a 82-450mm lens once mounted on a DX camera.
Bokeh looks good due to 9 diaphragm blades compared to “just” 7 on the 55-200mm, and it also focuses quicker and more silent. However, both lenses will often hunt in low light so be ready to do a bit of manual focusing from time to time. Outdoors, this is rarely an issue. Build quality has also been improved and feels a lot less cheap/plastic, but in return the lens weighs more.
3. Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2
The Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 was released a few months ago and is our favorite 70-200mm lens out there. It’s a pretty much a must for outdoor and indoor sports, on both DX and FX cameras.
Here’s why. It’s cheaper than the rest, delivers nearly identical image quality and sharpness, has great Vibration Reduction with 5 stops of help and great auto focus. On top of that, you get 6 years US warranty! Talk about customer support.
Compared to Nikon’s most expensive 70-200mm f/2.8 FL, you could get two Tamron’s for that price. The image quality is nearly indistinguishable between the two, however the Nikon is slightly more accurate when it comes to auto focus. The Tamron is good, don’t get us wrong, and it’s precise and quiet, but there’s only a few people that would be willing to spend twice as much to get even better AF than what you get with this lens.
The lens is perfect even for high megapixel cameras such as the D810 with its 36MP sensor. The VC works wonderfully up to 5 stops so you can expect sharp results with 1/15 where you’d need ~1/500 normally. The lens has weather sealing so if you’re shooting outdoors in difficult weather, or happen to be near water, you’ve got much less to worry about.
4. Nikon 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
If sports ain’t the only thing you’re interested and you don’t want more than 1 different zoom lens, check out the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G E VR II.
It’s not as long as the Nikon 200-500mm, but it’s got a 1 stop bigger maximum aperture which is very hand for sports, especially if shooting in bad light (this is not an indoors lens, unless you’re willing to raise the ISO). This is one of the reasons why it costs almost 4x as much as the 200-500mm.
Speaking about the construction, you’ve got 24 elements in 17 groups. There are 4 Extra Low Dispersion elements, Nano Crystal Coating to reduce glare and Silent Wave Motor for quick and accurate auto focusing. For around $6000 you can expect to get pretty much the best there is.
The length and aperture make it a perfect choice for any type of action; sports, races, wildlife, planes etc. It’s even more awesome if you’re using a DX lens since it’s equivalent to a 300-600mm lens.
Best Nikon Prime Lenses for Sports
Best for indoor sports but also for animals and portraits.
5. Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
There’s nothing better out there than the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR. There’s also hardly anything more expensive than this lens, but if you’re serious about sports/action photography then you’ll love it.
The 400mm length has always been a popular among professional sports photographers and it’s just perfect for most outdoor sports where you can’t be close to the field (or to a specific player). With such a long focal length your depth of field looks shallow even when shooting with smaller apertures, let alone when using it at f/2.8.
It’s got excellent image quality at all aperture sizes, focuses quickly and accurately and has rich colors. It’s also heavy, big and you’ll need to use a monopod or a tripod if you plan on shooting for a long time.
Released in 2014, the lens naturally features Vibration Reduction which is a must if you’re using it without some sort of support. It’s doable, just not recommended.
6. Nikon 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
If you find the 400mm too long or expensive, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II is another great telephoto option.
It’s half the price of the 400mm and if you really need the extra reach you could perhaps get a 1.4x or 2x converter and still save a lot of money (although quality and focus speed won’t be as good).
It features a new Vibration Reduction II system that works up 4 stops, and while hand holding is an option, we strongly recommend to use a monopod with it. It weighs 102.3 oz / 2900g so you’re gonna get tired quite quickly without investing in good support.
Telephoto f/2.8 lenses are expensive, but for a reason. You get a ton of light, fast auto focusing, excellent image quality and even with a 1.4x or 2x extender, auto focus will work with every Nikon DSLR since the aperture at 2x is still f/5.6. Overall quality and focusing speed do drop noticeably, but it’s still very usable for fast subjects. On an DX camera, it’s equivalent to a whopping 450mm f/2.8 lens!
7. Nikon 200mm f/2G ED VR II
For the same price as the 300mm above, you can get the Nikon 200mm f/2G ED VR II. It’s a simple trade-off; you lose 100mm but get one stop bigger aperture. Whether this is important depends totally on your needs.
If you find the 70-200mm lens to be more than enough for your needs but you need even more light, then a 200mm f/2 is most likely what you need. If raising the ISO is not an option anymore, then this fast and bright lens is brilliant for both indoor sports, portraits and other low light situations.
It’s got 9 diaphragm blades, beautiful looking bokeh and colors and very fast auto focus. It weighs exactly as much as the 300mm above so a monopod is recommended once again.
Minimum focus distance is 6.2 feet, it takes 52mm filters (screw-on) and is fully compatible with Nikon’s teleconverters.
8. Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S
For wedding, concert, portrait, night time or close sports photography, we recommend the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S because the quality and sharpness are top notch. It’s also relatively affordable and gives you more bang for the buck than the f/1.4 version
There’s just something about 85mm length on both DX and FX cameras that makes it magical for portrait photography. The depth of field looks shallow even when stopped down a bit because your focal length is quite long, but obviously shooting at f/1.8-f/2.8 makes bokeh and background look amazing.
Compared to f/2.8, aperture f/1.8 gives you a little bit more than 1 extra stop of light so you can get sharper shots with less blur. It might not matter outside, but inside every third-stop of extra light can make a huge difference.
9. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S
The Nikon 50mm f/1.8G is our favorite prime for both newcomers to photography and more advanced users looking for quality in a lightweight lens.
On DX cameras, it’s equivalent to a 85mm lens which is an ideal length for close sports, as well as portraits and everyday/casual shots. If you’re looking to spend little and don’t own any lenses yet, the 50mm f/1.8G will become your best friend!
If you often find yourself using the kit lens more or less near 50mm, this lens was made for you. Not only is quality years ahead of the kit zooms, it also focuses faster and lets you go all the way to f/1.8! The 35mm and 50mm prices are almost identical, yet we recommend you to go with the 50mm if you prefer a little bit tighter shots (15mm difference between the two lenses) and want slightly better looking bokeh.
It’s still recommended for the same types of photography as the 35mm above though.
Our Recommended Sport Lenses
Consider this a shorter, more direct version of this entire guide. Simply what we think gives you the absolute most for your money and what we’d go with personally. Except for the Tamron lens, all of our recommended picks belong to Nikon.
Even though all lenses above are awesome, sometimes less options makes it easier to decide.
- Nikon 55-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR DX – The cheapest and best for the money if you’ve got a DX Camera
- Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 – The 70-200mm is a must have and this Tamron is affordable, focuses quickly and delivers sharp results
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR – Expensive but has a large f/2.8 aperture, more reach than any other lens and is optically amazing. Heavy too!
- Nikon 85mm f/1.8G – Great for DX shooters that are relatively close to the field, or for FX shooters that don’t need much reach.