Best Budget lenses for Sports photography – A Complete Guide

Sport photo in action 🙂

Sports photography just might be one of the most challenging photography types. The difficulty comes from the fact that you have usually have a fast-moving subject, often challenging lightning conditions, distance restrictions to your subjects, and of course the complete inability to go back and reshoot an event. Professional sport photography is not an easy field to master, mainly due to the following points:

  • Speed. Athletes are going to move quickly and unpredictably. Rapid autofocus and a lot of experience about the likely movement of each person are both essential.
  • Light levels. A football field on a sunny day is no problem, but a lot of sports locations have less light than you’d expect. Even seemingly intense artificial lighting can be insufficient, and flash is often banned. Fast glass is therefore essential.
  • Distance. Most sports venues are very large, and frontline positions are scarce and highly coveted. An athlete on a football field can be a very long way away. Distance issues are one key reason amateurs can never get great magazine-cover shots of pro games.

Professional sports photographers use very long and fast lenses (i.e., huge and expensive) for good reason. This can be a bit discouraging if you just want to photograph your friends on the field or your kids on the rink. Huge 400mm f/2.8 lenses aren’t exactly cheap. Here are some tips that can help you overcome these challenges:

  • Buy the fastest long lens you can afford.
  • Try your best to get as close to the action as you can.
  • Use a high ISO. This lets you keep your shutter speed high, though at the cost of noise in the image.
  • Use fast glass. The bigger the maximum aperture, the better. Not only will it be possible to use higher shutter speeds to reduce blurring, but autofocus systems are faster when given more light.
  • Using a tripod with a head attachment lets you pan to follow the action. This will reduce the camera shake and therefore increase the quality of the picture taken.
  • Use a camera with the fastest autofocus you can afford.

In this article, I will review the Best Budget lenses for Sports photography. I will focus on the following lens manufacturers – Canon, Nikon, Sony – so you can easily mount them to your camera.

What are the Best Budget lenses for Sports photography?

As I mentioned, due to the challenges we face with sports photography lenses can go up in price very fast. Since this is an article about budget options I have decided to recommend a prime lens and zoom lens for each manufacturer.

As you probably know, prime lenses are usually cheaper and offer more sharpness than zoom lenses. The downside is that prime lenses have a fixed focal range, meaning you will need to move with your target in order to get the best results. This might not be a problem if you are in a field where you can move around without a problem. So for those of you just starting out, a prime lens will do fine and the prices are usually below $500. I will list prime lenses with a focal length of 85mm, which makes these lenses also great for portrait photography!

If you can’t come close to a subject you want to shoot, then the only option is to get a good zoom lens with a focal length range from 50-400mm – it all depends on the distance between you and the subject. In most cases, focal length of 70-200mm will be enough to have you covered for all kinds of sports events. One thing to note is that with long focal lengths the light exposure starts to diminish, so a maximum aperture is recommended – but the combination of long focal length and high maximum aperture results in high lens prices. In this article I will recommend zoom lenses below $1000, which have a good focal range for sports photography and also a decent maximum aperture, that will give you enough light exposure. Light exposure usually is not a problem when shooting a game outside in daylight, but when it comes to an indoor game, you need to start boosting your ISO to compensate for the low light. This allows you to keep the shutter speed at a high enough level not to get blurry pictures, but try not to boost the ISO too much so you don’t get too much grainy noise into the picture.

Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 is the Best Sony Budget ZOOM lens for sports photography

I really wanted to start with this lens – Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 – as it is the best fast telephoto zooms lens on the market in the price range of $1000. There is basically no other lens on the market with such a wide focal range and a maximum aperture of F/2.8 for such a good price as this lens! Most of the other lenses with similar characteristics can be 2x as costly. If you want to have the best entry-level zoom lens, then this is the lens to go with. It is sharp wide open and lightweight and reasonably small for the telephoto-zoom lens. The missing 20mm focal length in 180mm vs 200mm is barely noticeable. This lens works perfectly with the Sony E mount system, but can also be mounted on other camera mount systems with a proper adapter.

Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 Di III VXD for Sony Full Frame/APS-C E-Mount, Black
  • Lightest and most compact in its class of fast tele zooms for Sony full-frame mirrorless
  • VXD linear motor focus mechanism delivers high-speed and high precision autofocus performance
  • Superior optical design for uncompromised image quality. Camera-based lens unit firmware updates
  • Moisture-Resistant Construction, Fluorine Coating, and Zoom Lock switch

Sony 85mm F/1.8-22 Medium-Telephoto is the Best Sony Budget PRIME for sports photography

This lens can be used for portrait photography as well.

Sony SEL85F18 85mm F/1.8-22 Medium-Telephoto Fixed Prime Camera Lens, Black
  • Wide F1.8 maximum aperture enables beautiful defocusing effects
  • 9-Blade circular aperture creates beautiful round defocused bokeh
  • ED glass element for corner-to-corner sharpness
  • Double Linear motor system for fast, quiet and precise focusing. The maximum magnification ratio is 0.13 and the angle of view is 29 degree
  • Direct control w/ customizable focus hold button and AF/MF switch.35 mm equivalent focal length (APS-C):127.5

Canon 70-200mm F/4L EF is USM is the Best Canon Budget ZOOM lens for sports photography

This lens is a great alternative to a more expensive lens version ($2000+) with an F2.8 aperture. This lens does not come with image stabilization and its maximum aperture is not that wide open, but it will do an amazing job at taking photos provided there is enough light in the environment. For the price below $1000 this is a very very good option. I would consider this zoom lens to be up there with the already mentioned Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 if shot in an environment with enough light. For those of you who use a Canon camera system this lens would be the best canon budget zoom lens.

Canon 70-200mm f/4L EF is USM
  • Please see the above description.
  • German (Publication Language)

Canon EF 85mm F/1.8 Medium-Telephoto is the Best Canon Budget PRIME for sports photography

This lens can be used for portrait photography as well.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Medium Telephoto Lens for Canon SLR Cameras - Fixed
  • 85 millimetre standard lens with f 1.8 maximum aperture for Canon SLR cameras, Lens Type:Telephoto Zoom Lens
  • Ring-type ultra-sonic monitor (USM) brings subject quickly into focus, Focal length: 85 millimetre, closest focusing distance: 2.8 feet
  • Natural angle of view and perspective is ideal for portraits and natural images
  • Designed to produce beautiful background blur; weighs 15 ounces
  • Measures 3 inches in diameter and 2.8 inches long; 1-year warranty. Refer User manual for troubleshooting steps.

Nikon 28-300mm F/3.5-5.6G  is the Best Nikon Budget ZOOM lens for sports photography

This lens is also very impressive as it offers great Vibration Reduction and Autofocus features. This lens is particularly good if you need to take shots of a subject very far away, as it can zoom to the focal length of 300mm. The compromise to this high zoom is sharpness as the aperture of this lens just isn’t that wide open as it should be when shooting photos with a 300mm focal length. Don’t get me wrong, the lens is still very good, but if you really want to have sharp photos at a 300mm focal length you just have to move up the price range… I would recommend this lens to those of you who would like to enter the world of sports photography and would like to shoot subjects from very far. If the distance to the subject is not that important, I would recommend the prime lens below as it can just produce sharper photos.

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras
  • Versatile 107x zoom lens with ED glass and VR II image stabilization
  • Optimized for edge to edge sharpness on both FX and DX-format
  • Covers a wide range of focal lengths to get the best out of every subject. Minimum Focus Distance- 1.6 ft. (0.5m) throughout entire zoom range
  • 2 Extra-low Dispersion (ED) Elements; 3 Aspherical Lens Elements
  • Exclusive Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM) Weight : 282 oz

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G Medium-Telephoto is the Best Nikon Budget PRIME for sports photography

This lens comes with a great Autofocus feature and can be used for portrait photography as well.

Nikon AF S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G Fixed Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras
  • Fast aperture medium telephoto lens
  • Internal focus, focal length: 85 millimeter, minimum focus range: 0.80 meter
  • Silent wave motor (SWM). Number of diaphragm blades: 7 (rounded diaphragm opening)
  • M/a focus mode switch. Filter-attachment size is 67 millimeter (p=0.75 millimeter)
  • Nikon super integrated coating (sic)

Final Thoughts

The first thing you need to know is what kind of sports photography you want to shoot. Are you going to shoot a game of basketball, where the distance to the subject is relatively close, or a game of soccer, where the distance to the subject can be very far away? If the distance to the subject is short and there is available space to follow the subject then I would recommend that you consider one of the mentioned PRIME lenses above. On the contrary, if your subject is far away and you are limited to move around then you should buy one of the ZOOM lenses that fit your camera system. If I had to choose one zoom lens for sports photography, I would choose Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8, as its value is superb for the price you pay.

I hope you found my guide useful and it will help you make the right decision also for yourself. Oh, and if you have a question you are welcome to comment below or contact me through the contact form. I am always happy to exchange experiences with my fellow photography enthusiasts. Wish you tons of great photos with your new lens ?.

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