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Getting The Most out of Friday Night Lights: The Importance of a 70-200 f/2.8 lens

D300 ISO 3200 200mm f/2.8 1/800s

Around this time of year many of our customers ask “How come all of the pictures of my son’s football game are coming out blurry?”  and unless they bring some sample images with them it is hard to tell, but most likely the answer is motion blur.  There are a couple solutions around this problem including raising the ISO on your camera, but some high school fields are so poorly lit that I’m surprised anyone on the field can see what’s going on.  This means you can only raise your ISO so much, even at 3200 ISO it may be hard to get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze motion whilst still maintaining a good exposure.  Most APS-C cameras are only so-so at higher ISOs and need some post production work in order to look good printed.  So of course a guy like me who works for a camera store is going to tell you to buy the most expensive stuff right?  Well yeah that’s my job, but really I consider myself a technical consultant and teacher.  I would be giving the same advice to my family/friends, so while a lot of gear related posts are just trying to push expensive things on you, I am going to give you my best advice from my experiences as a photographer.  The truth is you don’t need to drop $5,000 in order to get good sports photos.  What gear you own has nothing to do with how good of a photographer you are, but knowing the right equipment to use is important.  I will be covering other things like technique and where to shoot from, but right now let’s take a look at some of the best lenses out there for getting the sports shots you want.

The 70-200 f/2.8 Lens

The 70-200 f/2.8 lens has been a staple of professional photographers for years and there is good reason. The whole purpose of using a lens with a f/2.8 aperture is to let more light reach the imaging sensor.  While some amateurs will prefer lenses with more reach and a bigger zoom ratio, these lenses don’t let in nearly enough light to freeze motion when shooting at night.  Photographing wide open at f/2.8 also helps to separate subjects from their backgrounds and foregrounds because wider apertures naturally result in images with more shallow depth of field, making for a stronger image.  Lenses with f/2.8 apertures also leave the option open for 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2.0x teleconverters.  Granted you will lose some light, but a 1.4x converter on a strong APS-C camera like the Canon 7D will produce fantastic results, even in low light.

If you are going to be shooting from lower in the stands or preferably on the sidelines, a 70-200 f/2.8 lens will be the first lens you will want to get.  If you only have limited access from higher up in the stands, it may benefit you to rent a longer lens like the 300mm f/2.8.  Most of the time you’ll be able to get field level, if not sideline, access to shoot high school and college sports.

Nikon's D3s and 70-200 f/2.8G VR II, one of the best setups for low-light photography

1.  Both Canon and Nikon offer expensive professional level 70-200 f/2.8 lenses with stabilization.  If money isn’t an issue and you just want the highest quality product, go for either one of these lenses.  I have used both in a variety of situations and they are truly top of the line.  While any lens is sharp when you stop it down a bit, both of these bad boys are sharp wide open at f/2.8.  Their stabilization systems are excellent and sometimes I surprise myself with how long I can drag my shutter without noticing camera shake in my images.  This doesn’t really matter when photographing sports unless you are panning.  The point is usually to freeze motion and using slower shutter speeds will result in seeing motion blur from your subject moving, no matter how still you are holding your camera.  However, most people who ask about photographing their kid’s high school football games are not professional photographers.

2.  The good news is that there are some other great 70-200 f/2.8 lenses out there.  Even Canon and Nikon make less expensive versions. The first I want to mention is the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L lens without stabilization.  If you still want to use Canon’s excellent L series glass without throwing down $2,379 for the latest and greatest, the non-IS version of the 70-200 f/2.8L lens is a great option.  If you spend a little on a decent monopod, you’ll probably be able to work around the fact that this lens doesn’t have IS in it.  Nikon still makes an excellent 80-200 f/2.8D lens that is also about half the price of the 70-200 f/2.8G VRII.  The problem is it only works on cameras that have a built in motor.  So those with any of Nikon’s entry level cameras are left out. Stabilization does help especially on APS-C bodies, but it isn’t 100% necessary.  You are going to want to shoot at f/2.8 most of the time, so even on fields that aren’t lit so great, you will be able to achieve shutter speeds fast enough to get by without a stabilized lens.

Canon 1D Mark IV w/ Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 OS DG HSM 157mm f/2.8 1/640s ISO1600

3.  If you are looking for a 70-200 f/2.8 lens with a good stabilization system and really don’t want to pay up for the best, there is another option.  While I mentioned stabilization isn’t 100% needed if you have a monopod, the 70-200 f/2.8 has many uses beyond sports photography and you aren’t going to always have a monopod with you.  So for other applications, image stabilization is a key factor. I know I use my 70-200 f/2.8 all the time for portraits, events, travel, concerts, and any kind of low light situation that requires a longer focal length.  Check out my review on the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 OS lens.  If you want a quick summary, the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 OS is on the same level as the older Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS and Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G VR I.  It is a good buy and if you will be very pleased with your results.  It is rather “plasticy” compared to the more expensive counterparts, but as always you get what you pay for.

Facemask! A 70-200 f/2.8 lens isn't just for letting in more light. I took this shot at a Montclair State University Football game during the day/late afternoon. Longer focal length are also ideal for compressing/flattening your subjects and separating them from the background.

4.  The Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 is probably the best “bang for your buck” 70-200 f/2.8 lens out there.  It is the lens I would recommend to most beginners with a Rebel or similar entry-level Nikon.  If you are on the fence about upgrading your telephoto lens, this is a good choice.  While this older Tamron doesn’t focus quite as fast as the newer Sigma or any Canon/Nikon variant, it is still a sharp lens and will get the job down in low light.  I would rather have a lens like this in my arsenal than an “All-In-One” like the Tamron 18-270.  While a huge range is nice when you are on vacation or photographing during the day, these kind of lenses just won’t do the trick at night as they don’t let in enough light or focus fast enough.  If you want a lens that has snappier focus, you can spend a few extra dollars (literally) and grab an old Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 EX (non OS) for half the price of the OS version.  Again you will have to weigh how important that decision is for you as an individual.

It won't be football season forever. 70-200 f/2.8 lenses are awesome for portraiture, again because of compression and the ability to achieve nice shallow depth of field.

5. If you absolutely cannot afford any of the 70-200 f/2.8 options my best advice would be to wait and save money until you can.  70-300 lenses are nice for using during the day, but the slow f/5.6 aperture lets in 4x less light than a f/2.8 lens will.  Nothing if more frustrating than spending money on something and not having it work right.  So unless you have a full-frame camera like the D700 or 5D Mark II that can be boosted to very high-ISO settings, avoid slower lenses.  Theoretically higher-end APS-C cameras can handle ISO 3200 pretty well, but it still may not be enough depending on the lighting conditions. Though they may be tempting because of their price-point, you will ultimately be left disappointed with blurry shots.  We rent almost all of the lenses I mentioned in this post, so if you are still undecided (and in the NYC metro area), I would highly recommend trying before buying.

3 Comments

  • Pingback: Customer Review: Nikon 35mm f/1.8G by Andrew Zuckerman

  • another suggestion to improve those images is to use RAW. with a little experience and practice, you can shoot as much as an f stop dark and bring in the light in post production. this will allow you to shoot your image at a faster shutter speed and push the limits of your camera.

    another consideration is to shoot with manual settings as often as possible. the camera’s “sport” settling is a helper, frequently not the answer when you are pushing the envelope.

    terry

  • Terry I agree, I mentioned shooting manual especially under stadium lights. Chances are the lighting isn’t going to change.

    Your suggestion about shooting RAW is a good one too. It is true you will be able to “pull” more shadow and highlight detail out of your images.

    However underexposing at high ISOs is never a good idea as trying to increase exposure in post production will introduce a LOT of noise, even on the highest end cameras.

    Still in a pinch, its better than not getting the shot!

    MZ

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