Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sports Photography 101 Part II - Gearing Up On A Budget

Yesterday's segment discussed some basic concepts of sports photography, i.e. what elevates a sports photograph from good to great and how to maximize your chances of getting them. One of the keys to getting those shots is equipment, and that's what we'll be diving into today.

There's no doubt that you can be that blind hog that finds an acorn and manages to score a great photo with a 10MP point and shoot camera during a daytime event. It's clean, sharp, and nails the athlete at the pinnacle of his leap over the top of the line, ball extended just beyond the goal line. His face is perfectly lit by a beam of sunshine and there's a fire in his eyes as he reaches deep inside for one more ounce of energy that will propel him over the goal line.

Everyone gets lucky. The trick is to consistently get those shots, and you won't do it with a 10MP point and shoot camera. Believe me, if it were possible, I wouldn't have invested over $40,000 into equipment when a $200 point and shoot would do the job. I certainly don't enjoy lugging two camera bodies around my neck with lenses attached, a third body on a monopod with a 15 pound lens attached to it, and a bunch of pouches stuffed with more lenses strapped around my waist as I run up and down the sidelines to get in position.

Does all that stuff really help? Yep. It won't guarantee that I'll get the shots but it certainly improves the odds. Is it absolutely essential? Yes and no. As I said yesterday, as long as your expectations are reasonable and you stay within your equipment’s limitations, you can shoot sports on a reasonable budget.

Here's proof that you can nail a good sports image with a modest investment in gear. Taken with a Nikon D2H and an inexpensive 35-70mm f2.8 Nikon lens.
If you limit yourself to sporting events that take place outdoors during the daytime, you can give a lot of sports photographers a run for their money with some basic gear that should set you back as little as $1,000. Increasing your investment to $3,000 and you open new doors. You'll be able to shoot indoors and at night and still capture images of reasonable quality. Just remember to keep your expectations in check. At a nightime football game, you're not going to get every shot that the guy next to you will get with his Nikon D4 and a 400mm f2.8 lens but by moving up and down the field as the action dictates, you will get your share of images. 

OK, let's get into gear in more detail. Some overviews are in order.

You can also get good sports shots with variable aperture lenses. Nikon D300 and an 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 lens.
Full frame (fx) or cropped frame (dx) camera bodies. Your first equipment decision is whether to go full frame or cropped frame, or in camera-speak, an fx-sensored body or a dx-sensored body. Each has its advantages, but if you will only be shooting during the daytime, a dx sensored camera body will rival anything that you will get from an fx sensored body.

Dx-sensored bodies are less expensive. They also enjoy one huge advantage over the fx bodies – the crop factor. Every dx sensored camera body acts as if you have a built in teleconverter (Nikon bodies have a 1.5X crop factor) that effectively lengthens the focal length of any lens attached. That means that with a Nikon dx body, a 70-200mm lens is the equivalent of a 105-300mm lens on an fx sensored body (without any of the disadvantages of a teleconverter such as an increase in the wide open aperture and slight loss of sharpness). The tradeoff is that fx sensored cousins produce noticeably better images at the higher ISO levels (less noise, better clarity).

Tight football shots with an 80-200mm f2.8 lens? No problem if you're in the right position. Nikon D300 and a Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 lens
Frames per second. Next, you will need to consider the frames per second (or fps) capability of the camera body. For sports, a body that will shoot 5 frames per second is the minimum needed to shoot sports. The more fps capability of the camera body, the better your chances will be of getting the shot at peak action moments.

New or used?  Most every camera body and lens I own was bought in used condition for approximately half as much as new gear. Since I only buy from reputable dealers that service the equipment before a sale and have a money back guarantee if the equipment fails to perform, I have only had positive experiences. 

Off brand lenses. With all due respect to Tamron, Tokina and Sigma, my personal experience is that they can’t take the rigors of sports photography. On the other hand, Nikon (and Canon) lenses are built like tanks, will perform through thick and thin, and will outlast any off brand lens.

Indoor shooting with a Nikon D3, Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 lens. ISO 1600
I also believe that Nikon and Canon lenses use the best optical glass available which translates into sharper, better quality images. Last but not least, Nikon and Canon lenses have much faster focusing motors which snap into focus at the touch of a button. The other manufacturer’s lenses are slower to focus. In sports photography, a slow focusing lens can make the difference between getting or not getting the shot.

Thus, I will not include any off brand lenses in the discussion below. If you decide to go with off brand lenses, you will definitely cut your equipment costs. Just remember that you don't always get what you pay for when you do, but you always get what you pay for when you don't.

Nikon D3, Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 lens. ISO 1600

Suggested Outfits. The following are suggested outfits that will equip you for the settings described. These suggestions are based upon my personal use of the equipment listed, having provided me with images that meet my expectations of quality.

  • Lean and mean – Strictly for daytime use in good light at ISO levels between 200-400. Start with a used Nikon D2H camera body ($300-$400), a 4.1 MP, 8 fps pro body that I used until four or five years ago. Add a used Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 lens ($300 used, $600 new) and you’re in business for less than $1,000 with an outfit that will reach out to the equivalent of a 105mm-450mm lens on a full frame body. 
  • Upping the ante – Still a daytime only outfit, but because of the better camera body you can push the ISO comfortably to 1600 when necessary as light wanes so long as you use some noise reduction software. Substitute a used Nikon D300 ($500-$600) for the D2H and you’re still getting 7 fps in a 12.2MP, tough as nails camera body. Still under $1,000 if you go with a used lens and you’re still reaching out to 450mm at f5.6. 
  • Getting jiggy with it – Any daytime conditions are no problem with this outfit, and if you don’t mind some noise in the images (even with noise reduction software), you can try your hand at events played in indoor gyms and at high school football stadiums. Stick with the used D300 but add a $100 used battery grip to goose your fps to 9 fps. Substitute a used Nikon 80-200mm D ED AF-S f2.8 lens ($800-$900) for the lens and you’re right at $1,500. Yes, you’ve decreased your effective focal range to 300mm but you’ve now got a faster focusing, sharper lens that will allow you to shoot in lower light. 
  • Doubling down - If you want to press a bit further, pick up a used 1.4X Nikon teleconverter ($250-$275) for daytime use with the outfit above and you’ve extended your lens’ focal length to 420mm at f4. You’re still well under $2,000.
  • Best bang for the buck – All of the above, except swap a used Nikon D3 ($2,000) for the D300. The D3 is a full frame, 12.2 MP, 9 fps pro body that rocked the world with its low noise levels at high ISO’s when it came out and still rivals most camera bodies out there. For just a bit over $3,000, with noise reduction software, you can shoot up to ISO 6400 which you will need for acceptable images in high school gyms and at high school football fields. With a full frame body, your high ISO images will look better but your focal range will top out at 200mm without the TC and 280mm with it.
There's a lot more to discuss when diving into sports photography. Hopefully Parts I and II have given you some things to think about. I'm not sure where we will go from here but look for more thoughts on the subject as I ponder what to cover in Part III.


Ronnie said...

Thanks for sharing this info Mike!

Leigh Catley said...

Great info. Mike. Can you share with us where you typically get your used gear? I have often looked for specific pieces of equipment and it has proven to be difficult at times.

tiffyspen said...

Great info! I love Sports Photography and your tips are heping a lot. Thanks for sharing.