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Best Nikon Camera for Sports Photography

I took a look at the 16 DSLR and 8 mirrorless options by Nikon currently available and tested many of them out in the field and came to the conclusion that the Nikon Z6II is the best Nikon camera for sports photography. Taking advantage of an impressive focusing system, a high frame rate, and some excellent lenses in the Z mount lineup, this camera has everything you need for capturing the perfect sports moment.

Top Pick

Nikon Z6II

All around great performer.

The second version of the Z6 has improved focusing, an exceptional sensor, and 14 frames per second. With the growing collection of Z mount lenses, you can take advantage of cutting-edge technology in lenses.

24.5 MP | Full Frame (FX) Sensor | ISO 100 – 51,200 | 14 Frames/sec | Nikon Z Mount | Weight: 21.7 oz. (615 g)

The Nikon Z6II is Nikon’s improvement first generation mirrorless Z6. It’s my pick among Nikon cameras for shooting sports because of the shooting speed and image quality as well as the ability to use Nikon Z mount lenses which continue to impress with each new lens released. The Z Mount Nikon S 70-200 made my list of the best Nikon lenses for sports photography.

The 24.5 Megapixel sensor is kind of a sweet spot of resolution for shooting sports. It gives you enough detail to crop in when necessary but also isn’t so large that it slows the camera down.

With 14 frames per second, the Z6II is more than fast enough for most sports. If you want to shoot faster than that, you’ll have to spend more than double for the Z9 (more about this one below).

Of equal importance is the increased buffer depth, meaning you can take more shots in continuous mode before the camera needs to stop. For many sports photographers, this is even more critical than frames per second. A large and fast buffer means less time that you’ll have to wait for it to clear before shooting again.

This camera also handles low light exceptionally well which means shooting indoor sports like basketball or ice hockey isn’t a problem, even when the light is less than stellar (such as shooting in a high school gym).

Budget Pick

Nikon D3500

Slower continuous shooting, but excellent quality at a good price.

Nikon’s entry-level model still delivers excellent quality and is a great way to get started with sports photography.

24.2 MP | Crop (DX) Sensor | ISO 100 – 25,600 | 5 Frames/sec | Nikon F Mount | Weight: 12.9 oz.(365 g)

Nikon does a great job at producing high-quality entry-level cameras. The Nikon D3500 lacks some pro-level features and specs, but for the photographer that’s just getting started with wildlife shooting or wants to be a little budget-conscious, it is an excellent option.

Nikon DSLRs are all well built and ergonomically exceptional, and even their entry-level cameras are no exception. While it doesn’t have the front dial that other models have, you can program the exposure compensation button so that the back dial controls shutter speed on its own and controls aperture when the button is pressed. With that small tweak, you’ll have quick control of the two most important settings.

While not as exceptional as the Z6II in low light, for a lower-priced crop sensor camera, the D3500 does perform pretty well in low light. You can get pretty clean shots up to 800/1600 ISO with some noise becoming noticeable at 3200 ISO. But with a little post-processing, you can easily get good quality images shooting at 3200 ISO.

At the budget price point, you’ll have to sacrifice something and the 5 frames per second continuous shooting is the most noticeable aspect where this camera falls short of Nikon’s more expensive models.

However, you would be surprised how infrequently you use continuous shooting mode for wildlife and how often your best shots will be when they are standing still. So this is an area in which I wouldn’t be worried about compromising.

So why go with the entry-level model for sports photography if you’re on a budget?

The D3500 is going to give you the best value for the specs you need to shoot sports. If you want to improve the frames per second above 5, then you’ll have to jump up to the $1,000 MSRP price point with the Nikon D7500. But at that point, you’ll be in the same price range as the mirrorless Z mount crop sensor Nikon Z50.

Additionally, because the D3500 is difficult to find on sites like Amazon without those “beginner kits” that include a lot of trash you don’t need, like a tripod that will fall apart in a week, you’ll probably end up spending around the same price as the better Z50.

The Z mount will be where you’ll see all the most exciting innovations. If you can squeeze a little more out of your budget, I would recommend going for the Nikon Z50 instead (check out my description below) so that you can get started with the Z mount system from the beginning.

Best Crop-Sensor

Nikon Z50

Lots of tech in a small package.

The first Z mount crop sensor camera packs a lot of great tech in a small body. The autofocus is fast enough to keep up with most sports and the price makes it a great way to enter the Z mount system.

20.9 MP | Crop (DX) Sensor | ISO 100 – 51,200 | 11 Frames/sec | Nikon Z Mount | Weight: 14.0 oz. (390 g)

If you want a smaller mirrorless camera that still packs a punch when it comes to shooting sports then the Nikon Z50 is a great option.

This is the second least expensive camera on this list and the most affordable way to get into the exceptional Nikon Z mount system.

The specs and performance of this camera fall somewhere above the D3500 and below the Z6II and it is priced accordingly for that range.

The 1.5x crop factor of this camera will give all your lenses a little more reach. That means that a 200mm lens effectively becomes 300mm and that extra reach helps a lot when shooting sports. You even have access to the massive F mount lineup with the FTZ adapter.

This camera will offer you a lot of versatility that goes beyond just shooting sports. The smaller size coupled with some of the very compact Z Mount DX lenses means you’ll also have a great walk-around option for any situation.

I highly recommend this camera to beginners because of its versatility. Because Nikon uses the exact same Z mount on its full-frame and crop sensor cameras, you can use this camera as an entry point and slowly build up a nice collection of Z mount lenses before investing in a full-frame body. In fact, you may never even feel the need to jump to full-frame.

This is a camera that I personally use to shoot kids sports when there is plenty of light. It can’t handle low light as well as the Z6II but when there is enough light the image quality is excellent.

High-End Option

Nikon Z9

Possibly the best camera on the market today.

Nikon has thrown everything into this camera making it the ultimate machine for action as well as producing extremely high-quality RAW files.

45.7 MP | Full Frame (FX) Sensor | ISO 64 – 25,600 | 20 Frames/sec RAW and 30 Frames/sec JPEG | Nikon Z Mount | Weight: 47.3 oz. (1340 g)

**You can pre-order the Z9 now but it looks like supply chain issues are causing huge delays in fulfilling those orders…personally, I would recommend the Z6II above.**

This is Nikon’s first mirrorless flagship camera body and it really is the perfect sports shooter. You can pre-order it now, though Nikon hasn’t confirmed when it will start shipping, the Nikon Z9 is clearly a top-of-the-line camera for sports shooters. This might end up being the best camera of the year in 2022.

The biggest drawback of this camera is the price. It is designed for professional photographers and the price tag reflects that. But, you are getting what you pay for. This is a multimedia powerhouse with pro-level shooting capabilities and pro-level video capabilities as well.

This is the fastest Nikon camera. Even with a 45.7 MP sensor, you’ll get 20 frames per second shooting RAW files. In addition, a new firmware upgrade just increased the buffer size to allow you to shoot at this speed for 30 seconds.

If you need even more speed, you can switch to JPEG for 30 frames per second and if you switch to 11 megapixel JPEG images, you’ll get an insane 120 frames per second.

The sensor is equally impressive. The Z9 boasts a 45.7 megapixel backside-illuminated stacked CMOS sensor. That that means from a practical standpoint is great dynamic range and low light performance.

The autofocusing system will also be Nikon’s best to date. Nikon has also been improving their autofocus systems with firmware updates pretty frequently, so you can expect that your camera will get better over time even without having to pay more money.

You also get a blackout-free viewfinder, which makes it much easier to track the action on the field or court while shooting.

At 47.3 oz. (1340 g), this is the heaviest camera on this list. So over a long day of shooting sports, it will fatigue you more than some of the other options above. However, compared to its DSLR counterparts, it’s still lighter.

There are a couple of reasons the Z9 didn’t make the top pick. First, it’s priced well above most budgets. Second, it hasn’t been released yet and there’s no clear indication when pre-orders will be fulfilled. So even though all the reviews look incredible, if you want something sooner, I would recommend the Z6II.

Crop Sensor DSLR Option

Nikon D500

A pro-level body, just with a smaller sensor.

The Nikon D500 is a very popular camera for sports because it’s got an exceptional autofocus system, high frame rate, and is built like a tank.

20.9 MP | Crop (DX) Sensor | ISO 100 – 51,200 | 10 Frames/sec | Nikon F Mount | Weight: 26.9 oz.(760 g)

Nikon calls this camera the DX (crop sensor) flagship and the name is appropriate. The Nikon D500 is essentially a pro-level DSLR body with a crop sensor in it.

The 10 frames per second continuous shooting speed gets close to keeping up with my top pick above. Because it is a DSLR and not mirrorless, there is no screen blackout to worry about when tracking players on the field. I still prefer the Nikon mirrorless cameras, but this can be a preference for some shooters.

Like all Nikon flagship DSLRs, the D500 is built quite rugged. It uses magnesium alloy and carbon fiber materials for good durability while not adding too much weight. It also features dust and water-drop resistance so you can feel safe shooting in the rain or other difficult environments.

The sensor on this camera outperforms all of Nikon’s other crop sensor DSLRs and is very similar to the smaller and less expensive mirrorless Z50.

Nikon D500 vs. Z50 for Sports Photography

Despite looking very different, choosing between the D500 and Z50 tends to be a common choice faced by Nikon shooters looking for a crop sensor camera.

The D500 is a more pro-level body and is going to give you more buttons and dials to make fast changes as well as being more durable and rugged. It also fits better in most hands with a larger grip, but of course, this comes with added weight.

When it comes to high ISO performance, I think the D500 edges out the Z50 only because the Z50 tends to show more color noise which alters the color in the image while the D500 has more of a finer grain that is more akin to a film look rather than digital noise.

However, they are close enough in detail retention that the sensor itself shouldn’t be the deciding factor if you are choosing between the two. While the D500 is a more rugged and professional body, the Z50 gives you the advantage of using the new mirrorless autofocus system as well as the Z Mount lenses, which I think are going to be an advantage overall.

Comparison image shot at ISO 51,000.

Why You Should Trust Me

As an active professional photographer and owner of Photography Goals, I get the opportunity to use many different cameras. In addition to my portrait business, I spend a lot of time shooting local sports teams with Nikon cameras and have a great idea of which camera features make the biggest difference between getting the shot and missing it.

Top Factors For Choosing A Nikon Camera for Sports Photography

After shooting local sports for a few years, here are the top features and specifications I would look for in a camera to shoot sports.

Autofocus System

The most difficult thing about shooting sports at any level is getting the right thing in focus at the right time. The faster and more accurate your autofocus system is, the better your results will be.

The latest mirrorless cameras have really taken a huge leap forward in autofocus technology in recent years. Because they use the sensor itself to acquire focus, mirrorless cameras can have far more coverage across the frame than DSLRs. They also use contrast detection which tends to be more accurate and doesn’t require tuning like DSLRs.

Mirrorless cameras have also begun to employ smart algorithms that let your camera do things like detecting the eyes of your subject with often impressive accuracy and speed. This can be very helpful for shooting sports because the goal is often to get the eyes of the player in focus.

This is why I think that the Z mount system for Nikon is going to give you the best results when it comes to autofocus. That doesn’t mean their DSLRs have bad autofocus. In fact, the latest DSLRs like the Nikon D500 have excellent autofocus systems as well.

Continuous Shooting Speed

Continuous shooting speed is important while shooting sports. While you still have to time it so that you press the shutter at the peak of action, the ability to shoot 10 or more frames per second will improve your chances of capturing the perfect moment.

But don’t rely on this too heavily. Developing the skill of capturing the perfect moment is important for shooting sports.

Shot with Nikon Z50 |

Dynamic Range and Low Light Performance

You might associate dynamic range and low light performance with other types of photography, but once you start shooting sports in varied situations, you’ll realize how important it is to have a good sensor…here’s why.

Dynamic range is the ability to capture bright areas and dark areas in the same shot. Often, sporting events take place outside in direct sunlight, which means very bright spots and harsh shadows. If your camera sensor has a good dynamic range, you can recover these extremes when editing the photos after the game.

Another common situation sports photographers encounter is low light. You might think that your local high school gym is bright, but if you want to shoot at high shutter speeds, those gym lights often are not bright enough.

That means using higher ISO settings in order to use fast enough shutter speeds to freeze the action. The better your camera can handle these high ISO settings, the better your images will turn out.

Bright sunlight can create harsh shadows making it difficult to get even exposures. This image needed some editing in Lightroom. Shot with Nikon Z50.

Ergonomics and Usability

Sports move fast, so you’ll want a camera that handles well and allows you to change settings fast and accurately in order to get the best results.

The good news is that ergonomics and usability are where Nikon really outperforms most others. They’ve been making cameras since 1948 so there’s a lot of experience behind their designs.

Even the new, smaller mirrorless cameras are made with ergonomics in mind. So rest assured that every camera on this list is going to be easy to use. a

Lens Selection

You have to consider the lens lineup that will work with the camera that you choose. Nikon lenses are typically exceptional and you’ll have a great selection of options for just about any purpose.

I think you’ll get the best results if you take advantage of the new Nikon Z Mount found on its mirrorless cameras. It was a large step forward in technology and also allows you to use just about every F-mount lens in Nikon’s massive lineup with the FTZ Adapter.

Ruggedness and Durability

Sports photographers tend to put their cameras through some tough use. You may find yourself shooting in the rain, snow, wind, heat, and other tough weather. You’ll also be moving around a lot and often be quite rough on your camera.

Nikon cameras, especially the ones on this list, are built quite well in terms of ruggedness. They are all weather-sealed to some degree and can survive normal bumps and heavy use.

DSLR or Mirrorless For Sports Photography?

In general, modern mirrorless cameras are going to be better for shooting sports photography. The new and quite impressive autofocus systems in mirrorless cameras are often going to give you better results than DSLRs. DSLRs will eventually become outdated so it is a smart decision to invest in one of the mirrorless systems if you are buying a camera today.

Is Nikon Z Mount Good For Sports Photography?

The Nikon Z Mount is an excellent choice for sports photography. While the selection of lenses available isn’t nearly as extensive as the F-mount Nikon lenses, the quality is exceptional. In addition, the autofocus systems in the Nikon mirrorless cameras are exceptional and are updated regularly with new firmware released by Nikon.

DSLRs will be outdated soon so moving to the Z Mount system is the best choice. You can also get access to Nikon’s extensive collection of F mount lenses with the F to Z adapter.

Shot with Nikon D750

Is the Nikon D750 Good For Sports Photography?

Yes, the Nikon D750 is an excellent camera for shooting sports. Even as an older camera released in 2014, the image quality, dynamic range, autofocus speed, and low light performance compare very favorably to many of today’s modern cameras. I own a D750 and still use it for shooting sports.

However, if you are looking to purchase a new camera body for sports, I wouldn’t recommend spending your money on an older DSLR. For a little more of an investment, you can get an excellent and more future proof camera in the Nikon Z6II instead. The Z6II will also let you use the excellent Nikon Z Mount lenses.

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