Best Nikon Lens For Sports Photography

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With constant rapid movements and adrenaline-filled expressions, sports events present unbeatable opportunities for amazing shots to show off your photography skills. But those opportunities also come with various unique challenges.

Top Pick

Tamron 70-200 f/2.8

  • Excellent Image Quality
  • Wide 2.8 Max Aperture
  • Fast Autofocus
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TOP PICK

Runner-Up

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3

  • 600mm Reach
  • Reasonable Size
  • Good Image Quality
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Budget Pick

Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6G

  • Good Range
  • Compact Size
  • Affordable Price
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As anyone who as ever attempted sports photography will tell you, trying to capture all-star moments can quickly become an exercise in frustration if you don’t have the right equipment. Instead of poster-worthy prints, you can easily end up turning out one blurry picture after another of ant-sized players that no one can identify.

To help avoid such sad results, you may have already realized that investing in a dedicated sports lens is an absolute necessity. If that’s your case but you’re not sure which lens you need, continue reading to find out our top picks for the Nikon lenses that will amp up the wow factor in your action shots.

Top Pick | Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 G2

Although there are undoubtedly some excellent Nikkor lenses available to meet your sports photography needs (we’ll talk about those later in this article), this time, in our opinion, the best bet for most aspiring sports photographers is the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2. Designed for FX bodies, it also works with DX bodies where it’s zoom range changes to 15-300mm.

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The expansive focal length offered by this piece of glass maintains its maximum 2.8 aperture even when extended to 200mm, assuring that you don’t have to make compromises when shooting. You can get even closer to your target and still be able to capture lots of light with the aperture wide open.

Due to the particular challenges of sports photography that often combine the need to freeze action with less than optimal lighting conditions, it’s common to battle dark, blurry photos. With this Tamron lens that becomes less of a problem as you’re able to rely more heavily on aperture than on a slow shutter speed to grab the most available light possible.

This is a big advantage, because it allows you the freedom to make the most of the Tamron’s USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive) motor that gives you lightning fast focusing and shutter speed to freeze your subjects in action.

These factors coupled with Tamron’s innovative VC image stabilization system, that can compensate for up to 5 full stops, give you lots of rapid-fire hand-held freedom for almost every sports shooting situation.

And as if all that weren’t enough, Tamron offers two teleconverters (purchased separately) that allow you to reach a maximum zoom of 400mm.

With so much to offer and user-confirmed great performance, the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2 just makes sense. At $1300, it’s still an investment piece but also basically half the price of an equivalent Nikkor glass—and offers at least 95% of the performance. Those odds practically guarantee you’ll be more than satisfied if you opt for this lens as you delve into the world of sports photography.

Budget Full-Frame Option | Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR

If you’re in the market for a full-frame lens that won’t require a $1000+ investment, an excellent budget option is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR.

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At roughly $500, you can expect that this lens does make some sacrifices. However, it remains a solid piece that will up your sports photography game considerably.

One of this lens’s most attractive features undoubtedly is its wide zoom range extending all the way out to 300mm, bringing you closer than ever to your rapidly moving target to capture those unforgettable sports moments.

Designed to be a compact lens that offers more hand-held shooting possibilities, this lens includes Nikon’s upgraded Vibration Reduction II technology to compensate for up to 2.5 stops of camera shake. This means that you can have more freedom to shoot in less than ideal lighting conditions that some other telephoto lenses can’t handle.

NOTE: There is a much less expensive model of this lens without VR that I don’t recommend. So be careful and use the links above to make sure you get the right one.

Unfortunately, in order to achieve being friendlier on the wallet and less bulky, the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR sacrifices aperture. With a maximum aperture of f/4.5 at 70 mm and f/5.6mm at 300mm, this is not a prime lens and you will likely note its limitations if you frequently shoot sports events at night or in very dimly lit spaces. It may not be impossible to still get great shots but be prepared to work for them and to potentially sacrifice handholding.

Obviously, if your sports photography focuses mainly on daytime and outdoor events, this lens is more than able to produce great results. It, like all of Nikon’s AF-S lenses, has been designed with a Silent Wave Motor to enable quick focusing on the fly. This rapid response is especially important in sports photography where one second extra could mean completely missing an award-winning shot.

Users are consistently satisfied with the performance of the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR, frequently citing its great value for the high-quality images produced. For those just wanting to get their feet wet in the world of sports photography, this lens is undoubtedly an obvious choice.

Crop Sensor Pick | Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

A similar option to our budget FX pick but designed specifically for DX body cameras, the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR offers practically the same benefits.

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Reaching out to 300mm at the long end, this lens makes getting close to a great sports moment happening further out in the field easier than ever.

Thanks to the sacrifices made with regards to aperture, this lens is rather compact and not too weighty which makes it friendly on the back when you’re out shooting for several hours. Obviously, you can expect to lose the advantages offered by a wider aperture that make for faster shooting with clearer results.

However, at only $400, that may not be a deal-breaker for many shooters. As with the previously discussed lens, this piece of glass also includes the Silent Wave Motor for more accurate and responsive autofocusing. Additionally, Vibration Reduction technology helps control camera shake.

In short, despite its limitations, this lens is quite capable of producing great sports images. Some users do note a degree of aberration in shots taken at 300mm, and those who use it in indoor or low-lighting events note that they typically need to compensate for the restricted aperture by dramatically increasing ISO and/or using a tripod.

Z Mount Pick | Nikon S 70-200 f/2.8

For shooters with a Z mount body ready to make a big investment for sports photography, the obvious choice is the Nikon S 70-200 f/2.8. Without a doubt, this stunning piece of glass is a gem that both promises and delivers excellent results.

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Part of Nikon’s S-line lenses designed exclusively for Z mount bodies, the painstaking focus on optical quality and performance make this lens possibly the best 70-200 lens currently on the market. In features, it really leaves nothing to be desired.

The consistent f/2.8 aperture guarantees broad low-light shooting capabilities even when extended to 200 mm. This coupled with not one but two autofocus motors makes rapid-fire autofocusing a reality, meaning that shooting in almost any sports situation is now not only possible but easier than ever. As a bonus, the performance is near silent adding to the finesse of your shooting experience.

Additional notable characteristics of this lens include coatings like Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coat and Fluorine Coat to fight both reflections and dirt that can ruin an otherwise award-winning shot. On top of that, the lens body itself is ruggedly designed against dust and moisture to make sure this lens can withstand field conditions.

One look at all this lens offers and there is absolutely no doubt that it has been meticulously designed to be fast, reliable and optically superior to all its competitors. Unfortunately, that incredible attention to detail and the stunning results it helps produce do come at a steep price, to the tune of $2,600.

This makes the Nikon S 70-200 f/2.8 an investment piece, probably only for the serious photographer determined to make a break into the world of sports photography. If you’re looking for excellence in a telephoto lens, this one’s probably the closest you’re going to get…and only you can decide if the perfection it offers is worth the accompanying price tag.

Best Option for Extra Reach | Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II

For many sporting events, a solid 70-200mm telephoto lens is more than enough to capture the majority of the shots you’re after. However, certain cross-country events may call for a lens with extra reach. If long-range is the type of sports photography that interests you, your best option will undoubtedly be the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II.

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This impressive piece of professional-grade glass removes all limits imposed by reach and lets you get up close and personal with the action anywhere on the field. But this lens won’t only get you close to action in the moment. It specializes in creating images that are just as stunning as what you see in the viewfinder.

Designed with multiple features like Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor, Vibration Reduction Technology, Extra Low Dispersion Glass and Nano Crystal Coat, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II is prepared to meet the challenges of sports photography with ease.

These elements help ensure consistent performance that produces clear images without falling victim to camera shake or sluggish focus issues. The consistent f/4 aperture also gives additional control over lighting conditions making for reliable, fast performance.

As you can expect a piece of glass with this range and these kinds of professional specs, doesn’t come cheap. At $7000 new, this one’s only going to be an option for a very specific type of photographer with well-defined photography goals in mind—and a back healthy enough to lug around nearly 7.5lbs of extra weight when out on assignment.

Best for Closer Action | Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 G2

As much as we have focused in this article on the broad reach offered by various telephoto zoom lenses to get up close and personal with action happening in the distance, we can’t neglect to take into account the sports shooting situations that call for a lens capable of capturing closer action.

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Courtside photography is one such situation that calls for a lens that can give you excellent wide-angle shots when players may be passing within a few yards of your lens barrel. In these types of shooting circumstances, our recommended lens is the Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 G2.

For starters, the solid f/2.8 aperture helps ensure great low-light capability and quick performance. The 24-70mm zoom range also offers a great deal of versatility taking you from wide angle to a decent zoom range all in one lens, allowing you the ease of shooting both what’s happening in front of you of the field as well as what transpires on the opposite side of the court.

Various design elements including Tamron’s 5-stop Vibration Compensation system and an innovative dual Micro-processing unit make capturing crystal-clear images quickly more achievable than ever.

Users consistently rave about the high-quality images produced by the Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 G2 as well as the speed of its autofocus. At $1200, this lens’s performance comes at a decent price, but for those photographers who shoot sporting events at close-ranges, it could be a worthwhile investment to take their photography to unknown levels of wow-factor.

Runner-Up | Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2

For photographers wanting to experiment with a wide gamut of sports shooting conditions using just one lens, one solid piece of glass that offers great reach and reliable performance could be the best option.

Our runner-up choice, the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 fits that bill.

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Spanning from 150-600mm, this lens gives you a broad span of reach. With its limited aperture, lowlight shooting can be a challenge, particularly at f/6.3 when extended to 600mm. This means that nighttime or dusk shots at long range are probably not going to turn out magazine-worthy results.

Users do note that despite various features such as Vibration Compensation and lens coatings, this lens can tend to produce soft results depending upon other factors such as lighting and weather conditions. Some also note that the autofocus on this lens can tend to be a little more sluggish than what might be desirable with fast-moving subjects.

That being said, in daylight shooting conditions, the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 is more than up for the challenge to produce solidly impressive sports photos. And at only $1200, it’s a pretty economical option for the versatility it offers.

What to Look for When Choosing a Sports Lens

After hours of research, we feel convinced that our top picks for a Nikon sports lens are the best options on the market today. However, we also realize that you might still want to compare other possibilities to make sure you choose the glass best suited to your particular needs.

If that’s your case, try keeping in mind the following specifications when making your final decision.

Long Enough Focal Length for The Sport You Shoot

Perhaps your end goal is to become a dedicated sports photographer who shoots a wide range of sports. But for many sports photographers, especially initially, there’s one or two sports that are the focus of their shooting.

Consider the field conditions of your sport. Bigger field sports like football and soccer may need longer lenses to reach the other side of the field, while indoor sports like basketball or volleyball may call for a wider-angle lens.

Over time, you’ll likely find yourself wanting to expand your camera bag to include two bodies with different lens options. But when making your initial lens purchase, think about how much reach you’ll need to get as close as you want to the unforgettable moments your sport offers.

Fast Max Aperture

As you may have noted throughout this article, having a reliable fast aperture is a primary concern for sports photographers. Having a wide-open aperture that lets in lots of light and enables you to use lightning fast shutter speed is a bonus in practically all sports, but especially important for indoor sports or night games on fields that aren’t well lit.

If your shooting is focused primarily on events that occur outside in broad daylight, you can sacrifice aperture (at least to a certain degree) in favor of other details like zoom range and price. Otherwise, buy the widest max aperture your budget can afford to help ensure you always reliably freeze the action in all lighting conditions.

Fast Autofocus

Speed is essential for a sports photographer. In the literal blink of an eye, big moments happen and if your lens is struggling to focus, you’ll miss most of them.

To avoid the frustration of framing an award-winning image only to miss the shot entirely or get a blurry one because you couldn’t focus, make sure to get a lens with proven fast autofocus capabilities.

Both with the firing of shots and focus, slick, seamless speed can literally make or break your up and coming sports photography career.

Good Handling

Also take time to consider how the lens you choose will feel in your hands. Everything from size to weight and button position can affect the ease of use for you, the photographer.

If a lens feels overly bulky or awkward in your hands, it’s very likely to cause you undue frustration on the field. While there is an expected learning curve with all new equipment, if the first thing you notice when you pick up a lens is the ache in your shoulders or if your fingers can’t easily reach essential buttons, that may be an indication to look for another option more suited to your needs.

…………………………..

Ultimately, the lens you choose to begin or advance your sports photography endeavors will depend a lot upon your budget and your personal goals. Thankfully options abound, and we feel safe in assuring you that any one of our top picks is sure to produce spectacular results.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.
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