Wow. I feel like one of the hosts of Saturday Night Live when they are invited to come back for a second time. During their monologue, they are bubbling with excitement, honored at the thought of having been asked to reprise their appearance. I will never host an SNL show, but I have guest blogged on Messr. Kelby’s blog once before; and, here I am again, offering my thoughts to you folks on sports photography.  It just doesn’t get any better than this, or to put it in Scott Kelby’s words, this rocks!

A lot has happened since my first guest blog back in June of 2009. At that time, I wrote on the topic of how to break into sports photography. As time has passed, I can’t tell you how many people have contacted me to let me know that they followed some or all of my suggestions and they are now on the sidelines or have otherwise furthered their desire to become involved in sports photography in more than a peripheral way. Yeah, baby, yeah. So what do I do for an encore? Hmmmmmmm.

A few weeks ago, I was going through my gear in order to pack what I needed to get ready for football season. For me, that meant breaking out the rolling case I use, re-configuring the dividers and then deciding what to put into it. That got me thinking – every now and then, I receive e-mails or comments from readers of my Blog asking for advice on equipment purchases. So, why not write about sports photography equipment – a blog post on gear that I can’t do without in order to give me the best chance of taking good sports photos. Yeah, that’s the ticket – a Top 10 list of gear for sports photography.

From past experience, I know many of Scott’s Blog readers are avid sports photographers or at least enjoy photographing their kids taking part in sports. I also know that many of you are into wildlife photography, and in many ways, the equipment necessary for good wildlife images mirrors that used for sports photography. So, here goes…Mike Olivella’s Top Ten List of sports photography equipment.

Before getting down to the nitty gritty, a couple of overviews. For the most part, my equipment choices were made with the intent of shooting in any kind of light, i.e. daytime, under the lights, indoors or outdoors. Long distances between me and my subjects are often an inherent aspect of sports photography which dictates the use of long lenses. Many of you may not want to live on the sidelines or secretly wish to become staff photographers for Sports Illustrated. There are those who simply want to take the best possible photos of your kids at play. So, I will start out with my opinions as to professional equipment which yields the best bang for the buck and after going through this exercise I will follow up with the gear I would recommend for those of you who are on a tight budget or simply wish to get the best possible photos of your kids without breaking the bank.

Since I have been a long time Nikon shooter, my list will be made up of Nikon equipment. If you shoot Canon or any other type of system, you can pretty much substitute the other manufacturers’ versions of what I have chosen. Because I lack sufficient familiarity with, e.g. Canon, I will refrain from making specific recommendations as to other brands.

Here goes, in reverse order:

Photo courtesy of Nikon USA

#10Nikon SB900 Speedlight. You might be wondering why I would include a strobe within a list of sports photography equipment or how it could possibly make a list that rates it as a gotta-have item. I know, I know, using a strobe is typically taboo when shooting sports, but it is an item that is very useful for fill light and to lower the ISO on shots that don’t involve game action (post-game handshakes between coaches, press conferences, etc.). Indoors, it is extremely handy for any non-action shots, i.e. crazy fans and pageantry. I’ve used mine (or its predecessor, the SB800) with most of my short zoom lenses and even my 80-200mm. I never leave the house without this bad boy in my bag. You never know when it will make the difference between a good exposure and a marginal one.

Photo courtesy of Nikon USA

#9 – Nikon 300mm f/2.8, shown above without the lens hood. Extremely versatile lens which is why it makes the top ten list. The 300mm won’t get as tight as a 400mm (duh), but it is still very useful and it is definitely the way to go if you can’t afford a 400mm. A good, used 300mm f2.8 can be picked up for $3,000 with hood, caps and case (for the non-VR version that precedes the newer version). If you have money to burn, you can certainly consider upgrading to the VR version, but since sports photography involves the use of fast shutter speeds, VR is superfluous for me. Not a feature on which I spend extra bread.

The 300mm can be hand held if necessary (take the monopod mount off – it makes it a lot easier to handle) and really proves its worth indoors when shooting basketball or volleyball. It is not uncommon for this to be one of my lenses of choice when shooting these sports, mounted on one camera body with a shorter zoom on a second body. For day/outdoor events where I might need a little more reach, I simply pop on a 1.4X TC and now I’ve got the equivalent of a 420mm f4 lens on a full frame camera like the D3; on a DX (cropped-frame) sensor camera with a 1.4X TC, I have the equivalent of a 630mm lens at f4. One last tidbit – the 300mm is significantly lighter than a 400mm so it can be lugged around attached to a camera body with a lot less trouble than the 400mm.

#8 – Nikon 1.4X TC14E-II Teleconverter. Adds some reach to any lens that is fast enough to allow autofocus to function properly. Although I frequently read all kinds of reviews about how teleconverters result in loss of image quality, blah, blah, blah, I use this one all the time with no noticeable loss of image quality.  All the proof I need is in the pudding – my photos. I spent a week at Yellowstone a couple of years ago and took many wildlife images with a D2X set at high speed crop mode (providing a 2X factor but reducing the MP from 12.2MP to 6.1MP), my 300mm f2.8 and the 1.4X TC14EII. We’re talking a combination that gave me an 840mm focal length and I cropped/enlarged the images to boot. I can’t imagine getting images any sharper than what I got. I extracted every last ounce of capability from each piece of gear in a mind boggling combination of things and my images were tack sharp. There’s a reason why this puppy goes for over $500 new as compared to the off brands which are half as much – the quality of the glass. The glass used by Nikon is far superior to that of the off brands which is why there is little or no noticeable loss of sharpness. Remember – a teleconverter is nothing but a magnifier. Inferior magnification translates to inferior images.

You can pick up a used version of the TC14E (the 14E-II’s predecessor) for $250-$350. Used TC14E-II’s run slightly more. I’ve used my 1.4X on my 80-200mm f2.8, 200-400mm f4 (strictly outdoors under good daylight), 300mm f2.8 and 400mm f2.8. It will typically not work properly with lenses that are slower than f4, so don’t think you can pop this on an f4.5-5-6 lens and shoot away.

#7 – Nikon 20-35mm f/2.8. This is a great lens and better yet a great bang for the buck. For many years, this was my go-to lens for most wide angle shots, team photos, coaches’ handshakes, stadium shots, etc. I’ve seen these in used condition for $650. I got a steal on mine for $350 from a photojournalist who was switching to Canon so it was well used. But until it finally died (autofocus), it served me very well. Compare this to Nikon’s newer version (17-35mm f2.8) which you typically can’t touch (used) for less than $1,400 and you can see why this is my top ten list choice. If you can tell the difference between 20mm and 17mm, you’re a better person than me, especially when all you have to do is lean a tiny bit backwards and you’ve got the same field of view. I must confess that I eventually switched to the 17-35mm f2.8 but only after my 20-35mm died. I struggled with either replacing it with another or biting the bullet and spending the extra dough for the 17-35mm.  Luckily, I found a used 17-35mm under $1,000 so I jumped on it, but if you can’t afford to drop $1,500 on something that you can essentially replicate with a $650 expenditure, the 20-35mm would be my choice.

#6 – Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8. Aside from the 80-200mm f2.8 lens, this lens ranks right up there in terms of my usage and it serves many purposes. Sure, you can drop $1,300-$1,500 for the newer 28-70mm version, but as with the 20-35mm, I’d rather spend $500 for a good used version of this lens and pocket the other $800-$1,000. If I had to shoot a basketball game (on the floor, along the baseline) with only one lens, this would be my choice.

Because it is an older vintage lens, it is a push-pull zoom as opposed to having a zoom ring to rotate but you get used to this quickly. The focal range is a versatile one, ranging from mild wide angle to mild telephoto (on a full frame body). On my D300, the focal range extends from approximately 50mm to 105mm. I can’t think of any sport that I shoot where at some point I don’t pull this lens out, and for some sports, it is always attached to one camera body or another.

Photo courtesy of Nikon USA

#5 – Nikon 200-400mm f/4 (above, without hood). Rapidly becoming one of my favorite lenses if there is enough light to generate a shutter speed of 1/500 or faster. For most outdoor sports that I shoot in the daytime, I’ll use this lens instead of my 400mm. I’ve used this lens with my 1.4X TC and it worked flawlessly (downside is f5.6, but with enough light, not a problem). For daytime soccer, football and baseball, the lens gives me the luxury of zooming in and out as needed instead of being locked in to one focal length. When Nikon first came out with this baby with autofocus, it was $5,000 new. The first permutation of this lens was a manual focus version that was not well received. Nikon appeared to be reluctant to take it to the next level – autofocus – because it was perceived there would be limited demand. Eventually, Nikon bit the bullet and added autofocus and VR. Much to Nikon’s pleasant surprise, this lens became the lens of choice for many folks shooting at the Beijing Olympics, and after the showing it made there mounted on D3’s, the lens became very popular.

With the recent dollar weakness and the dramatic increase in the lens’ popularity, the price jumped considerably ($6,300 new). More recently, Nikon just came out with a newer version which supposedly improved the VR. The price for a new VRII – a cool $7,000. It’s rare to find the VR version of these in used condition as anyone who has one loves it, although with the advent of the VRII, it is getting easier to find used ones. Expect to pay at least $5,000 for a used one in good condition with hood, caps and case.

Photo courtesy of Nikon USA

#4 – Nikon D300 with battery grip (battery grip not shown above). Easily found now for approximately $1,000 (camera body only) with the release of its updated version (the D300s which is basically the same camera with HD video capability), this is about as good as it gets for a second camera body and is used by many as a primary body. With the battery grip, you have essentially the same feel as with a D3, although some of the control features are located in different locations (nothing earth shattering). While my D3 serves as my primary body, the D300 does some things that even the D3 can’t do – like give me a 1.5X multiplier on lenses without altering the lens aperture. If I have good light and need extra reach, this becomes my primary body. Admittedly, the D300 generates some additional noise when compared to the D3 at ISO levels over 400, but even at ISO 1600, the noise level is tolerable with a little help from Noise Ninja. Amazingly, at 2/5 of the cost of a D2X (the D3’s predecessor), the noise level on the D300 is light years better than the D2X.

I highly recommend the battery grip, not just for the feel, but also for the extra 2 frames per second it will give you. Without the grip (and the larger battery which goes into the grip) you max out at 6 fps. With the battery grip you get 8 fps which is close to the D3’s 9 fps. That’s pretty sporty company for a lot less moohla. 2 fps may not seem like much, but it can mean the difference between a good sports photo and a great sports photo.

#3 – Nikon 400mm f/2.8 (above, without hood). The standard in sports photography and an amazing lens. Originally (I don’t know what I was thinking), I opted for the 500mm f4, which I picked up used for $3,300. First time out, I quickly learned that it wasn’t going to be fast enough for anything other than day/outdoor events. For $200 more, I returned the 500mm and exchanged it for the 400mm f2.8 AF-I that I have now owned for six years and I couldn’t have made a better choice. If I need to reach out more and the light is good, I can add the 1.4X TC and turn the lens into a 560mm f4 on my D3. Nikon’s new version has the VR feature, but to me this is of little use when compared to the cost. A new 400mm f2.8 VR runs $9,000+. I can’t think of a time when I have ever needed the VR feature, as I never shoot this lens without a monopod or at a shutter speed that would make VR necessary, especially considering the cost. At 1/500th second or faster, who needs VR?

Until you have the pleasure of using one of these lenses, you can’t appreciate what a workhorse it is and what a fine piece of engineering/machinery you are holding in your hands. It is borderline bulletproof and makes my job much easier than one can imagine. I own the older AF-I version which precedes the AF-S and the AFS-S VR. Before I bought mine, I did a lot of reading and learned that the AF-I autofocus system Nikon incorporated into this lens was almost as fast as the newer AF-S system. During my test drive, the AF-I autofocus was lightning fast so I saw no need to spend extra bucks for the AF-S.

#2 – Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8. The most versatile, all-around lens you can own. My typical football setup is the 400mm on my D3 and the 80-200mm on my D300. You can use a 1.4X TC to goose this lens to 112-280mm at f/4, and on a DX (cropped-sensor) camera body (like the D300), that combo becomes a 168-420mm f4. In effect, depending on which camera body I opt for, with a 1.4 TC available for use, this lens can provide a focal length between 80mm to 420mm. That’s versatility. Nikon has new versions (70-200mm) with VR but a good used one will run in the neighborhood of $1,800. A good used version of the 80-200mm without VR can be found for $1,200. Depending on whether you need the VR feature will dictate which way you go. I don’t need VR to handhold this lens even down to 1/15 second, so I saved myself the difference.

That brings us to the piece of equipment that I rate as numero uno, top gun, prized by me right behind my wife, our two kids and our dog. That item is….

Photo courtesy of Nikon USA

#1 – Nikon D3. The most impressive camera body I have ever used. I have shot images at ISO 3200 and marveled at the quality. It feels good, it shoots well and it’s bulletproof. Comparing my D3’s images with those I shot with a D2X, I can honestly say that the noise level with a D3 at ISO 800 is better than that of the D2X at ISO 400. This is the first and only camera body that I have ever bought new, mostly because I knew that it would be a long time before it would be available used. I am so glad I splurged. Today, you can find these for just over $3,000. I was hoping that with the advent of the D3S and the D3X, used D3’s would come down below $3,000 in price, but the used value seems to have stabilized just north of $3,000. When Nikon comes out with the replacement for the D3 (the D4, whenever that may be), the price will certainly drop. At that point, you’d be hard pressed to find a better camera body for the money.

Shooting on a budget…

For many of you who simply want to shoot good photos of your kids playing youth or high school sports, the equipment on my top ten list may be beyond your interest or budget. The list above was intended to cover the gear that I believe would suit the needs of individuals who intend to shoot sports on a professional, or at least a semi-professional, level. For those of you who either have no desire to do anything but take good photos of your kids, or who want to test the sports photography waters without having to sell your first born child, here’s a few additional thoughts.

Before delving into specifics, allow me a brief moment to mention something that I see happen all too often. The most common mistake made by folks buying photography equipment is the failure to understand the limitations of the equipment being purchased. Many folks who want to photograph their kids simply head out to a store and rely on the sales pitch of employees who don’t have a clue about the limitations of the equipment they sell. That often leads to folks being swayed by the focal length of lenses without any consideration given to lens apertures. There are boatloads of lenses that have focal lengths of 300mm, 400mm and even 500mm but are too slow for anything other than shooting in broad daylight. When shooting in poor light (indoors or outdoors) or under lights, the resulting shutter speeds are inadequate to stop action. That leads to blurred images, blurred hands, blurred feet and a lot of disappointment. If you try to push the ISO in order to raise the shutter speed, it is almost impossible to obtain images with acceptable noise levels, so again the images are disappointing but for a different reason.

Short and sweet, it doesn’t do you any good to buy a lens that will reach out to 300mm, 400mm or 500mm if the fastest aperture setting is too slow to suit your purposes. It’s easy to be enthralled with the focal length of a lens when you’re shopping, but for all practical purposes, you will kick yourself for spending money on equipment that will ultimately disappoint. Even if you must sacrifice focal length, opt for lenses with apertures that will open to f2.8.

OK, so what should you buy? Let’s start with camera bodies. Remember that I shoot Nikon, so this discussion will only make reference to equipment I know. Hands down, the best bang for the buck right now in an affordable camera body (Canon or Nikon) is the Nikon D300. It’s so good it made my Top Ten list. The noise level at ISO 1600 is far superior to its predecessor (the D200) and in my opinion, far superior to Nikon’s flagship camera body from only a couple of years ago (the D2X, which sold for $5,000). Used D300’s can be found for at or even under $1,000. Without the optional battery pack (right), this puppy gives you 6 frames/second, which is serviceable. If you can splurge, definitely pick up the battery pack (used – $200) – that will give you much longer battery life, 8 frames/second, and a second shutter button for use when shooting vertically.

Can’t quite get to that price range? My next choice would be the Nikon D5000. Brand spanking new, these go for less than $700; used versions run less than $500. Add a battery pack for approximately $100 and you’ll end up with a body that will shoot at 4.5 fps, noise levels that should be acceptable up to ISO 800 and even ISO 1600 as long as your expectations are realistic and you process images with Noise Ninja. It also shoots video.

Now, let’s look at lenses. Basically, you have two choices: you can go with Nikon lenses or you can save some money and purchase non-Nikon lenses. Always remember that you get what you pay for. Sigma, Tamron and Tokina lenses are cheaper than their Nikon counterparts. If cost is an issue, you may not have a choice. But, for my money, Nikon lenses are superior in terms of image quality and durability. For many of you, durability may not be a critical issue as you will not subject your equipment to enough usage such that this will be a factor. I use my equipment almost daily and I wore out (to the point of failure) two Sigma lenses that were touted as pro line lenses before I learned the lesson. I have only had one failure with a Nikon lens and that was the 20-35mm which I bought for half of what a used one normally costs due to the wear and tear to which it had been subjected. It served me well for a good long while and for $350, I got more than my money’s worth.

I would highly recommend that to start off, you invest in at least two lenses. The first one would be a mid-range zoom, and if price is first and foremost, you have a choice between the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8. Used, expect to pay somewhere between $400-$500. This focal range is the most versatile for sports and if I could only have one lens this would be the focal length I would choose without batting an eyelash. Add a 1.4X Teleconverter to the mix and you have a lens that will have a focal length of 112mm-280mm on a full frame camera. On either of the two bodies I’ve suggested (with a 1.5X factor due to the dx sensor), it would give you a focal length of 168mm-420mm at f4. An f4 aperture will be fine outdoors but you don’t want to use the teleconverter indoors or under lights. Sigma’s 1.4X Teleconverter can be found for $100-$130 in used condition. I haven’t priced the Tamron version but I would expect it to be comparable in price.

A couple of teleconverter caveats: 1) do not make the mistake of buying an off-off brand (Kenko comes to mind) unless you have no other choice – with teleconverters, always try to go with whatever brand lens you choose and you will be much happier;  2) do not be tempted to get a 2X teleconverter – your aperture will be f5.6 wide open and autofocus will be sketchy at best; and 3) make sure that the teleconverter you select is designed to actually fit the lens you are going to be using – not every lens will fit on every teleconverter, even if it’s the same brand.

For a few extra bucks, you can go with the Nikon version of the mid range zoom lens. I would encourage you to go this route if at all possible. Nikon made a great 80-200mm f2.8 lens that has been upgraded several times, but it is still rock solid. Checking, I found several of these with lens hood, caps and case for approximately $650. This lens will last you as long as you care to own it and it will deliver top quality images. It will also focus much faster than a non-Nikon lens. If you can add a teleconverter, unfortunately, you have no choice but to go with a Kenko as neither of the Nikon teleconverters that I would recommend will work with this lens. The only Kenko I would consider is the Teleplus Pro 300 1.4X, and used you should be able to find one for $150-$175. Nikon’s TC14E and its more recent version, the TC14E-II, only work with AF-S and AF-I lenses. The Kenko teleconverter will not give you images as sharp as a newer lens/TC14E or EII combination, but remember, you’re on a budget and thus some sacrifice must be made in order to keep the cost down. It’s not as if the images you get will be poor quality, but when using the Kenko TC there will be a (to many it will not be noticeable) decrease in sharpness when compared to a Nikon lens with the TC14E or E-II.

If you can afford a second lens, you have some choices. My preference would be a wide angle zoom, and first I’ll discuss the off brand lenses. Tokina’s 28-70mm f2.8 ATX Pro SV lens is a good choice and can be found used for approximately $250. Both Sigma and Tamron make comparable models and are in the same price range. For example, checking, I found a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Aspherical D DG EX model available for $215. As with the 70-200mm’s, I can’t recommend a Sigma over a Tamron over a Tokina. They are of comparable quality, design and performance. Should you decide to go with Nikon, my recommendation would be the 35-70mm f2.8, which I own. This lens is in my pro Top Ten list and next to my 80-200mm, I use this lens more than any other. To me, the modest price difference makes it worthwhile to splurge and go with Nikon.

Last but not least, you should definitely pick up a good strobe. Shoe mount strobes are the way to go and Nikon’s SB600 is a great all-purpose strobe. It’s not as powerful as its big brothers (SB800 and the SB900), but it will suit most purposes just fine at approximately half the cost. A used SB600 can be easily found for approximately $200 and makes a great addition to any camera outfit. As I mentioned previously, the purpose of a strobe is not so you can shoot sports action as the use of strobes is prohibited in most cases and frowned upon at best. However, a good strobe can provide you with the versatility of lowering your ISO indoors for non-game action shots as well as for fill-in light on non-action outdoor shots.

There you have it. A basic set of equipment that will serve you well if your goal is to shoot sports on a budget. From here, if you decide to add equipment, Sigma makes a 120mm-300mm f2.8 lens that compliments the 80-200mm focal length nicely. Another option is to go with Sigma’s fixed 300mm telephoto which is slightly more expensive but yields slightly better images. The fixed lens won’t have the versatility of the zoom, so you have to decide what will suit your circumstances. Either of these lenses can be found used (with some perseverance) for less than $2,000. New they run slightly over $3,000. I did not include these lenses above as they are not exactly items that are for the budget conscious, but if you decide to get a bit more serious, they are certainly worthy of consideration.

Many thanks to Scott and to everyone at Kelby Media for giving me the chance to reprise my appearance on Scott’s Blog. It’s always a pleasure to work with Brad and the other folks in Scott’s arsenal. Finally, my thanks to all of you for taking the time to read my post. I hope you are able to glean some information that is helpful to you.

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