It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Mike Olivella!

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.

  1. Mike:

    I really liked your guest post today. Although I don’t shoot a lot of sports, I do like to shoot wildlife, and your lens choices were really helpful. I agree, my D300 is a terrific camera (wish I could afford a D3s though!), and I am always amazed at the image quality that I can get out of it.

    One thing that should be noted is that Sigma zoom lenses use a zoom ring rotation that is the reverse of Nikons (although it is the same as Canon). I find that I am more comfortable using Tamron and Tokina zoom lenses for that reason.

    Thanks again!


  2. Mike ~

    Wonderful post as always. Once again your insights and recommendations are most helpful!

    Since your first writings last year on Scott’s blog and all that transpired, its been a pleasure to follow your career here and through your blog. I have learned more about the nuances of shooting sports images from you than imagined. Most of all, I appreciate your straightforward and pragmatic approach to choosing your equipment, taking images and handling of the photographic industry.

    Looking forward to more guest posts in the future from you!

  3. Hey, Scott Kelby, do you have any friends or fellow photogs who shoot Canon? We Canon shooters would love to hear from a guest blogger on his or her favorite Canon gear for a particular genre of photography. Just sayin’… :)

    1. John,

      Have you had a look at the Rick Sammon classes on Kelby training, he mentions some Canon kit on there.

      I shoot Ice Hockey with Canon kit, I use a 1D Mk IV, a 7D for backup and mainly the 70-200 f2.8 and 24-70 f2.8 for lenses. Tried a Sigma 120-300 f2.8 but couldn’t get on with it so that’s gone and saving for a 300 2.8 prime.

      I always carry a 580EX and stofen in case I get asked to do some sort of presentatation piece, plus spare cards and batteries.

      I’m not shooting with strobes just the arena lighting.

      Other useful kit is a pump spray bottle of glass cleaner, a couple of microfibre cloths to clean the glass (On both sides before the game) and some cheap spikes for walking on the ice.

      I started off with a Sigma 70-200 f2.8 HSM and a 20D with grip before trading up. Watch the focussing motors on some of the cheaper lenses as they may not be fast enough.

      That any use to you?


  4. Great article Mike! 90% of my shooting is sports photography but I have a much tighter budget for gear. D700, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8, but I don’t even hesitate to break out my primes for the indoor sports 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4 and 135mm f/2. Give me a call when you decide to sell your 200-400mm or your 400mm f/2.8, since Scott won’t give me a good deal on his!

    1. Ha ha ha. I’ve been telling Scott to pick up a 400mm f2.8 and I see that he finally bit the bullet. Haven’t had a chance to ask him how he likes it but if he’s like me, the first time he used it I’m sure he was blown away.

      No chance on selling either of those two lenses. They’re like my children – “Zoomy” and “Big Boy” Olivella.

    1. WJcdR,

      Try the Zeikos battery grip for your D5000 on Amazon. com… I have this brand grip for my D300 and it works perfect at a fraction of the cost. Hope this helps!

  5. Great post, very informative. Thanks for sharing!

    I have a D300s and I can say, for indoor use, it doesn’t cut it due to noise levels but I am thrilled with the results from outdoor shoots. I will be adding a second body, a D700….maybe for Christmas depending on if I made my Santa’s Naughty or Nice list this year.

    1. Noise Ninja is a great program that removes a lot of the objctionable noise. Having said that, it all depends on what one considers an acceptable image. In sports photography, we often have to compromise and sacrifice some image quality due to the conditions.

  6. Excellent post. I’m getting ready to make an investment in some gear and this post was extremely helpful. Most of my sports photography right now centers around my kids sports, so it really hit home. And thanks for including some helpful information for those on a budget.

  7. It’s refreshing to hear an equipment list used by a professional photographer that doesn’t necessarily list only the latest and most expensive equipment from the manufacturers! I damaged my 35-70 lens only a week ago when it dropped out of my bag, and that only a few days after getting my first FX camera. I liked that lens a lot, and it will be sorely missed!

  8. Hi Mike,

    As you may well remember, I am one of those people who contacted you looking for advice on breaking into sports photography. As you’ve demonstrated with your great guest blog posts, you are extremely generous with your advice and more than willing to help out a rookie shooter.

    My very first college basketball game, one year ago, resulted in a grand total of one in-focus image! With your advice in my back pocket, I persisted and before the season was over, I had been hired by two colleges to shoot their teams in the Final 8 (one of them went on to win the national title). With your help, I’ve been able to put together a somewhat decent sports photo portfolio. Lonnnng ways to go still, of course.

    So thanks for being so willing to help then and again, above with your informative guest blog.

    Hope all’s well,
    Trev J.

  9. Great info Mike, I get this question from parents a lot, and I’ll refer them to this post. I used the Sigma 120-300f2.8 for awhile, before I also sprung for the Nikon 300f2.8 AFS (last one before VR). While I was happy w/ the Sigma, I too am thrilled w/ the Nkon (IQ, AFS performance); I do miss the flexibility of the zoom, can’t believe Nikon hasn’t come out w/ a similar lens. Tho’ maybe they feel the 200-400 fits the bill.

    Totally endorse your suggestions, I used a D300 for a couple of years, and got a D3s earlier this year. So my D300 gets mated w/ my 300 & TC1.4, and my D3s w/ my 70-200f2.8 VRII. I also use my 24-70f2.8 for basketball, or my 50f1.4G (mostly on my D300) and sometimes my 85f1.4. But w/ the D3s, it’s nice to have the zoom flexibility indoors for basketball (and sometimes my 70-200 or 300 for down court shots).

    Would love to get a 400f2.8, but just can’t get the wife to sign off on that one :-)

  10. Wow! what a the post more than 4 times.. very very informative! Thanks Mike and Scott for this wealth of information from a pro photographer.

  11. Great post and consideration of being on a budget. It seems that you left out a category of lens for those on a budget to consider… the 18-50 (ish) f2.8 zooms. They’ll only be good on the crop sensor cameras, but those on a budget aren’t likely to go full frame and regret the choice. The image quality is very, very good, and the 18mm on the wide end is extremely helpful vs. 28 or 35mm. Sigma and Tamron make very good versions, and I assume Nikon (I know Canon) make superb versions.

    As another commenter pointed out, fast primes can also be a very affordable way to handle kids sports and events that are indoors or under lights. I don’t know for sure the Nikon primes, but Canon makes good 50, 85 and 100mm primes that would do well for those kids sports where you can often be pretty close to the action. And again, on a crop sensor, the reach is pretty good.

  12. I’m a Toronto Wedding Photographer and this post was a great insight in a completely different filed of photography. While I have the standard zooms, Nikon 24-70/70-200 they really are just a backup for me. I like to shoot wide open and like the creative challenge that a fixed focal length provides.

    My primary “primes” for weddings are the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G and 85mm f/1.4G but I also have the 35mm f/1.8G, 50mm f/1.4G and a 60mm f/2.8D for ring shots. The 35mm f/1.4G is coming soon and also get that to replace my 1.8.

  13. WOW! Fantastic run down on gear. i especially love how you spent the time explaining your reasons for each item on the list. This will certainly help anyone when making choices on gear.
    Thank you!

  14. Best gear blog I have ever read. You get that not everyone needs pro gear, and you understand that money is not unlimited. I loved reading it and will pass it on to all my photographers (over 600 across Canada).
    thanks for the great post.

  15. Mike,

    Once again you have provided an excellent guest blog. It is great to hear the insights as to why you choose a certain lens over others, even when it is to chose the older version of a lens over the new version. I agree with you on the Nikon lenses over third party lenses.

    I have purchased a few third party lenses and while they are good, I think they tend to be slightly less sharp and less rugged than the Nikon equivalent. The exception to this is the Tokina 12-24 DXII. This seems to be a tack sharp lens & very ruggedly built. It is one of my favorite lenses in my bag right now.

  16. Thanks for the great follow up on your second post on here. After last time, I went and checked out your website and it was great. I was a bit confused on high speed sync until I watched one of your videos.

    Thanks for the great info and look forward to future posts.


  17. I really liked the level of detail and the included pictures. Very good blog post! Looks like your sequel blog is a block buster! Thanks for sharing your photo knowledge and gear set.
    I read every word of it.

  18. Mike is a great guy. I love his contributions to sport photography and his willingness to share. Mike took the time about a year ago to correspond to several of my emails regarding breaking into photojournalism and because of his sound advice I’m now a stringer photographer for the Chicago Sun Times and Southtown Star. Many thanks.


  19. Mike – Great post. I’ve been shooting kids soccer and just started on basketball with my son and really have started getting into shooting sports. I did have a chance a year ago to shoot an NBA game court side with a not so fast lens and a d200. I had to shoot 1600 ISO and ran noise reduction on all the photos. I knew I didn’t have all the right equipment but I had a blast.

    I’ve since purchased a 70-200 VR II and just last week acquired the TC 14E II. I’m waiting for D800 or whatever it is called early next year and will be taking advantage of the higher ISO.

    I appreciate you sharing your wisdom. I can’t wait until your third post!

  20. Folks, I’m humbled by your comments. Thank you for the kind words. If you would like to view more of my ramblings, please visit my web site ( and/or the Blog which is linked on the home page. I also just started a Facebook page on which it is much easier to post photo galleries in conjunction with the Blog posts. The Blogs walk you through some of the technical stuff as I shoot different things and the Facebook page (Mike Olivella) has more examples of images. Finally, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me ( with more specific questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

  21. Informative post and nice gear, Mike – but most of the photos of the camera bodies and lenses came from Ken Rockwell’s site. A small mention of his name would be at least appropriate if you posting images not your own. Not that Ken would mind – but hey, an image is an image.

    Content-wise – awesome, Mike!

    1. I mentioned to a friend that I was doing this post and that I was going to spend a couple of hours setting up my table for a shoot of various pieces of gear. He asked me which gear as he had a bunch of images on his hard drive which he had saved that depicted all kinds of gear. I gave him a list and he sent me the images. I had no idea he had taken some of them from Rockwell’s site. When Brad alerted me to this, the images were taken down and replaced with images from the Nikon site. My apologies to Ken Rockwell for the unintended use of his images. Lesson learned – never rely on anyone else to feed you images.

  22. Hi Scott…good article…I have been trying to figure out what to buy, switching from a very old Olympus FE-210 point and shoot to a dig SLR!! Haven’t used an SLR since 1982! Can’t wait to get started! Bought your “The Dig Photography Book Volume One” recently and think it is very helpful, won’t know for sure until I buy the cam!!! Thx again!

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