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Why Is a Super Telephoto Lens Necessary for Sports Photography?

Super telephoto lenses offer a different perspective, especially when it comes to sports photography. As a beginner, there is a lot you can do with a 70-200mm f/2.8L lens, but as you progress, you will realise that there is a limit that a super telephoto prime lens like a 300mm or 400mm can help you overcome. Yong Teck Lim (IG: @yongtecklim), a sports photojournalist and Getty Images photo editor who has shot various sporting events all over the world, shares why a super telephoto prime lens is a must-have for any serious sports photographer. (Reported by Yong Teck Lim with photos shot for Getty Images)


1. It gives you more options, especially in large venues

As a sports photographer, you always want to get compelling shots of the athletes and peak action. If you are in a huge open venue, such as a baseball stadium or soccer field, even a 70-200mm lens might be too far away to capture impactful shots, which is when a super telephoto lens (300mm and beyond) comes in handy.

For some sports, and in certain situations such as the safe distancing restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, photographers might be confined to shooting positions far away in the stands with movement restricted. That’s when a super telephoto lens isn’t just useful, it becomes a necessity.

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF400mm f/2.8 IS II USM @ f/2.8, 1/5000 sec, ISO 800

In a baseball stadium shooting from a dugout, it takes a 400mm lens to close in onto individual players way on the other end of the field.

Pro tip: Having more reach lets you take a more active approach to shooting

At a large venue, on a regular telephoto lens such as a 70-200mm lens, you are often waiting for action to get closer so that you can fill up a frame. The tighter crop of a super telephoto lens gives you more control over what and when you shoot, which paves the way for more unique images.


Why not just crop in post?

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF70-200mm f/2.8 IS III USM @ 200mm, f/2.8, 1/5000 sec, ISO 800

The contrast between the circular, beige coloured pitcher’s mound and the green fields adds a geometric element to this 200mm shot. But what if I wanted a closer crop of the player?

Overcropped shot

No matter how many megapixels your camera has, there is only so much you can crop a shot before image quality starts to deteriorate. In this overcropped shot, you can see that the outlines and details are mushy. To capture close-up expressions better, it helps to have a longer lens: Not only does this preserve image quality, it also lets you observe the player more closely.


Sometimes, even 400mm isn’t enough

For most of the larger sporting venues where I have shot in this region, a 400mm lens is sufficient—I have rarely required a 600mm lens. I usually bring a teleconverter (also known as extender) for additional flexibility.

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF400mm f/2.8 IS II USM + Extender EF1.4x III @ 560mm, f/4, 1/4000 sec, ISO 250

Teleconverters are great for adding to your reach. However, they reduce your maximum aperture and AF speed, which in turn limits your ability to freeze action under low light conditions. It always helps to have a fast lens and a camera that can produce clean images even at high ISO speeds.

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF400mm f/2.8 IS II USM + Extender EF1.4x III @ 560mm, f/4, 1/2000 sec, ISO 3200

Sometimes, using a teleconverter alone isn’t enough to get the impact that you want. For this shot, due to photo position restrictions, I was so far away from the action that even at 560mm, I still had to crop the image to its limits: 3000 pixels on the longest side, which is about 50% of the original.


2. Aesthetic quality

In sports photography, we tend to prefer clean backgrounds, and one way to get them is to use background bokeh to blur out distractions. On super telephoto lenses, the telephoto compression effect brings backgrounds closer and makes them appear larger*, which also enhances the aesthetic qualities of the bokeh, lifting the overall look of the image.

*Compared to a shorter lens, assuming that the other factors affecting bokeh such as distance between the background and subject remain the same.

Shot at 155mm, f/2.8

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

Shot at 400mm, f/2.8

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

Intense background bokeh simplifies the background more, making the subject stand out better.


3. It’s a great tool to set yourself apart—especially when combined with a good eye, skill, and experience

If everyone owns a super telephoto lens and are able to capture the same action sequence, then how do you make your photos stand out? That boils down to a combination of several elements, including understanding your assignment and subject, and honing your creative eye and experience.

This applies even in sports such as basketball, where a 70-200mm lens is usually sufficient for capturing ordinary action shots.  A super telephoto lens can help you look out for different images, such as outstanding details and features.

Here are some shots that we would usually take with a 70-200mm lens, alongside others taken at the same events using a 400mm lens. Notice how a 400mm lens complements the 70-200mm?

Peak action at 70mm

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

On the basketball court, 70mm on the 70-200mm is sufficient for stopping game action on the basketball court, like this one of LeBron James (left), an internationally renowned basketball player, driving against a rival team member during an NBA game.

Close in on emotion at 400mm

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
EOS-1D X/ EF400mm f/2.8 IS II USM @ f/2.8, 1/1200 sec, ISO 5000

As I was shooting with the 70-200mm lens, I noticed LeBron having a pensive moment to himself. Instinct told me to go in tight and isolate him from everything else. As he was several feet away from me, my 400mm lens was perfect for capturing what I wanted, right down to the perspiration rolling down his forehead.

Full and half-bodied action at 200mm

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
Tennis player Evan King playing a backhand.

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
Fabrizio Ornago making a serve.

For indoor tennis matches, depending on how far away the players are from your photo position, a 70-200mm can get you half to full-body shots.

Unique details at 400mm

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark III/ EF400mm f/2.8 IS II USM @ f/2.8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 4000

At 400mm, I could close in on Evan King’s eye-catching hair…

©Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark III/ EF400mm f/2.8 IS II USM @ f/2.8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 4000

…and this unconventional composition that showcases Fabrizio Ornago’s spraying sweat.


Pro tip: Know your techniques well

To maximise the impact of such shots, it helps to be familiar with what kind of effects are possible with the lighting conditions, background elements, and so on. For example, many photographers dismiss backlight as terrible lighting, but the backlight at the tennis event above helped to make King’s hair and Ornago’s sweat stand out. Going in tight on both showed detail, creating something different from the usual action shots.

Also see: 
Professional Composition Techniques (3): Making Good Use of Lenses
3 Steps for Capturing Impressive Close-ups of Athletes in Action


Tips for handling a super telephoto prime lens

1. Shoot with both eyes open, non-viewfinder eye on the action

The magnification makes some new users of super telephoto lenses dizzy, similar to how it feels the first time you wear contacts or a new pair of glasses. Finding a subject and following action through the magnified view can also be challenging.

To get around these, when looking through the viewfinder, train yourself to keep your other eye open and on the action. While it may take a lot of practice to get used to, it not only helps with the dizzy spell, but also keeps you aware of the action on the field so that you are ready to hit the shutter when the moment arises. That’s killing two birds with one stone!

2. Use a monopod when you can

The large maximum aperture of professional super telephoto prime lenses is crucial for versatility, but it also means that weight is a factor. Technological advances have helped to make recent lenses smaller, lighter, and easier to handhold—but not for long durations, so it still helps to use a monopod. A monopod is more mobile and definitely preferred over a tripod, as there are some sports that give you the freedom of moving around.

For other sports photography tips, check out:
How to Make the Best of an Extreme Sports Shoot
Triathletes in the Rain: 2 Techniques for Expressing Tension and Speed
Sports Photography: How to Emphasize Speed by Contrasting Stillness with Motion


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Yong Teck Lim

Yong Teck Lim

A photographer and editor specialising in sports, Yong Teck’s journey in sports photography began in college, where he covered school sports for a local sporting news site. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, he worked as a multimedia producer with Reuters before venturing into freelance sports photography, where his work has been used in major global publications such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. He is currently a photo editor with Getty Images.