The best Canon cameras and lenses for sports photography

Sports photographers Jorge Ferrari and Jean-baptiste Liautard reveal the kit they rely on to capture their standout action shots.
A cyclist is captured in mid air, silhouetted against a smoky orange background, with silhouetted trees and rocks in the foreground.

The full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R System has some outstanding camera and lens options for sports photographers, including the professional EOS R5 camera and the flexible and compact RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM zoom lens. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 100mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1250. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

Sports photographers need robust, reliable camera equipment to ensure they never miss a beat. Fast, accurate AF and a high-speed drive are essential, as are intuitive fingertip controls that mean you never have to take your eye off the action.

So, which Canon cameras are best for sports photography? And what lenses do professional sports photographers recommend?

"For me, shooting with a Canon DSLR, the essential lenses for sports are the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM and a short zoom," says Canon Ambassador Jorge Ferrari. But, as the in-demand sports, action and commercial photographer also reveals, the best lens ultimately depends on what the objective is for a particular event. "Let's say I'm covering a rugby match, for example," Jorge continues. "I would put a 400mm or 600mm lens on my Canon EOS-1D X Mark III because the tight action shots would be my main focus. But I'd switch to a 70-200mm or 24-70mm lens for the prize presentations, because my priority has changed."
Unlike many sports photographers, who specialise in a particular sport and travel from place to place to photograph it, Jorge focuses on international sporting events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the wider Middle East. "There are so many things happening in this region that I cover a lot of the different events that pass through, from Formula 1 and football to tennis and triathlon," he explains. "I love it."

Fellow Canon Ambassador and extreme sports photographer Jean-baptiste Liautard (Jb), by comparison, travels the globe, but predominantly in pursuit of just one sport – mountain biking, something he has been passionate about since he was a teenager. Jb has recently been trying out the Canon EOS R5, along with a number of Canon RF lenses. "I've been really happy with the RF lenses in my hands," he says. "I'm used to working with great lenses anyway, but when you look at the RF lenses, they're solid and well made. The first impression you have is that this is something that is really well finished."

Here, Jorge and Jb, together with Mike Burnhill, Professional Imaging Product Specialist at Canon Europe, offer some recommendations and insights into the cameras and lenses that can raise your sports photography into a different league.
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A green and yellow mahi-mahi fish leaps out of the water as it attempts to escape the hook on which it is caught.

Jorge took this incredible image of a hooked mahi-mahi in September 2020, while testing out the Canon EOS R5 for the first time in the United Arab Emirates. The fish was later safely released. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 200mm, 1/1000 sec, f/8 and ISO200. © Jorge Ferrari

A low-lit portrait of a sportsman wearing a helmet and goggles, and a red t-shirt.

Jean-baptiste Liautard has been impressed by the autofocus performance of the Canon EOS R5 and RF lenses. "I was really surprised with the RF 50mm F1.2L USM, as I could do portraits with the autofocus following perfectly, and even action shots at f/1.2 worked really well." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/3.5 and ISO2500. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

1. Best mirrorless camera for sports photography: Canon EOS R5

With its game-changing autofocus and high-speed continuous shooting, the Canon EOS R5 is a reliable workhorse for professional sports photographers. Paired with a Canon RF lens, the camera is capable of delivering unprecedented levels of stability and definition.

"The images are insanely sharp," says Jb. "You can zoom into the details and you know they're going to be sharp. For the type of pictures I take, where there's a lot of stuff going on in the frame, it's really good to have a lot of data available."

The EOS R5 can also shoot continuously at 12fps with its mechanical shutter. "That was the fastest you could go in 2012," says Mike, "and now anyone can have a camera that easily does that." The camera is also capable of burst speeds of up to 20fps with the electronic shutter.

"Using the Canon Mobile File Transfer app, a sports photographer can easily send images from the EOS R5 to an FTP because your phone becomes your hotspot," continues Mike. "The app lets you add metadata tags before or after you've taken a shot, or you can save time by doing it as a voice memo. Simply speak the details, send it off and it's tagged to the image. It can then be extracted and turned into text data later on."
The Canon EOS R5 camera.

Canon EOS R5

A professional full-frame mirrorless camera offering photographers and filmmakers high-resolution stills and 8K video.
A high shot of the area beyond the corner of a tennis court as a tennis player stretches out to hit the ball with a backhand.

"I don't use RAW a lot as I normally have to turn the job around really quickly," says Jorge. "But I love the fact that, when I do need RAW, I have the option to shoot at 16fps using the EOS-1D X Mark III's mechanical shutter, and the camera will not have to stop and think." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 88mm, 1/2000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Jorge Ferrari

2. Best DSLR camera for sports photography: Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

Pro sports photographers have relied on Canon EOS-1D Series cameras to deliver detailed, sharp and stunning quality sports images for decades. The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III is the latest torchbearer, featuring 20fps continuous shooting, deep learning Dual Pixel CMOS AF and a professional, weather-sealed build.

"I love the deep learning autofocus," says Jorge. "It really impressed at a recent tennis tournament where the organisers wanted to have branding visible in the background of the action shots. With the EOS-1D X Mark III, I could just frame the shot with the branding clearly on show, then let the autofocus system track the face of the player. It was a fantastic advantage for me in this case.

"The electronic shutter is very useful as well. It takes a while to adjust to, but being able to shoot silently at points during the tennis was fantastic. It was a closed event and there were no spectators, and in that situation the players can hear your breathing!"
A Canon EOS-1D X Mark III camera.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K RAW video.
A sportswoman, covered in mud and red in the face, pours a cooling cup of water over her face and head.

You don't need a super-telephoto lens to take memorable sports shots. Here, Jorge seized the moment with impeccable timing and framing, using his 70-200mm zoom lens. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 115mm, 1/1600 sec, f/3.2 and ISO100. © Jorge Ferrari

3. Best Canon lenses for general sports photography: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM and Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

While a super-telephoto lens is essential for situations where you physically can't get close to the action, a 70-200mm zoom lens is ideal for (almost) everything else. "You can do a bit of tennis, a bit of Formula 1, a bit of football – almost anything!" enthuses Jorge, who uses the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM). "I don't think you can cover any sport without a 70-200mm lens."

Its versatile range of focal lengths means that this type of lens is great for covering moments that fall outside of the tight action shot, suggests Mike, "be it the grip-and-grins with the managers at the start, the coin toss or the prize-giving. But the most vital part, and why it's probably the go-to lens for all sports photographers, is because of the celebration.

"For a football photographer, the moment the players run towards the touchline to celebrate is the money shot. That's why for every big lens you see, there's a 70-200mm just hanging off the arm of any sports photographer."

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

A modern classic, this fast-aperture telephoto zoom lens is a favourite with photographers in virtually every genre.
A red and white racing car pulling out onto a track. The camera is panning to follow it and the long exposure has blurred the background.

Getting close with an ultra-wide or fisheye lens enables you to put viewers in the thick of the action in a way that can't be achieved with a telephoto lens. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/30 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Jorge Ferrari

4. Best wide-angle Canon lenses for sports photography: Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM and Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

Get close with a wide-angle lens and you can create images with the wow factor, says Jorge, who uses either the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM or the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, depending on the requirements of a job or simply the mood he's in on the day.

"Quite often you don't return to your base until the evening, so you have to carry everything anyway," he says. "But if I could take only one short zoom, I think I would choose the 16-35mm because you can always crop a little bit at 35mm."

The lens's RF counterpart, the RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, is one of the trinity of Canon professional RF zoom lenses, along with the RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM and RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM – three essential fast-aperture, high-performance RF zoom lenses covering ultra-wide, standard, and telephoto ranges. "They're the bread and butter choice for a lot of sports photography," adds Mike. "The RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM and EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM are perfect for creating a very different perspective, especially if you've got the camera positioned remotely at the back of a goal, for example."
A Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM

A premium quality ultra-wide angle zoom lens with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture, for the highest image quality even in low light conditions.

5. Best Canon lenses for pitch-side sports photography: Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM and Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM

The fast-aperture 400mm f/2.8 is a classic sports photography lens, providing outstanding optical quality and the perfect angle of view for popular sports. It can also be combined with Canon's 1.4x and 2x extenders to give you even more reach when you need it.

"I have the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III and it works so well with the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens," says Jorge. "I shot a rugby tournament over two weekends and found that the results I was getting in terms of sharpness and focusing with this combination were probably the same as when I was using a previous generation 600mm f/4 lens."

The bright maximum aperture isn't just useful for freezing action. "It also gives you that nice background blur that separates players from the supporters in the background," adds Mike.

Both the EF and RF lenses are well-suited to monopod and handheld shooting, as they set new standards for lightweight design in their class. The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM also features a 5-stop Image Stabilizer, while the Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM offers up to 5.5 stops of optical stabilisation.
The Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM

A high-performance super-telephoto lens with class-leading portability, performance and image quality.

6. Best Canon super-telephoto lenses for sports photography: Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM and Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

When you can't get close enough to the action, stepping up to a super-telephoto 600mm f/4 lens gives you extra reach with outstanding optical quality and legendary L-Series performance.

"At the Dubai Rugby Sevens, I was using the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM as my main lens and it performed superbly with the face detection and tracking of my Canon EOS-1D X Mark III," says Jorge. "I thought the camera would struggle because there are more faces, but if the autofocus didn't keep up, it was because I was too close with a 600mm lens."

Mike adds that although they are more popular for wildlife photography, the 600mm f/4 lenses are the perfect choice for many sports. "Take skiing and winter sports, for example, where the shooting distances tend to be greater, because obviously people are coming down a mountain. Even rugby, where the try line and the big try area means that photographers have to be farther back than they are with football. And you can get those tight, frame-filling shots of golf and tennis."

Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM

A high performance super telephoto lens with class-leading portability and performance.

7. Most versatile super-telephoto lens for sports photography: Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional 200-400mm f/4 zoom with the added advantage of built-in 1.4x extender, this versatile lens enables you to react quickly to sporting events as they unfold. "The flexibility it offers means that it has become super-popular with a wide range of sports photographers," says Mike. "Many people weren't convinced by a zoom, but the quality is so good, and the flexibility erases any doubt about using a zoom instead of a prime.

"If you have to carry one lens around all of the time, this is the one to go for. If you're a Formula 1 guy walking around a track, this lens gives you everything you need. You can go from short telephoto to long telephoto, then punch in with the extender when you need to."
The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional-grade 200-400mm f/4 lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that boosts focal lengths to 280-560mm, and a 4-stop Image Stabilizer to maximise sharpness.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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