Choosing The Right Telephoto Lens: Sports Photography

I have always loved the Nikon Full Line Product Guide – I would pour over all of the new gear and features. It was a great way to learn about all the lens options and what each had to offer. As good as it was though, the images often lacked context. There would be an image of a lighthouse shot with a 500mm lens with no indication of how big the subject was or how far away the photographer had to stand, etc.


For this post, we used a football field for reference photographing a couple common sports photography subjects. Our goal with this guide is to show the different looks a range of telephoto focal lengths can give when the camera and subject are stationary. Doing this in a controlled scenario gives good reference for you to choose which lens is best for your situation.    

We used some cardboard cutouts for accuracy- they could stand in one place for a long time, didn’t require snack breaks and let us maintain consistency between shots.  The possibilities were endless, but we decided on a football player and a little league baseball kid. It shouldn’t be too far of a stretch to align your particular subject with one of ours when you find yourself asking which lens you should rent.

Looking for wildlife photography examples? Check out my other post:
Choosing the right telephoto lens: Wildlife Photography.


Deciding what focal length lens you need can be one of the most challenging decisions a photographer makes. We field many calls at LensProToGo from customers wanting to pick the perfect lens for what they were shooting…and the answer was always “it depends”.

Key questions we always try to ask:

  • Where are you standing in relation to the subject?
  • How big is the subject?
  • Are there limitations on where you can move to or shoot from?
  • What light will you be shooting in?

Knowing how much control you have over these variables allows us to narrow down choices. But wouldn’t it be easier to just “see” the difference? Keep scrolling!

I’ve always gone about questions like this with angles and math, as seen in the football field of angles below. Having this blog as a reference for which focal length is going to work for your shoot can help avoid picking the wrong focal length for that once-in-a-lifetime playoff game. The last thing anyone wants is to wind up frustrated that you can’t get the shot you were hoping for due to limitations of your lens. 


Ok, with the nerdy stuff out of the way, let’s dig in.


Here’s where our choice of venue for this test comes perfectly into play. Almost everyone can envision a football field in their mind, and even if you can’t, there’s likely one nearby that you can use for reference.

Football Player - 1DMKIV - 400mm f-2.8-1001.jpg

Terrell Owens by Robert Hare | Canon 1D MKIV | Canon 400mm f/2.8 IS | 520mm Effective Focal Length with 1.3x Crop

Below is an example of what each focal length looks like from 30 yards away. At this distance, a 70-200mm f/2.8 doesn’t quite cut it; you’ll capture a far away scene instead of getting up close and personal with the action. 

Football - Full Frame - 70-600mm - 30 Yards - 4x4.jpg

In our opinion, the best lens for football is a 400mm (300mm for crop sensors). As you can see, a 400mm lens captures an average sized football player from head to toe at 30-40 yards away. When they get closer, you get a dramatic closeup.

Again, we want to think of the places you can stand just off the field as a photographer. In our tests, we were shooting from the goal line. In reality, you’re likely to be 10-20 yards further away from your subjects at either end of the field once you account for the end zone & how close you can get to the field of play. This puts our subject in the 20-40 yard sweet spot which is perfect for capturing the action down field.

Football - Full Frame - 400mm - 10-50 Yards.jpg

The same goes for sideline shooting- with a field width of 53 yards, you’ll be in the 20-40 yard range for most of the sideline action.

There are plenty of 400mm lens options with various apertures. One thing to remember: when shooting night or indoor games, you’re going to need a f/2.8 version. Both the Canon 400mm f/2.8 IS II and the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR are what we’d recommend as a starting point for your next football game. For more budget-friendly options, or if you’re shooting on a bright sunshine day, check out the Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS IICanon 400mm f/5.6 or the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR. These all get you the reach you need just with less depth of field due to the smaller apertures.


Much like football, baseball’s biggest limiting factor is that you can’t be on the field of play while shooting. By looking at the basic field dimensions, you’ll have a really good idea of how far you’ll be from your subject. One of the most popular spots to shoot from is the 1st base foul territory. On a little league field, you’ll be roughly 60 feet from home plate. On a high school or major league field, you’ll be 90 feet away. This spot is great because you can cover home plate, 2nd base, the pitchers mound and right field all within a 20-30 yard range.

Baseball 2nd base-1001.jpg

Safe at 2nd Base | Canon 1D Mark II N | Canon 300mm f/2.8L @ 1.3x Crop

In the examples below, you can see just how a little leaguer fills the frame–roughly head to toe–in the 300mm range with a full-frame camera at 20 yards away. If that subject were a little bigger (think high school) but 90 feet away, your lens choice would still be roughly the same based on the kid/adult size difference paired with the distance change. 

Baseball - Full Frame - 300mm - 10-50 Yards.png
Baseball - Crop - 70-600mm - 20 Yards - 4x4.jpg

There are lots of options for lenses that cover the 300mm territory, but to get the best results we really like the Canon 300 F/2.8L IS II and Nikon 300 F/2.8G AF-S IF-ED VR II. For a more budget friendly option without giving up too much depth of field, you could try the Canon 300 F/4L IS or Nikon 300 F/4E AF-S PF ED VR.


In closing, we have really just touched the tip of the iceberg of all that telephoto lenses really have to offer–while there isn’t always a “right” or a “perfect” lens choice, I hope this post will help when choosing your next lens by keeping your subject, distance and positioning in mind.

Full Frame 600mm 100 yards-1001.jpg

Canon 5D Mark IV |Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3 SP DI VC USD G2 @ 600mm

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