Keep pace with active subjects. Matthew Richards reveals the lenses to capture every moment
Get closer to sports and wildlife with one of our eight action lenses, all delivering length and a wide aperture
We’ve all been there, done that and got the lens envy. Almost any high-action event you can think of nowadays, from athletics to air shows, seems to be attended by massed ranks of professional photographers wielding whopping telephoto lenses that cost a fortune. Prime examples, so to speak, include Nikon’s recently launched fluorite-rich 400mm, 500mm and 600mm optics and their five-digit price tags. Top-flight zooms don’t come much cheaper, like the Nikon 200-400mm VR at around £5200/$7000. But if you’ve been inspired by this year’s summer sports spectaculars, fast-moving wildlife, or some other speedy subject, the good news is that there are some seriously good telephoto lenses on the market, at much more affordable prices.
A main concern when photographing sports and wildlife is how much telephoto reach you need. For the former, you’ll often be confined to spectator areas and simply won’t be able to get as close to the action as you’d like. For the latter, you may well be confined to a hide. Thankfully some of the
least expensive lenses in this test group have telephoto reach of up to 600mm, equating to a 900mm ‘effective’ focal length on DX-format bodies.
For other high-speed scenarios, you might be able to get much closer to the thrills and spills, so a classic 70-200mm zoom lens might suffice. An obvious choice is Nikon’s own highly acclaimed 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II which, while being a fully pro-grade optic, is still reasonably ‘affordable’ at £1800/$2100. The f/2.8 constant-aperture design not only enables fast shutter speeds for freezing the action, even under dull lighting conditions, but also delivers a tight depth of field for isolating the main subject by blurring the background. That said, you can still get a tight depth of field when using longer focal lengths of 400mm or 600mm at f/5.6 or f/6.3 respectively.
Zoom into action
Almost all the lenses that we’ve chosen for this round-up are zoom lenses. Again, if you’re limited to a hide, or a seat in a grandstand, and can’t move about, the versatility of a zoom lens is great to have.
An interesting example that takes zooming to the extreme is the Sigma APO 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM, at £850/$1460. Originally nicknamed the ‘Bigma’, it’s somewhat unique in being a sort of ‘telephoto superzoom’, with its oversized 10x zoom range. It can be ideal if you’re at an event where you need to continually switch between standard and super-telephoto focal lengths but, ultimately, it can feel a bit of a pain using a two-kilogram lens for standard-range shooting. It’s also been somewhat overtaken by Sigma’s newer 150-600mm lenses, which come in Sports and Contemporary editions, both of which are reviewed on the following pages.
A notable exception to the nearly all-zoom line-up is the recently launched Nikon AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR prime lens. Unlike the big-money, heavyweight primes that we’re not featuring, this is Nikon’s first ever F-mount lens to feature a PF (Phase Fresnel) element, which enables a comparatively compact and lightweight build. At just 755 grams, it’s about half the weight of 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses while offering greater telephoto reach and a still reasonably fast f/4 aperture.
To help keep up with the action, all the lenses on test feature ring-type ultrasonic autofocus systems. Even so, some are quicker than others and more able to track fastmoving subjects. Let’s take a closer look at what all the contenders have to offer.
If you’re limited to a hide, or a seat in a grandstand, and can’t move about, the versatility of a zoom lens is great to have