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Like high-level athletes, cameras for sports photography can achieve feats that their more casual competition can’t. Sure, you can shoot sports with any camera. David Burnett has created incredible Olympic photos with an ancient large-format film camera. But, we can’t all be David Burnett. Some want high-end camera gear with impressive autofocus and blazing fast burst rates. Whether you’re on the sidelines at an NFL playoff game or a PE football show, the right camera can make a big difference in the creative options you have.
Best Camera For Sports Shots
The best cameras for sports photography have the features and customization you need to capture football, basketball, soccer, hockey, baseball, hot dog eating contests, or any other sport playing on ESPN 3 at midnight.
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I’ve been writing and reviewing cameras since 2008, when I joined the staff at Popular Photography. Even before that, I had been a professional photographer covering everything from live music and editorial assignments to weddings and portraits. I have worked as a professional sports photographer in a number of capacities, many of which involve high level Crossfit competitions. I’ve personally shot with all the cameras on this list, in most sports settings.
For my picks, I’ve focused on bodies with fast burst rates, rugged builds, advanced autofocus performance, and solid ergonomics.
Why it made the cut: Its mix of meticulous autofocus, high burst speed, and excellent ergonomics make this a go-to for shooting action.
I shot with a Canon 1D X II DSLR for years and honestly found it hard to imagine a mirrorless camera fitting it. The R3 really surprised me in the best possible way. With this body, Canon introduced a new 24.1 megapixel stacked sensor with super fast read speed. It allows shooting up to 30 fps at full-speed with the electronic shutter or 12 fps with the mechanical shutter.
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Sports photography often requires high ISO shooting, and the R3 sensor has no problem reaching higher numbers. I’ve gone as high as ISO 12, 8000 and still got usable images in difficult situations. That’s partly due to the relatively low (at least for 2022) megapixel count.
The AF system offers several pages of configuration options. It can take some time to dial in the proper settings, but once you do, the tracking does a really impressive job of keeping fast-moving objects in focus.
It’s a full-size DSLR-style body, which means there’s an integrated grip at the bottom with an additional shutter button for vertical shooting. Personally, I find the R3 to be the easiest large camera I’ve ever held. It feels especially well balanced when paired with a long lens.
Its relatively low megapixel count and bulk make it a bit hard to sell as an all-around camera, but for sports, it ticks all the boxes.
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Why it made the cut: Nikon created one camera that could do anything, and that includes sports photography.
The Nikon Z9 is truly a do-it-all camera. The 45.7-megapixel sensor reads at ridiculously high speeds, and it’s still capable of capturing up to 120 fps, which equates to 4x slow-motion video. The mix of fast shooting with high-resolution image capture is hard to match with any other camera on the market.
The camera does not have a fully mechanical shutter, meaning that speed comes with a fully electronic shutter. It helps speed things up, but some sports photographers (myself included) prefer the sound and feel of a mechanical shutter for time-lapse shots. It is not an option here.
The unique rotating screen offers greater viewing angles than its competition, thanks to the ability to tilt vertically and horizontally. That said, it’s a bigger, heavier camera, weighing roughly 12 ounces more than the Canon R3, which can be a factor during a long day of shooting.
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Why it made the cut: Canon took some of the R3’s autofocus smarts and put them in a more affordable camera.
Since the early 7D days, Canon has made excellent sports-oriented cameras at the $1,500 price point. The R7 continues that tradition. It’s one of the first APS-C bodies to come with Canon’s current RF lens mount, meaning it’s compatible with new and upcoming lenses.
The autofocus in the R7 borrows heavily from more advanced cameras like the R5 and R3. AF tracking is very accurate when it comes to finding and tracking subjects. The camera also offers several pages of AF options in the menu, so you can dial in performance for specific situations. For example, you can tell it to lock onto subjects and ignore other objects that come into the frame. There’s a learning curve you don’t usually see on a $1,500 camera, but it’s worth the effort to figure it out.
Canon made an all-new APS-C sensor to stick inside the R7, and it delivers a very strong image. It won’t match the quality of full-frame materials (especially when shooting in low light), but it will effectively give your lenses a bit more reach, thanks to the crop.
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Why it made the cut: Inside it’s one of the fastest sensors we’ve ever seen, and that translates into real-world performance.
Sony’s A1 doesn’t look much different from other cameras in its A-series lineup, but it contains one of the fastest sensors ever to hit the market. It is a stacked sensor, meaning that the computer hardware (including the signal processor and DRAM) is integrated into the same silicon. It increases speed to reduce unwanted effects such as rolling shutter in video capture and temporary viewfinder blackout in image capture.
That fast sensor can capture full-frame images at up to 30 fps with an electronic shutter. It also enables impressive feats like flash sync at 1/400 second. That’s faster than most other cameras, which are 1/250th or even slower. It can be really useful when shooting flash in bright conditions.
It’s not a full-size pro camera with no integrated grip. It limits you to one battery, which doesn’t last as long as the cells in the Canon R3 or Nikon Z9. But you can add a grip to it after the fact. The A1 is also the most expensive model on this list, but you’re paying for high-end performance.
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Why it made the cut: If you want a camera you can really abuse, then the GoPro is a good option.
You might not think of the GoPro as a stills camera, but it might surprise you with its chops. The HD Hero 10 Black easily mounts to any surface (or even a human or animal) and can take serious punishment. That makes it a great candidate for a remote cam, where you stick out of harm’s way and then don’t worry until the shoot is over. Controlling the GoPro is easy via the app, so you can trigger the shutter remotely.
The wide-angle prime lens is sharp and captures detailed images, although the viewing angle can be somewhat limited. Plus, it opens up options for all kinds of other photography projects, like epic time-lapses.
Sports photography is hard. The subjects are fast and unpredictable, the settings are unforgiving, and you never know when an errant ball or player will crash into your gear. Choosing the right camera for sports photography expands your creative options.
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When we think of sports cameras, we immediately think of bursting shutter speeds. Burst mode is important for sports photography, but it’s not as simple as “faster is better.” For example, the Nikon Z9 is extremely fast but lacks a mechanical shutter, and some sports shooters prefer to feel the timing of their shots. And if you’re shooting 60 fully-recomposed frames every second, you’re going to fill up your memory cards and dig a giant hole in editing. Ultimately, you want something fast but not ridiculous. 10-12 frames per second will work in most situations, but it’s nice to have access to 30 fps, especially for fast-paced action or critical moments where you want to do some intense action.
Professional sports photographers generally don’t need super high-resolution images. They slow down the camera, take up memory card space, and take longer to transmit to their editors. That’s part of what we like about the Canon R3. If you’re looking for a pure sports camera, you’ll never want a resolution higher than 24 megapixels. If you want a camera that can do it all, something like the Sony A1 or Nikon Z9 will suit your needs better.
Even high-resolution cameras usually offer low-resolution capture modes, but that opens the door to situations where you choose the wrong setting for a particular situation. I was still set up so I accidentally shot some player photos in JPEG for a client