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Like high-level athletes, cameras for sports photography can achieve feats that their more casual competition can’t. Of course, you can shoot sports with any camera. David Burnett created incredible Olympic photos using an antique large format film camera. But we can’t all be David Burnett. Some require high-end camera gear with impressive autofocus and blazing fast burst rates. Whether you’re on the sidelines of an NFL playoff game or a peewee football exhibition, the right camera can make a big difference in the creative options you have.
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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 you find yourself playing on ESPN 3 at midnight.
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I’ve been writing and reviewing cameras since I joined Popular Photography’s staff in 2008. Before that, I worked as a professional photographer covering everything from live music and editorial assignments to weddings and portraits. I have worked as a professional sports photographer in many capacities, many of which have involved high-level CrossFit competitions. I’ve personally shot with every camera on this list, many in sports settings.
For my picks, I focused on bodies with fast burst rates, rugged builds, advanced autofocus functionality, and solid ergonomics.
Why it made the cut: Its mix of precise autofocus, high burst speed, and excellent ergonomics make it the go-to for shooting action.
I shot with a Canon 1D X II DSLR for years, and I had a hard time imagining a mirrorless camera sitting next to it. The R3 surprised me in the best way possible. With this body, Canon introduced a new 24.1-megapixel stacked sensor with super fast readout speed. It allows shooting at full-res 30 fps with the electronic shutter and up to 12 fps with the mechanical shutter.
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Sports photography often requires high ISO shooting, and the R3’s sensor has no problem reaching high numbers. I went up to ISO 12 and 8000 and still got usable images out of it in tough conditions. This is due to the relatively low (at least until 2022) megapixel count.
The AF system offers several pages of configuration options. It may take some time to dial in the right settings, but once you do, the tracking does an impressive job of keeping fast-moving objects in focus.
It’s a full-size DSLR-style body, which means there’s an integrated grip on the bottom with an additional shutter button for vertical shooting. Personally, I’ve found the R3 to be the most comfortable large camera I’ve ever held. It feels especially balanced when paired with a long lens.
Its relatively low megapixel count and bulk make it a somewhat tough sell as an all-round camera, but for sports, it ticks all the boxes.
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Why it made the cut: Nikon has created a camera that can 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, enabling it to still capture up to 120 fps, the equivalent of 4x slow-motion video. The blend of fast shooting with high resolution image capture is hard to match for any other camera on the market.
The camera does not have a fully mechanical shutter, which means that speed is entirely dependent on the electronic shutter. That helps speed things up, but some sports photographers (myself included) prefer the sound and feel of a mechanical shutter for time-lapse shots. That’s not an option here.
The unique rotating screen offers more viewing angles than its competition, thanks to its ability to tilt vertically and horizontally. It’s a big, heavy camera, weighing about 12 ounces more than the Canon R3, which is 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 days of the original 7D, Canon has produced excellent sports-oriented cameras under 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 inside the R7 borrows from more advanced cameras like the R5 and R3. AF tracking is very accurate in detecting and tracking subjects. The camera menu offers several pages of AF options 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 with a $1,500 camera, but it’s worth the effort to figure it out.
Canon built an all-new APS-C sensor to stick inside the R7, which delivers much better image quality. It won’t match the quality of full-frame stuff (especially when shooting in low light), but it will effectively give your lenses a bit more reach, thanks to cropping.
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Why it made the cut: It has one of the fastest sensors we’ve ever seen, and that translates into real-world performance.
Sony’s A1 doesn’t look too different from other cameras in its A-series lineup, but it packs one of the fastest sensors ever to hit the market. It is a stacked sensor, meaning that the computing hardware (including the signal processor and DRAM) is integrated into the same silicon. Speed is increased to reduce unwanted effects such as rolling shutter during video capture and temporary viewfinder blackout during image capture.
That fast sensor can pump out full-res images at up to 30 fps with an electronic shutter. It also enables impressive feats like flash sync at 1/400 second. It’s faster than most other cameras, at around 1/250 or less. This can be really useful when shooting flash in bright conditions.
It’s not a full-size pro camera because it doesn’t have an integrated grip. That limits you to one battery, which won’t last as long as the cells in the Canon R3 or Nikon Z9. But you can add a handle to it after the fact. The A1 is also the most expensive model on this list, but you pay for a high level of performance.
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Why it made the cut: If you want a camera you can really abuse, the GoPro is a great option.
You might not think of GoPro as a still photo camera, but it might surprise you with its chops. The HD Hero 10 Black climbs easily on any surface (or even human or animal) and can take some serious punishment. This makes it a great candidate for a remote camera that you cling to precariously and then don’t worry about until the shooting is over. The GoPro is easy to control via the app, so you can trigger the shutter from afar.
The wide-angle main lens is sharp and captures detailed images, even if the viewing angle is somewhat limited. Plus, it opens up options for all kinds of photographic projects, like epic time-lapses.
Sports photography is hard. The subjects move quickly and unpredictably, the settings are unforgiving, and you never know when an errant ball or player will hit your gear. Choosing the right camera for sports photography will broaden your creative options.
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When we think of sports cameras, we immediately picture shutters slamming wildly at high speeds. Burst mode is important for sports photography, but it’s not as simple as “faster is better.” For example, the Nikon Z9 is very fast, but lacks a mechanical shutter, and some sports shooters prefer to feel the timing of their shots. If you’re shooting 60 full res frames every second, you’ll fill up memory cards and dig yourself a big hole in terms of editing. Ultimately, you want something that’s fast but not clunky. 10-12 frames per second will work in most situations, but it’s nice to have access to 30 fps for particularly fast action or critical moments.
Professional sports photographers don’t need high-resolution images. They slow down the camera, eat up memory card space, and take longer to deliver to their editors. This is part of what we love 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 an all-in-one camera, 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 leaves the door open for situations where you choose the wrong setting for a specific situation. I accidentally shot several player portraits on JPEG medium for a client because I was still set up.