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Like high-level athletes, sports photography cameras can achieve results that their more casual competition can’t. Sure, you can shoot sports with just about any camera. David Burnett famously created some amazing Olympic photos with an antique macro camera. But we can’t all be David Burnette. Some require high-quality camera equipment with impressive autofocus and blazing fast frame rates. Whether you’re on the sidelines at an NFL playoff game or a PeeWee football show, the right camera can make a big difference in the creative options at your disposal.
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The best sports photography cameras have the features and customization options you need to capture football, basketball, soccer, hockey, baseball, a hot dog eating contest, or any other sport you find ESPN 3 playing in the middle of the night.
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I’ve been writing about and reviewing cameras since 2008, when I joined the Popular Photography staff. Even before that, I had worked as a professional photographer, covering everything from live music and editorial projects to weddings and portraits. I have worked as a sports photographer in various fields, many of which involve high level Crossfit competitions. I’ve personally shot with all the cameras on this list, many in sports settings.
For my selections, I’ve focused on bodies with fast burst speeds, rugged construction, advanced autofocus functionality, and solid ergonomics.
Why it caught on: The combination of accurate autofocus, high frame rate and excellent ergonomics make it ideal for shooting.
I shot with a Canon 1D X II DSLR for years and honestly had a hard time imagining a mirrorless camera could keep up with 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 readout speed. It allows shooting up to 30 frames per second in full resolution with the electronic shutter or up to 12 frames per second with the mechanical shutter.
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Sports photography often requires high ISO shooting, and the R3’s sensor has no problem hitting high numbers. I’ve gone as high as ISO 12, 8000 and still gotten usable images out of it in difficult conditions. 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 get the settings right, but once you do, the metering does a truly impressive job of keeping fast-moving objects in focus.
It’s a full-size DSLR body, meaning it has a built-in grip at the bottom with an extra shutter button for vertical shooting. Personally, I find the R3 to be easily the most comfortable large camera I’ve ever held. And it feels especially good when paired with a long lens.
The relatively low megapixel count and volume makes it a bit of a tough sell as an all-rounder, but for sports it ticks all the boxes.
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Why it caught on: Nikon created the one camera that can do anything, and that includes sports photography.
The Nikon Z9 really is the camera that can do it all. A 45.7-megapixel sensor reads out at ridiculously high speeds, which still allows for recording at up to 120 frames per second, the equivalent of 4x slow-motion video. This combination of high-speed shooting and high-resolution imaging is difficult for any other camera on the market to match.
The camera lacks a fully mechanical shutter, meaning all 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 timing shots. That is not an option here.
The unique swivel display offers more viewing angles than its competitors, thanks to its ability to tilt both vertically and horizontally. That said, it’s a big, heavy camera that weighs about 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 capabilities and put them in a much more affordable camera.
Since the days of the original 7D, Canon has produced excellent sports-oriented cameras in the $1,500 price range. The R7 continues that tradition. It’s one of the first APS-C builds to come with Canon’s existing RF lens mount, meaning it’s compatible with new and upcoming lenses.
The autofocus inside the R7 borrows heavily from more advanced cameras like the R5 and even the R3. The AF metering is incredibly accurate when it comes to finding and tracking subjects. The camera also offers several pages of AF options in the menu so you can choose the performance for specific situations. For example, you can tell it to lock onto a subject and ignore other objects entering the frame. It’s a learning curve you don’t usually see in a $1,500 camera, but it’s worth figuring out.
Canon built an all new APS-C sensor to fit inside the R7 and it delivers very solid image quality. It won’t match the quality of the full-screen stuff (especially when it comes to low-light shooting), but it will actually give your lenses a bit more wiggle room, thanks to the notch.
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Why it made the cut: It has one of the fastest sensors we’ve ever seen inside, and that translates into real-world performance.
The Sony A1 doesn’t look like much from other A-series cameras, but it packs one of the fastest sensors ever to hit the market. This is a stacked sensor, meaning that the computing hardware (including the signal processor and DRAM) is integrated into the same silicon. It increases speed to reduce unwanted effects such as shutter during video recording and temporary blackout in the viewfinder during photo shooting.
This fast sensor can pump out full-resolution images at up to 30 frames per second with the electronic shutter. It also does impressive feats like flash sync at 1/400 second. That’s faster than most other cameras, which top out at 1/250 or even slower. It can really come in handy when shooting flash in bright conditions.
This is not a full size professional camera as it does not 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 grip to it afterwards. The A1 is also the most expensive model on this list, but you’re paying for top-notch performance.
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Why it made the cut: If you want a camera you can truly abuse, the GoPro is a great choice.
You might not think of a GoPro as a still camera, but it might surprise you with its chops. The HD Hero 10 Black sticks easily to almost any surface (or even people or animals) and can take some serious punishment. That makes it a great candidate for an external camera that you mount in harm’s way and then don’t worry about until the end of the shoot. It’s easy to control via the GoPro app, so you can trigger the shutter remotely.
The wide-angle main lens is sharp and captures detailed images, even though the viewing angle may be somewhat limited. Plus, it opens up the possibilities for all kinds of other photography projects like epic time trials.
Sports photography is hard. The footage moves fast and unpredictably, the settings are unforgiving, and you never know when an errant ball or player might crash into your gear. Choosing the right camera for sports photography will expand your creative options.
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When we think of sports cameras, we immediately picture shutters flapping ferociously at high speeds. Brush mode is important for sports photography, but it’s not as simple as “faster is better.” The Nikon Z9, for example, is very fast but lacks a mechanical shutter, which some sports shooters prefer to feel for timing their shots. And if you’re shooting 60 frames per second at full resolution, you’ll also fill up your memory cards and dig yourself a huge hole when it comes to editing. Ultimately, you want something fast but not ridiculous. 10-12 fps will work in most situations, but it’s good to have access to 30 fps for particularly fast-paced action or critical moments where you need to achieve maximum performance.
Professional sports photographers usually don’t want super high resolution images. They slow down the camera, eat up memory card space, and take longer to send to the editors. That’s part of what we like about the Canon R3. If you’re looking for a pure sports camera, you’ll probably never need more than 24 megapixels of resolution. If you want a do-it-all camera, something like the Sony A1 or Nikon Z9 might suit your needs better.
Even high-resolution cameras usually offer a lower-resolution recording mode, but that leaves the door open for situations where you choose the wrong mode for a given situation. I accidentally shot some player portraits in JPEG for a client because I was still set