THE BEST CAMERAS FOR SPORTS AND NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY
103 cameras (see our camera reviews) before we decided to write this article.
If you like to photograph action and fast-moving subjects, whether children playing soccer, stunt planes during an aviation show or a lion chasing a gazelle, what you need in all those situations is a fast camera. One that has both high shooting speed and a fast autofocus. Fortunately, more and more models come with these two qualities. So there is quite a selection.
What kind of camera do you take with you?
For both sports photography and capturing wild animals in Africa, or even just a unique bird in your backyard, a fast camera is indispensable. And what is fast these days? That starts at around 10 frames per second. But today, you can get double that without having to pay an arm and a leg.
In addition to that speed, it is also important that the camera can use at least 1 fast memory card and has enough buffer to be able to shoot for several seconds at full speed. And of course you need an autofocus system that can follow moving subjects well. The best thing is if that also works when an occasional object passes between the camera and your subject.
Almost every brand has one or more cameras that meet the above requirements. For our advice, we naturally look at cameras that we have tested ourselves. But for this advice, we also include two cameras with which we do have practical experience but for which we do not yet have a complete test. In our opinion, these are the ideal cameras for sports photography:
Sony A7R IV
The Sony A7R IV is a particularly good all-round camera. It’s light enough to be in our overview of vacation cameras. Because of its high-resolution sensor, we have also included it in the list of best cameras for the studio and landscape. And it’s also very useful for sports and nature photography. It’s quite fast, at ten frames per second, with both the mechanical and electronic shutter, and the autofocus system is very similar to that of the Sony A9, Sony’s specialized sports camera. What makes the A7R IV perhaps more interesting than the A9 is that amazing 60-megapixel sensor. If you have sufficient range with your lens, the A7R IV offers you image quality that you cannot achieve with the A9. And if you are short on range, you can also switch to APS-C, and you still have 26 megapixels to work with. Your 100-400 mm telephoto zoom suddenly becomes a 150-600 mm equivalent zoom.
Canon EOS 90D
The Canon EOS 90D is officially not the top in the APS-C segment for Canon. That’s the Canon 7D Mark II. But the image quality of the 90D, with its 32-megapixel sensor, is so much better than the 7D Mark II that the 90D is still our preference. The 90D is just as fast as the 7D Mark II, with 10 frames per second with autofocus when you use the viewfinder. And that’s remarkable when you consider that the 90D has more than 50% more pixels than the 7D Mark II. With autofocus, the speed in live view is slightly lower, at 7 images per second. But without autofocus, the 90D even reaches 11 frames per second in live view. What the 7D Mark II still has over the 90D is that the 7D Mark II has two card slots and a slightly more robust body. But the ability to crop a bit more with the 90D gives the 90D a real head start in sports and nature photography.
The Nikon D5 a real specialized sports camera. The sensor has “only” 21 megapixels, but that is a deliberate choice. Professional sports photographers not only want high shooting speeds and fast auto focus, they also want to send their images quickly. And then you don’t want very large files. What you do want is a shooting speed of 12 images per second while maintaining excellent autofocus with 153 phase detection points, of which 99 are of the cross type. The camera can be purchased in a version for two CF cards or two fast XQD cards. And the battery gives you almost four thousand shots according to CIPA standards. A camera that is as robust and specialized as the 5D is not cheap. But for a smaller investment, there’s also the D500.
You can easily see the Nikon D500 as a mini-D5. It has almost the same autofocus performance and the same resolution. The big difference with the D5 is that the D500 has an APS-C sensor. The pixels are slightly smaller so that the performance is slightly less in low light. Also, the speed of the D500, at 10 images per second, is slightly lower than that of the D5. One advantage of the D500 is that the autofocus points cover a much larger part of the sensor. So you can focus almost to the edge of the viewfinder. And thanks to the APS-C sensor, you have a smaller field of view with your full-frame lenses than on the D5. This means that a 70-200 mm on the D500 corresponds to a 105-300 mm on the D5. Smaller animals or animals at a great distance therefore simply appear larger on the D500. And the D500 is also a lot cheaper than the D5.
We think the Panasonic G9 is the best Panasonic for sports and nature photography, but it’s not really the perfect camera for sports photography. It does get 20 frames per second with autofocus with the electronic shutter and 9 frames per second with the mechanical shutter, and you can shoot about 50 images at full speed with it. You can also use it with two UHS II SD cards. But what makes the G9 less suitable as a sports camera is the DFD autofocus. That is not quite as good for following moving subjects than cameras with phase detection autofocus. The DFD focus uses contrast detection and therefore searches a bit more. You therefore see the image in the viewfinder quickly switch from sharp to blurry and back again. That does not mean that you cannot get sharp sports shots with the G9. And the single AF is really lightning fast, which makes up for a lot.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 X
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 X is a camera that is entirely built on speed and ease of use. The OM-D E-M1 X achieves no less than 18 images per second with autofocus and no less than 60 images per second in RAW and jpeg in Pro Capture. The advantage of Pro Capture is that the camera is already recording before you press the shutter button, and you really never miss a moment. You just can’t use autofocus in Pro Capture. The E-M1 X has two True Pic VIII processors. Thanks to all that computing power, you can use the high res mode when shooting by hand for the first time with the E-M1 X. What that computing power is also used for is autofocus driven by an algorithm that uses machine learning. This means the autofocus recognizes planes, trains, cars and motorbikes. As a result, the focus for cars and motorbikes is on the driver, for planes and trains on the front, and the autofocus continues to follow these subjects perfectly. The OM-D E-M1 X has two batteries and works with two fast UHS II SD cards. And it’s the first camera to have an IP-x1 rating for weather resistance.
Two honorable mentions
Two cameras that we have not fully tested in the test lab, but with which we have plenty of practical experience and that shouldn’t be omitted, are the Sony A9 and the Canon 1D X Mark III.
The Sony A9 is a real camera for speed lovers. The camera achieves 20 images per second with the electronic shutter. The sensor has been specially developed for a quick readout of the data. This causes the sensor to suffer less from the notorious jello effect and from banding in artificial light. However, the camera is not completely free of these adverse effects, and when you switch to the mechanical shutter, the speed drops to just five images per second. The new A9 Mark II eliminates this disadvantage with a mechanical shutter speed of 10 images per second, similar to the A7R Mark IV. What makes the A9 ideal for fast-moving subjects is the almost complete absence of blackouts in the viewfinder when you use electronic shutter. Together with the excellent autofocus, this ensures that you can follow subjects well.
Canon 1D X Mark III
The Canon 1D X is Canon’s newest SLR. Just like its predecessor, it has a 20-megapixel sensor. But under the skin, the camera has a new autofocus system and a lot of extra computing power. With the mechanical shutter, the camera achieves no less than 16 images per second in RAW and JPEG, almost as fast as the fastest system cameras. That is quite a feat, because for the Canon, the mirror must also be opened and closed. In live view, the 1D X Mark III even reaches 20 shots per second. That is just as fast as the Sony A9 or Olympus OM-D E-M1 X. The Canon 1D X Mark III is equipped with 2 CFexpress card slots, which means that the camera can continue to shoot at the highest speed in RAW and JPEG practically without limitations.