At the world's major sporting events the sea of grey Canon superfast telephoto lenses is instantly recognisable. The wide girth of these monster lenses has nothing to do with how narrow an angle of view they offer. It's the size of the their widest apertures that creates the need for a lens that can house huge elements of glass. For the action photographer, the desire for speed is everything – the faster the lens, the better. Ed Sheen talks to two sports specialists to find out about why they prefer using their fast prime telephoto lenses.
For the sports photographer, fast long-toms have two great advantages. First, they allow the photographer to get faster shutter speeds to freeze the action, without having to increase the ISO – typically letting in four times more light, or two stops, than a mid-priced zoom with the same focal length.
Second, and more important, is the control over depth-of-field that these lenses provide. The wide aperture means that the background can be thrown further out of focus – making spectators and billboards on the other side of the pitch or track become more of a blur than a distraction.
Lars Moeller - EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM
Hailing from Denmark, Lars Moeller has been a top sports photographer for over a decade and his assignments have included covering the last three Olympic Games. Following nine years working in Copenhagen for Berlingske Media, Denmark's largest news publishing group, he went freelance in 2007. He is a partner in the Sportsagency photo bureau, and teaches sports photography at the DJH Danish School of Journalism in Aarhus.
"The EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM is the most important of all the lenses that I use", says Lars. "I can't think of a single sports discipline that I have not successfully shot with it."
Not surprisingly, it is the fast maximum aperture that proves the main attraction. "I like the classic style of sports shot, with the moving subject sharp and the background blurred," explains Lars. His Danish football action shot is typical of his 'wide-open' approach.
He estimates that 98% of the pictures he has taken with the 400mm are shot at f/2.8 to f/4. "Somebody recently said to me that I should have f/2.8 tattooed on my arm!" he quips.
Lars started using a Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens back in 1998. "At that time there was no IS on it. It was slower and heavier but a great lens all the same," he says. "I switched to the current version in 2001."
Lars is a great fan of autofocus, and rarely switches to manual. "I realised a long time ago that it's faster than me at focusing. I have gotten to know the autofocus system, and improve its efficiency by understanding its different features," he explains. The cycling crash photo shot earlier this year, he says, is one that shows just how having faith in the AF can provide unexpected successes. "It happened so fast that I was surprised that I got such a clean shot. Catching the cycle in the air makes the shot very dramatic," says Lars.
He is less keen on Image Stabilization (IS). "I hardly ever switch on IS in everyday use. It can prove useful, though in low light," he confesses. "Where I use it the most is for panning photos. I don't shoot these on every assignment, but the Mode 2 is a fantastic feature to use with slow shutter speeds."
Lars reveals: "The lens has always proved to be very reliable. Shooting football it has to work under all weather conditions. I have been shooting with it in strong rain, snow, hail, heat, frost, and high humidity and it has never failed me. I have several raincoats for the lens, but I have still been caught out without any protection by weather!"
The only part of the 400mm lens that has ever given him any problem is the tripod collar. "I had this monopod attachment fixed several times", he explains, "something breaks inside and it locks up so I can't turn from vertical to horizontal. Perhaps I'm not careful enough with it – or maybe it is because of the heavy usage my 400mm gets."
Simon Bruty - EF200mm f/2L IS USM
Simon Bruty first came to the world's attention for his outstanding sports photography whilst at the Allsport agency in London in the 1980s. He moved to Washington DC, USA, in 1994 and is now a staff photographer with Sports Illustrated. Simon travels extensively to shoot feature stories as diverse as soccer in Zambia, badminton in Indonesia, and golfers in Greenland.
Simon started using the relatively new EF200mm f/2L IS USM last summer by putting it through its paces at Wimbledon. Many sports photographers use Canon's EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS zoom lens to cover this focal length, but Simon much prefers the prime. "I'm not a lover of the 70-200mm – it's a utility lens that I occasionally fall back on, but I much prefer the 200mm as it is razor sharp."
The extra stop of speed provided by the 200mm can also prove useful in darker arenas, such he faced on a recent assignment touring with the Harlem Globetrotters. But the f/2 maximum aperture also provides some unexpected advantages. "I regularly use the 200mm with a 1.4x teleconverter – this still gives me a maximum aperture of f/2.8," he says. It's a lightweight, adaptable combination that has proved to be a success on many assignments.
The overall size and weight of the lens also proves to be very useful in some shooting situations. "Unlike my longer lenses, I can use this lens all of the time without the need for a monopod. I can therefore move quickly, and this often leads to more interesting shots. In comparison, with a 400mm f/2.8 I use a monopod 98% of the time, and with my 300mm f/2.8 I take just 60% of my shots hand held," explains Simon.
But the wider angle of view that this lens has over his other long-toms also proves advantageous. "Over the years, sports photographers have been pushed further back from the action, forcing them to use longer and longer lenses," he explains. "But Sports Illustrated likes to use shots that are less tightly cropped – providing a better sense of place."
The American football shot taken earlier this year shows this perfectly – whilst most photographers would home in closer on the quarterback, Simon's image gives a much clearer view of the game as a whole, and shows what is going on off the ball.
Like Lars Moeller, Simon has long since given up focusing manually on the sports he photographs – relying almost exclusively on the autofocus ability of his EOS-1D Mark III. He also makes only occasional use of the Image Stabilization. "I do turn on the IS when I am shooting panning shots", he admits. "The slow-shutter-speed shot of the divers at the Beijing Olympics wouldn't have been possible without this."
As masters of the art of capturing fast action in their sports photographs Lars Moeller and Simon Bruty need equipment that they can rely upon to ensure they get their shots. For Lars Moeller the EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM provides a fast aperture; the versatility to shoot a wide range of indoor and outdoor sports; and the Mode 2 helps him with slower shutter speeds work. Simon Bruty has quickly found that the super fast EF200mm f/2L IS USM delivers great AF ability; is razor sharp; is light to carry and shoot hand held images; and offers that crucial extra stop of speed for shooting indoors in low light. In short, both lenses are optical tools of the very highest order.