If you want to snap shots of wildlife, sports, street life, and anything else that passes in a flash, go with a lens built for action.
From footballers mid-goal to dueling mountain goats mid-ram, action photography has a special power that captivates the viewer instantly. But not just any camera gear can achieve it. You’ll need a speedy lens to keep up with the action.
There are three main qualities that make a lens right for the job. For one, telephoto and zoom lenses will help you get close and personal with your subject. We also make sure our action lenses are “fast,” meaning they have large maximum apertures to allow for high shutter speeds. Finally, a lens with optical image stabilization (OIS) will eliminate motion blur, which opens up possibilities for hand-held shots.
Our team of professional photographers at Pocket-lint has pulled together a list of the best lenses for taking action shots. We’ve researched and reviewed all the top options to bring you the finest.
Best overall lens for action shots
$998 $1100 Save $102
This Lumix S Series from Panasonic sets the gold standard for zoom lenses. With a 70-300mm focal range, an incredibly reliable stabilization system, and a durable, splash-resistant build, it’s ideal for action photography. This is the kind of lens that we take to sporting events, nature excursions, and city streets. And although far from cheap, the price is surprisingly accessible for such a rugged, high-quality lens.
Best super telephoto lens for extreme zooms
$1898 $2000 Save $102
This super telephoto lens from Sony delivers an insane max focal length of 600mm, which is enough to zoom in on a subject from hundreds of feet away. In fact, it’s even capable of snapping sharp shots of the moon, meaning it’s more akin to a telescope than a standard lens. And because it’s from the renowned Sony FE series, you can rest assured that the Optical Steady Shot does its job flawlessly.
Best versatile lens for travel
$898 $1000 Save $102
This Sony Alpha Series lens covers all the bases. It can zoom between 70-350mm, making it a versatile pick for everything from portraiture to wild action shots. It’s built for APS-C mounts, which helps keep the weight down to only 22 ounces. It also has Sony’s top-notch stabilization technology, the lauded “Optical SteadyShot.” Switching on the OSS is as easy as flipping the switch built right into the side. It’s sharp, fast, and ready for action.
Best stabilization for handheld shots
$498 $651 Save $153
For the micro four thirds crowd, this Lumix lens is a worthy buy. The compact size combines with an excellent optical image stabilization system to deliver shake-free and super-sharp images, even when shooting handheld. And thanks to the splash-proof and dust-proof build, it’s perfect for taking into the wilderness for wildlife photography. You can easily carry it on a hike and zoom in on those elusive animals from a distance. Best of all, the price is a steal.
Best action lens on a budget
Canon lenses and telephoto lenses are notoriously expensive, which is why this affordable pick is such a pleasant surprise. Built for Canon EF-mount cameras, it’s a zoom lens that ranges between 75-300mm. That’s plenty of zoom for getting close-up shots from a distance, so it’s great for action photography. The autofocus works nicely as well, though it lacks image stabilization. Still, at this price point, we’re not complaining.
Best focal range on a super telephoto
$1057 $1397 Save $340
Action photography is all about adapting to the moment, which is where this zoom lens from Nikon excels. The 200-500mm focal range lets you zoom in and out on the fly, and the set f/5.6 aperture ensures you don’t have to keep adjusting your exposure. The stabilization tech is also impressive, offering 4.5 stops of reduction when you switch to “Sports mode.” And for such a massive lens, it’s noticeably robust and ready for the road.
Best professional zoom lens
This premium Canon lens has the distinction of being extremely fast, with a max aperture of f/2.8, even when fully extended. That means you can zoom in to 200mm and still shoot at a super-fast shutter speed. Needless to say, it excels at capturing glorious action shots, and the image stabilization just adds to the sharpness. Of course, a professional lens like this comes at a professional price.
Best compact and portable zoom lens
$450 $550 Save $100
Action photography and handheld shots go hand-in-hand, which is why this micro four thirds lens from OM System is a brilliant choice. The 75-300mm focal range offers plenty of room to zoom in on the action, while the MFT system helps it stay compact and light enough to take with you on the go. Best of all, the price is an absolute bargain, making this one of the best bang-for-your-buck options as well.
What makes a lens fast?
When professional photographers refer to a lens as “fast,” they’re actually talking about the maximum aperture size. Remember, smaller f-stop numbers mean wider apertures. Thus, an f/4.5 aperture is wider than an f/5.6 aperture. A “fast” lens will have a maximum aperture (minimum f-stop value) of around f/2.8. With such a large aperture to let in more light, you’ll be able to set your shutter speed to something super fast. Hence, such a lens is “fast.”
However, it’s all relative. Telephoto lenses, like the ones in our article, are long and large for a reason: the optics need more distance to project the image onto the sensor. As a result, their apertures are limited by the length and size of their optics. You’ll notice that telephoto lenses with big maximum apertures, such as f/2.8, are noticeably heftier. (You’ll also notice that such lenses cost many thousands of dollars.)
Can I use a macro lens to take action shots?
Absolutely. Telephoto lenses are widely preferred for capturing action, but that doesn’t mean there are any rules you have to follow. Most professionals use telephoto lenses because their subjects move around so much. With long focal lengths, they can zoom in on the action, even as it unfolds in a frenzy of changing distances and positions. Long focal lengths also help flatten out the background and foreground elements, resulting in a “frozen in time” look.
What kind of camera should I use for action photography?
We recommend cameras with advanced autofocus systems, since today’s AF technology is much quicker and more accurate than our human reactions. You’ll also do better with a camera with a fast continuous drive, so you can take burst shots and choose the best one later. Some cameras can snap over 30 photos a second, which is a boon for action photography. Finally, we suggest using a camera with advanced image stabilization. Even the smallest camera shake can ruin an action shot, especially when captured through a telephoto lens, so make sure your camera can stay steady even when you can’t.