Choosing the Right Camera Lens

Lesson 33/35 - The Action Lens


Choosing the Right Camera Lens


Lesson Info

The Action Lens

Alright, when it comes to action lenses, I'm talking about sports photography, wildlife photography, and any time you want to shoot something that's moving around but you can't be real close to. There's something important that I don't see a lot of photographers talking about, but I think is really important to know about, why photographers are using these big lenses. It's not just cause their subjects are far away, it's because they have a very large subject zone and that is the area that your subject needs to be within for you to be photographed. It's where they need to be in order for you to get them in the frame properly. And the concept that I want to get across here is that big lenses have big subject zones. So let's kind of run through how this works. Imagine that you're at the end of a runway, maybe you're at the end of a marathon, and there is runners coming towards you and you could photograph them a mile away, 100 yards away, or two feet in front of the camera. Where should ...

you shoot your photograph of your runners? And that's kind of the concept I want to get at here, is if you are able to get up close to your subject, which lens would you want to use? We're gonna be looking at a variety of lenses from 24 all the way up to 400 millimeters and how I would frame up a subject. Alright, so if the subject is running towards me, I want them in the frame and I want them filling the frame and I want them filling the frame as much as possible, so I'm probably gonna shoot a vertical image so as to have as many pixels on them as possible. Now, when they're a mile away, I'm not gonna want to shoot them cause they're too small in the frame. I want a subject that fills the frame about halfway to start with. If they're anything smaller than that, they're probably too far away. And so if I can fit two of them in the frame, that's when I'm gonna start shooting as they're getting closer. And this is what I call the back of the zone. So as they get closer, this is the time to start shooting and so you want to start shooting photos now until they completely fill the frame. Now, to be honest with you, I'm gonna keep shooting even if it's head and shoulders, head shot, I want to get as much as I can, but in this case, let's say we want to get the entire runner coming towards the camera. We know where the back of the zone is and now we know where the front of the zone is. Now, let's figure it out where it is on different types of lenses. A 24 millimeter lens has a very wide angle point of view and if you want to fill the frame with your subject, your subject has to be very, very close to the lens. Where do you see two of them? Just a little bit further back. It has a very small subject zone. When you photograph with 100 millimeter lens, which has a much narrower angle of view, your subject is going to be a little bit further from the camera and when there's two of them, there's gonna be a little bit more distance, and so you have a little bit more working distance. When you switch all the way up to a 400 millimeter lens, your subject is pretty far away from you, and where you can see two of them is gonna be even further away, so what this means is it's a very large subject zone, so you have much more space in which to shoot your subject. So you're here at the finish line and you're working with a 24 millimeter lens. Where are you gonna shoot your photos? Well, they have to be right next to the finish line because that's where your subject is gonna fill the frame. It's a very, very small area. When you double the lens focal length, you're gonna double the subject zone area and that's gonna give you more time to get your shot. So as we continue to double our lenses, we keep doubling our subject zone, which means we get more and more time to track our subject and to get a collection of different photographs. And obviously, the 400 millimeter lens is gonna have the biggest subject zone possible in this particular case. And so it's equal to all the others combined. And so this is one of the reasons that sports photographers, action photographers want to shoot with a long lens. Now, I've done a lot of photographs of runners and so I know running really well, so that's what I'm gonna stick to in this case. 25 kilometers an hour is a top sprint by a really good runner, okay. And I did the math for you, they are covering about one meter every .144 of a second, alright. And there are many sports cameras out there that can shoot at 10 frames a second, so we can figure out how much time the runner is gonna be in that zone and how many frames per second we can shoot. And so as you might guess, that 400 millimeter lens is gonna give us many more options for shooting subjects while they are in the zone. So what you might have in reality is you might be photographing a field sport like football, soccer, something like that, and if you have yourself a 400 millimeter lens, it's gonna cover a huge swath of the field, whereas a 50 millimeter lens is gonna be a tiny little swath right in front of you. An experienced photographer might be shooting with something like a 500, which covers even more area than the 400, and then to cover the rest of the area, a 70 to 200 will cover most of that area in between those subjects. And that way, you can have a subject move a little bit closer to you and a little bit further away, and they're not gonna change that much in size when you are using these big lenses. So let's do another example of the distance between two subjects. And so with a 24, I tried to set this up so the subject closest to the camera just about filled the frame, and the person in the background was kind of about half the size of the frame. And you can see with the 24 millimeter lens, these two guys are really close together. When we switched to a 50 millimeter lens, they're a little bit further apart, and so we could shoot a number of more players here. Now, as they start moving around more erratically at 100 millimeters, we're able to capture movement as it's moving around because it's not as critical cause they have more room to move. We have more leeway here. At 200 millimeters, there's a great distance that are both kind of composed well in the frame. And when we're shooting with a 400 millimeter lens, there's a great distance between how far and how close. And so these guys are kind of representing the back end and the front end of your subject zone. And so even though you don't have a zoom lens out at these really long focal lengths in most cases, you can shoot a number of photographs and have a good series. So here's a whole series of photographs that I've taken as runners are coming at me and I'm able to get off a dozen, two dozen shots in a short period of time while still keeping the runner in there. And why that's really important is that you need several opportunities for picking out what the best particular moment is. I've found with runners that there is often great facial expressions, but they only happen for a fraction of a second, but you better have your camera on them and have them within that general subject zone for you to get those right moments. So with the subject zone, that's the area that your subject needs to be within and big lenses will give you big subject zones. So in some ways, the bigger the lens, the easier it is to work with in that regard. So when I'm looking for an action lens for sports or wildlife, first thing I'm looking at is the focal length, and then the next thing is the maximum aperture cause that's where these lenses are shot at most of the time, letting in the most amount of light so that you can get a fast shutter speed. I want to know, how good is the focusing system on that? Does it have a fast focusing motor? Can it keep it up with action that's moving very, very quickly? We generally like a lot of sharpness when it comes to our action photographs, that's a very important thing. It'd be nice if these things were smaller and lighter, but they are gonna be heavy. Some are just bigger and heavier than others. Image stabilization can help out in many situations. And of course, you always have to throw in price, that is always a consideration. And so when it comes to action lenses, I'm thinking of 200 millimeters and up. And so there's a lot of good choices in here with zoom and in prime lenses. 200 millimeters, you do need to be fairly close to your action, and so if you're gonna have people going right by you, if you have good access, sideline access to where you can be, then a 200 millimeter lens is fine. Probably one of the more classic sports lengths is 300, maybe 400 also in there, but if you can have modest access to your subject, 300 is the perfect basketball lens when you're shooting the far end of the court. When you're shooting the near end of the court, you'd probably be with an 85 or 100 millimeter lens. So shooting these runners, oftentimes I'm shooting them with a 300 millimeter lens. And you might wonder, how much does 100 millimeters in one stop do? And so here's a good example of what a 300 2.8 looks like versus a 200 f/4. Now, there is a world of difference when it comes to the weight, size, and price of these two lenses and that 300 2.8 is gonna get you a little longer reach and that little bit shallower depth to field. It's not a huge difference, but it is a difference. Most professional sports photographers are shooting with a 400 millimeter lens because they are forced back by rules and regulations about where they can stand and shoot. And so a 400 millimeter lens is a very, very common lens out there. The fastest one available is f/2.8, but for a lot of us mere mortals, we're gonna be working with probably an f/ or more likely, a 400 5.6 lens. In some cases, you do need to get much further away from your subjects. You can use a 600 millimeter lens. They don't tend to focus quite as quickly as the 3 and the 400s, but they can be very handy when you need to pick off subjects from a very long distance away. The action lenses that I recommend here are gonna be very similar to the zoom lenses I recommended in the earlier section. In fact, they may be exactly the same cause these are good general-purpose lenses. The ones in the basic category are not especially fast at focusing, but they do get you out there and they are good basic choices. The apertures on these are not especially wide open and so they're not particularly good at sports, but they do give you the reach that gets out there for not too much money. If you are gonna be shooting sports, that 2.8 or a faster f/4 aperture is gonna be of great help and it is gonna be more light coming in the lens, in these cases, to help focus faster, also be a little bit brighter in the viewfinder. But in all cases, those faster apertures are gonna be nice so that you can shoot with faster shutter speeds. And so any sort of zoom with 2.8 is probably gonna be pretty good for shooting action photography. With Nikon and Canon, there is a lot of money that you can spend on some of their high-end lenses and all of these lenses are fantastic lenses. The 200 f/2 is kind of an unusual lens, it's kind of short, that would be a great volleyball lens. 300, that's your basketball lens. 400 2.8, that's your football, soccer lens. Your 600 f/4, 800 5.6, that's your baseball lens. The bigger the field, the smaller they tend to be out there. And so these are another type of lens that would be excellent choice for somebody to rent. Take it up, go photograph the bald eagles, take it down to the auto races or the airplane show or something like that for a weekend, a lot of fun to work with. They're very expensive, they're generally $6,000 to $16,000, but can make a nice, fun $100, $200 rental for the weekend.

Class Description

Once you’ve chosen the camera of your dreams, how do you know which lens will maximize your camera’s capabilities? Join camera expert John Greengo as he explains what the best lenses are to add to your camera bag. He’ll explain:

  • Which lens is best for specific areas of photography
  • The technology behind lenses
  • How to use specialty lenses including macro and fisheye
  • Tips on operating and maintaining your lenses

John will also talk about lens accessories including hoods, mounts, filters, and teleconverters. By the end of this class, you’ll understand exactly what lens you’ll need to take your best photos!


Boris Dimitrov

Excellent class packed with incredibly useful knowledge. John is an amazing lecturer. He has also developed really great materials to help explain all the concepts and technologies that are explored in the class. Looking forward to my next class with him!

a Creativelive Student

Great class. So informative. John Greengo is such a fantastic tutor and explains everything in such and easy-to-understand way. I would highly recommend this class. Prior to doing this class, I was so confused about which lenses are best for various photography. Now I understand lenses completely. Thanks John!

Lettie Turner

Another great JG class, my 4th. He gives a lot of individual attention to several popular lens brands. I really think after seeing this video series you could pick out three lenses that would fit your needs and your pocketbook. The class handout is spot on for what is covered in the video. Great job!! Thank you