Never miss a moment with these best-buy lenses for action photography

Whether it's swimmers plunging into the pool or a skateboarder mid-jump, there's a tempting array of high-performance yet cost-effective Canon lenses for capturing motion in sport.
A swimmer leaps backwards into a pool with her arms outstretched creating an arc of water droplets.

Action photography is all about shooting subjects in motion, from pets at play to birds in flight, from athletic sports to ball games. As your subject is moving at speed it can be difficult to achieve the shot you're hoping for, but using the cameras and lenses best suited to capturing action will give you a great advantage.

In general, the most suitable cameras for action photography will have an advanced autofocus system with many AF points, helping you to accurately and continuously track subjects even when they're moving erratically. They should also have a fast maximum frame rate in Continuous shooting mode, with a sizeable memory buffer so you can capture a burst of more than just a few shots.

Ideal camera bodies for action include the Canon EOS R6 and the EOS R7. Both feature sensitive and intelligent AF based on deep-learning AI for tracking birds, animals, people and even vehicles, along with super-fast frame rates.

Hands holding a Canon EOS R camera and a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens.

Canon describes the difference in data communication speed between cameras and lenses for the EF and RF mount system as being like that of "a moped and a bullet train", making RF lenses such as the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM a great choice for action shots. © James North

What type of lens is best for action shots?

Speed is key when shooting moving subjects and the extremely fast communication between Canon's RF lenses and EOS R System bodies brings a range of benefits, including the swiftness and accuracy of autofocus tracking, along with improved optical Image Stabilisation (IS). Optical IS is extremely beneficial when shooting at long telephoto focal lengths, as the risk of blurred images due to camera shake becomes much greater. The optical IS in the lens works in tandem with the in-body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) in the camera to counteract camera movement and minimise blur.

Action photographers aim to draw the viewer into their images to convey the experience of being courtside or sitting alongside a racetrack, so a lens with a long focal length will enable you to fill the frame with your subject. Telephoto or super-telephoto zooms are usually the best option if you're shooting from a distance but a standard zoom might also suffice if you know you'll be able to get a bit closer to the action.

A professional sports photographer is likely to use big, top-spec sports lenses including pro-grade zoom and super-telephoto lenses. However, Canon also offers entry-level telephotos that are still highly capable of capturing the action and delivering pin-sharp image quality. Here are the top options to suit a range of budgets.

Best beginner lens for action photography: Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM

A skateboarder dressed in jeans and a white top performs a daring trick on a ramp in a heavily graffitied skatepark.

You don't always need a telephoto lens. A standard zoom such as the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM is ideal when you're up close to the action or want to include the surroundings to set the scene. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 48mm, 1/180 sec, f/13 and ISO100.

When shooting subjects in motion, the action can often be close at hand: kids or pets playing in the garden, shooting action in a skatepark, or even standing trackside at a motocross race. In these situations, you don't need long telephoto reach, and a relatively small, lightweight lens is more convenient.

As a full-frame compatible zoom lens, the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM is particularly compact, measuring less than 9cm in length and weighing a mere 395g. It's easy to stow and gives you the freedom to follow the action for as long as you like without feeling weighed down. Fast autofocus is assured by a smooth, quiet STM motor, while 5-stop optical IS enables you to use relatively slow shutter speeds (when panning the camera with the main subject, for example) without the risk of camera shake blurring your shots.

Most versatile lens for action photography: Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM

A yabusame archer dressed in ceremonial robes and carrying a large bow and arrow rides a horse at speed down a narrow track.

If you can only carry one lens with you, then the versatile Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM is ideal for a wide range of action scenarios. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM lens at 240mm, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 and ISO800.

A common problem when shooting moving subjects is that you never quite know where the action will happen. Standing near the goalposts at an amateur football match, for example, you might be trying to capture a tackle down the pitch one minute, then nearby goalmouth action the next. Swapping between telephoto and wide-angle lenses could mean you miss the important moments altogether.

The generous 10x zoom range of the Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM makes it ideal for this kind of shooting, delivering everything from wide-angle shots to powerful telephoto reach. Pairing this full-frame lens with the Canon EOS R7, which has a smaller APS-C sensor, will in effect increase that reach even further, giving a view equivalent to a 38.4-384mm lens on a full-frame camera.

As well as tracking the action with its long zoom range, the lens also has an ultra-fast Nano USM AF system and 5-stop IS, all packed into a comfortably compact and lightweight build.

Best telephoto lens for shooting action handheld: Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM

A woman holding a Canon EOS R System camera to her face photographs a fisherman dropping a lobster pot into the sea.

Despite being a telephoto lens, the size and portability of the Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM makes it ideal for handheld action photography, as well as travel and wildlife imagery. © Andrew Ford

Shot from behind, a woman in a woollen hat holds a Canon EOS R System camera with a Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM lens attached.

The effectiveness of the 5-stop optical IS in the Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM lens is boosted to as much as 7.5-stops when working in conjunction with the IBIS in EOS R System cameras such as the EOS R6. © Andrew Ford

Although there are times when the action happens nearby, you'll usually be shooting from a distance. This is especially true of spectator events from athletics to motorsports. By leaving wide-angle and standard focal lengths out of the equation, you can opt for a lens that devotes itself fully to telephoto performance.

The amazingly compact Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM proves that telephoto lenses don't have to be big and heavy. Thanks to its retractable design, it packs away to less than 12cm in length for easy stowage and it only weighs 695g, despite featuring robust, weather-sealed L-series build quality.

Performance highlights include a fast f/4 aperture rating that remains constant throughout the entire zoom range and blazingly fast AF based on Dual Nano USM motors.

Best entry-level super-telephoto zoom lens for action photography: Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM

A hockey player in a red shirt and black helmet in side profile, their blue hockey stick raised.

The powerful 5.5-stop optical IS in the Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM produces stunning action images without the need for a tripod. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/500 sec, f/8 and ISO1600.

A hockey player in a blue shirt and long blue socks competes for the ball on an artificial turf pitch.

A nine-blade aperture also gives wonderful background blur. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/640 sec, f/8 and ISO1600.

It's often the case in sports and wildlife photography that you simply can't get as close to the action as you'd like. Even a 70-200mm lens or the Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM might not have enough telephoto reach. To cover the distance, you'll need a super-telephoto lens.

The Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM gives you twice as much telephoto reach as a 70-200mm lens yet is relatively compact and particularly lightweight at just 635g. There's always a greater risk of camera shake degrading sharpness at super-telephoto focal lengths, but the IS ensures sharp handheld stills and smooth movies. The ultra-fast Nano USM autofocus is very adept at tracking the action and if 400mm still doesn't give you enough reach, the lens is compatible with the Canon Extender RF 1.4x and Extender RF 2x.

Best entry-level super-telephoto prime lens for action photography: Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM

A male sprinter powering himself forward as he leaves the blocks.

For some action shots, you'll hardly ever be able to get as close as you'd really like. The longest possible focal length wins out over the ability to zoom, making super-telephoto lenses such as the Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM and Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM the best options. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/11 and ISO800.

Telephoto and super-telephoto zoom lenses give you the versatility to adjust your field of view when you're limited to a single shooting position, for example when you're in a spectating area for a sporting event or in a hide for shooting wildlife. On other occasions, you'll need as much telephoto reach as you can possibly get, and a zoom range becomes superfluous. Typical scenarios include shooting birds in flight or wild animals in the distance.

The revolutionary Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM is the ideal tool for the job. Thanks to a retractable design, the carrying length is less than 27cm, and the lens weighs just 930g. It's entirely manageable even for long periods of handheld shooting, in which consistent sharpness is assured by the 5-stop optical IS. Should you need it, the Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM gives even greater reach and both of these lenses can be used with the Canon Extender RF 1.4x and Extender RF 2x.

Best pro-level lens for capturing fast action: Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

A rower leans forward on the oars. The athlete is in sharp focus while the background is blurred.

A 'fast' lens such as the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM gives a relatively tight depth of field, ideal for isolating the main subject in an action scene by blurring the background. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 111mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1000. © Matthew Joseph

A photographer in jeans and a blue jacket leaning back to take a shot with a Canon camera and RF 70-200mm F.2.8L IS USM lens.

As with the Canon RF 70-200mm F4 IS USM, this faster f/2.8 lens has fully pro-grade, weather-sealed build quality, super-fast and virtually silent Dual Nano USM AF and a 5-stop Image Stabilizer.

When you need to freeze the motion of super-fast subjects, only quick shutter speeds will suffice. For stopping rapid action in its tracks, you need shutter speeds upwards of 1/2000 sec. That can be a problem in anything other than bright sunlight. One solution is to bump up the ISO setting of your camera, but then you risk grainy picture quality due to image noise and a loss of fine detail.

If you have a little more money to spend, the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM is the most refined solution. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables fast shutter speeds even in low light, right throughout the zoom range. Another bonus is that you can isolate the main subject in a scene by blurring the background.

The options we've covered here are all perfect for action photography: lightweight, easy to handle and suitable for a range of budgets. So, whether you're planning to stand on the sidelines at an amateur football match or capture a fast-moving athlete on the track there should be a lens in this lineup that meets your requirements. All that's left then is to get out there, have a go and discover just what's possible.

Written by Matthew Richards

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