With its RF range of lenses, Canon has committed to ever greater optical excellence and innovation.
The manufacturer is making full use of the technical advantages offered by Mirrorless technology to produce lenses that push the boundaries of AF technology for greater speed and accuracy than ever before.
This makes the RF line – and in particular the “luxury” L range – especially well suited to shooting sports photography.
While the actual activities sports photographers photograph can vary considerably – from football and soccer to swimming, trail running, and skateboarding, to name but a few – the need to capture intense action and speed under stress remains constant across the board.
So regardless of the exact sport a photographer may shoot, most will be looking for roughly the same strengths from their lenses.
What makes a good sport photography lens? And which of Canon’s RF lenses most closely meet these criteria?
In this guide to the best Canon RF lenses for sports photography I first list what I believe to be the most convincing products available for shooting sports with Canon’s Mirrorless cameras, before breaking down the main points to look for in a sports photography lens.
Table of Contents
Canon’s RF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM is undoubtedly a great lens.
But I really had to think long and hard before putting it in the number one spot here.
Not because I have any reservations about its quality or performance. Nor because there are other more qualified contenders for the top spot either.
No, this really is a superb lens for sports photography. One of the best available from any manufacturer.
But who, other than already highly successful professional sports photographers or their employers, can justify spending almost as much money on a lens as they would on a new car?
What purpose does it serve when I tell you that this is the best Canon RF lens for sports photography if the vast majority of you – and by “you” I also mean me – are unlikely to ever buy one?
I’m still not sure that I’ve come up with a satisfactory answer to this question. But the fact remains, that this simply is the best Canon RF lens for sports photography.
And to place it further down the list merely due to its price doesn’t seem like an honest solution either.
What’s more, just because it is expensive doesn’t necessarily mean that it is overpriced. After all, developing and manufacturing a long, fast, and high-performance telephoto for full frame is no simple task.
It just wouldn’t be realistic to expect such a high-specced lens to cost much less than this. Indeed, comparable offerings for EF cameras, or from Canon’s Mirrorless competitors, are priced similarly.
So here it is, the Canon RF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM. Most of us are unlikely to ever own one, but there’s certainly no harm in daydreaming, And in any case you might conceivably want to rent one.
This is what you’ll get to play with if you do.
For a start, autofocus is super-smooth yet snappy, and face recognition works very well indeed. Anyone who does end up spending the enormous amount of money required to own one of these will not feel short done by in terms of AF performance.
Yes, the RF 400mm might occasionally drop the ball on an image or two. But shoot in servo mode with a fast burst rate and you will end up with way more keepers than you can possibly use.
Handily, there is a focus limiter, so you don’t end up with the AF motors flitting between background and foreground. There’s also a very big, smooth, and satisfying focus ring that makes manual focusing a real pleasure too.
Plus there is a second ring for accelerated jumps in focus, so you don’t have to manually wind your way through the entire arc of the ring to get from A to Z.
A focus preset button allows you to switch between predetermined focus points in a flash, and the by-wire manual focus can be set to operate at three different speeds.
Unsurprisingly, this thing is big. Although nowhere near as big as Canon’s 600mm f/4 model (below).
And it’s definitely heavy, but not impossible to work with handheld – at least for brief periods of time. However, if you do get to use one, you’ll likely find a monopod comes in very handy; offering some much needed support while leaving you free to reframe on the fly.
Of course, image stabilization will make a huge difference to how low you can drop the shutter speed and still handhold this lens. And thankfully IS works very well. Canon claim a five stop difference.
This may or may not be true in practice, but I can certainly confirm at least four stops.
Just keep in mind that IS is of no use on moving subjects. And as a sport photographer it would be highly unusual for your subject not to move.
Really though, this lens is all about its highly covetable fast maximum aperture, allowing the use of faster shutter speeds to freeze action.
Yet f/2.8 would be of little use if the optics didn’t also deliver brilliantly.
Just as well, then, that the lens produces incredibly sharp and contrasty images, even when used wide open. And that goes for the corners almost as much as the center of the frame.
Furthermore, stopping down to f/4 totally obliterates what little difference there was between edge and center resolution at f/2.8 anyway.
For those of an artistic bent, the lens produces great out of focus rendering; i.e. the much sought-after “bokeh” effect. And there’s neither flare nor any chromatic aberration detectable. You’ll see little to no distortion wide open either – although there’s some distinct vignetting until you shut down the diaphragm to about f/5.6.
Aside from all the above points in the lens’s favor, one other reason why I favor this lens is because 400mm seems to me like the ultimate focal length for outdoor sports photography.
I mean, if you had to choose just one lens, nine times out of ten 200mm probably wouldn’t do it for you. While 600mm would likely be overkill most of the time.
However, if you do lust for even greater reach, be aware that a 1.4 x teleconverter will convert this beast into a 560mm lens, with no noticeable compromise other than a drop in maximum aperture to f/4. Which now that I think about it makes Canon’s 600mm F/4 model seem rather redundant.
There’s no denying greatness, and at the end of the day the RF 400mm f/2.8 simply offers the best compromise between fast aperture, telephoto reach, usability, and image quality.
In my opinion there is no other lens currently available that is more deserving of the title of best Canon RF lens for sports photography. It’s just that in order to get a piece of that action, you can expect to pay a very handsome premium indeed.
Canon’s RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM zoom lens likely won’t be long enough for some pro-sports photographers – at least not without supplementing it with something like the 400mm f/2.8 (above) – but it will be a total workhorse lens for everyone else.
Perhaps you’re the kind of sports photographer who spends most of the day lying on the ground shooting dramatic wide angle images of skaters or parkour athletes flying over you?
In that case this lens isn’t for you. But the rest of us will likely need this bit of glass as standard.
A shame, then, that it costs several thousand dollars.
Although, if you’re a longtime Canon mirrorless owner, you’re likely already resigned to the heavy hit you take on every lens purchase you make.
Having said this, it’s not the purchase price per se that we should be worried about anyway, but whether this zoom lens offers good value in return for that money. And I think that here the answer is a resounding “yes”.
Let’s start by saying that most of what you’re paying for with the RF 70-200mm is the incredible autofocus system. Its lightening-fast and unfailingly accurate. And in large part it is this feature that puts the RF 70-200mm so high up on my list of sports photography lenses.
I should also mention that, despite being of the by-wire variety, manual focusing is similarly satisfying. Although quite how often anyone shooting sports will want to make use of this feature seems doubtful.
Of course, the fast f/2.8 aperture offered by this lens is a big part of the draw, too. You simply cannot have enough light when shooting sports. And for a lens with such a useful zoom range, f/2.8 is enviably fast.
But what about image quality?
Well, shooting at the 70mm setting at f/2.8 center sharpness and contrast are excellent.
With just a small drop in quality towards the corners. Shut the diaphragm down to f/4, though, and even this disappears. There is some slight barrel distortion and vignetting at this focal length, though, if not using in-camera correction.
At longer standard zoom lengths the story is essentially the same; center sharpness is superb, and the corners just a touch softer. Vignetting is more pronounced at 200mm though; at least until you close the diaphragm down a few stops.
While the 70-200mm f/2.8 is a big chunky lens, it collapses down quite nicely – so it’s not excessively long when stored. It’s also lighter than equivalent lenses for Canon DSLRs.
Finally, despite “only” being made of engineered plastic, build quality is very sturdy and the lens mount is weather sealed.
Canon’s RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 is a super-telephoto zoom that will allow you to shoot everything from relatively wide full-action shots to expressive and emotional close ups on a single lens.
While f/4.5 is a little on the slow side, it’s just fast enough to still be of practical use.
And the good news is that the lens stays operating at f/4.5 for over half its zoom range; falling to f/5.6 at around 300mm, and only dropping down to f/7.1 as you approach the 400mm mark.
It’s also worth keeping mind that if you do need superior light-gathering abilities at 400mm and beyond, it will cost you a lot, lot, more than this lens retails for. Effectively, then, you either make do with f/7.1 or you’ll need to remortgage your home for the 400mm f/2.8.
Build quality is excellent, and while this is clearly no pancake lens in the weight stakes, the RF 100-500mm is actually surprisingly small and lightweight considering its prodigious focal reach.
This means that alternating between two cameras – for example, one with the 100-500mm and another with a wider lens for close-up images from the sidelines – will not put your back under undue stress.
Image stabilization works very well. And the lens boasts incredibly fast autofocus and amazing eye-auto AF; there’s certainly nothing to complain about in either of these departments.
Meanwhile, changing between zoom settings is quick and easy via the satisfying ring on the barrel. This ring can also be tightened to taste in order to avoid “zoom-flop” when shooting.
With the lens at the 100mm zoom setting, and an aperture of f/4.5 selected, we can see great sharpness and contrast both at the center and (to almost the same degree) in the corners – with any corner softness disappearing totally by f/8. At this setting there’s next to no distortion detectable either. Although you will likely see a good dose of vignetting until the lens is stopped down to around f/8, this rf mount lens produces excellent image quality overall.
At the 300mm zoom position, all corner softness has gone – even shooting wide open. And this performance remains pretty much consistent all the way through to 500mm.
However, longer zoom settings are prone to a degree of pincushion distortion. And if anything the vignetting is even more noticeable now. Of course, these issues can easily be corrected automatically in-camera or at the post production stage.
Bokeh is very attractive. Which is obviously very good news, as you’ll probably not produce a lot of images with clearly defined backgrounds when using a lens this long.
To sum up then, despite the less than optimal maximum aperture, this really is a very good lens. And one that pretty much any sport photographer would find immensely useful to have in their bag.
However, given the choice (and a bottomless bank account), I’d likely still opt for the 400mm f/2.8 (above) over the 100-500mm. Simply because sport photography necessitates fast shutter speeds, and these are only feasible if you have enough light entering the lens.
The RF 100-500mm is not exactly cheap either. Although we need to keep things in perspective here; i.e. it is nonetheless about four times cheaper than the 400mm f/2.8 lens. And for most people that will be the deciding factor.
Rest assured, though, that if you can live with the lack of light, you’re unlikely to be disappointed by this lens.
Let’s be totally clear, Canon’s RF 35mm f/1.8 will be of very limited use to photographers shooting field sports from the sidelines.
Sure, you might want a second body mounted with this lens hanging around your neck; handy for those occasions when the players end up virtually on top of you and you haven’t got a hope of shooting anything with your telephoto.
But the rest of the time, a 35mm will leave your subject way too small in the frame to be worth bothering with.
However, for many photographers shooting action and adventure sports, the core of their lens arsenal will be made up of wide-angle glass.
True, 35mm is not especially wide. But it’s wide enough to be useful in most situations; yet not so wide that you need to put yourself right in the path of fast moving athletes in order to fill the frame.
Perhaps even more importantly, this particular 35mm lens offers some impressive specs that to my mind make it the best option as a go-to wide angle lens for shooting sports.
To begin with there’s that beautifully bright maximum aperture of f/1.8. None of Canon’s other RF wide angles come close to this. And if there’s one thing that really makes a difference in sport photography, it’s fast aperture, especially with indoor sports.
The lens’s image stabilization is quite effective and certainly not to be sniffed at, but it won’t help you avoid blur if your subject is fast moving .
And obviously in sport photography the subject is nearly always fast moving. So a combination of wide aperture and a slightly higher ISO is the only way to guarantee crisply frozen action.
Shooting at f/1.8, sharpness is great at the center of the image. Although contrast could be a little better in the corners. There’s also some barrel distortion and very evident vignetting at this aperture. Stop down to f/2.8 or f/4 though, and all these issues clear up immediately.
Autofocus is fast and reliable on this lightweight lens. And if for some reason you prefer to focus manually, the by-wire focusing is fairly responsive too.
As with some of Canon’s other RF lenses, the barrel also features a customizable control ring, to which you can assign your preferred functions.
The lens is small and lightweight, which will definitely be appreciated by those shooting action sports.
Despite being a mid-range lens – and therefore quite fairly priced – it also seems very sturdy. Although be aware that beyond the lens mount the build is largely plastic.
Finally, keep in mind that although this lens is designated “macro,” this is neither here nor there to sports photographers, as except with indoor sports photography, we’re unlikely to ever get close enough to our subjects for the 1:2 magnification to come into play.
Canon’s RF 600mm f/4 L IS USM is all but identical to its slightly shorter brethren; the RF 400mm f/2.8.
The main difference – beyond the focal length – being the drop in light gathering abilities on offer here.
An aperture of f/4 will still be quite workable, though. Especially for floodlit stadium sports or outdoor action under bright sunlight.
In any case, you’ll need to be standing on the opposite side of a sports field to your subject for a 600mm lens to be practical anyway. So let’s just say that it’s probably not a lens that will see a lot of indoor use.
In terms of performance, this lens is essentially indistinguishable from the 400mm. And there’s little point in me repeating here the same observations I’ve made for that lens above.
Needless to say, though, this is truly a superb piece of glass. Indeed, along with the 400mm, these two are pretty much untouchable in their field as far as autofocus and image quality go.
So why haven’t I placed the RF 600 f/4 higher up in my list of the best RF lenses for sports photography?
There are actually a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I think that 600mm is more of a niche focal length. Whereas almost any sport photographer would enjoy having a 400mm f/2.8 lens in their arsenal; I think that the 600mm might prove too long for many.
Then there’s that slower aperture. Of course, this is somewhat inevitable once you get up to ridiculously long focal lengths such as this. But on top of this, the 600mm costs even more than the 400mm does (but hey, what’s a couple of thousand dollars more when you’re talking about five-figure sums already anyway, right?).
The dealbreaker for me, though, is that you can actually get pretty close to 600mm for less money simply by purchasing the 400mm and adding a converter that retails for a few hundred dollars.
Sure, it knocks the maximum aperture down to f/4. But that’s all that the 600mm lens offers anyway.
And if you’re going to make such a huge investment in optics, clearly it’s better that you end up with two lenses for the money rather than just one, right?
Just don’t tell Canon I told you!
For action sports photographers who value a wide angle of view over fast aperture, the RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS USM wide angle zoom lens represents the best native Canon option currently available.
It’s not a fisheye, but it’s pretty much as wide as you can get without edging into that territory, and will make for some extremely dramatic images – just assuming you can get close enough to your subject to fill the frame.
While f/2.8 is by no means a slow aperture, clearly it pales in comparison to f/1.8 – which is well over a stop brighter. In practical terms this means that that you’ll need to halve your shutter speed when shooting with this lens compared to the 35mm f/1.8 prime.
Which could mean the difference between usable images and ones that are unacceptably blurry.
Also keep in mind that if you’re hoping to get any kind of separation between subject and background, the 35mm f/1.8 will do a much better job of this – owing to its wider aperture opening.
These caveats aside, though, the RF 15-35mm is a great lens. And so if extreme wide angle action is a must for you, then the above issues are simply the price you’ll have to pay for a lens that meets your focal length requirements.
Of course, it’s not the only price you’ll pay, as this zoom lens also costs a lot of money. Again though, if in order to get the shots you want, you can’t live without the extreme coverage offered by the 15-35mm, there’s not really an alternative. At least not a native Canon one that offers the same excellent spec.
Impressively for a zoom, images produced with the RF 15-35mm are sharp right across the frame and all the way through the focal range. Contrast, too, is pretty good; although perhaps a little less impressive than image sharpness.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, there’s quite a strong degree of vignetting and distortion at the more extreme focal lengths.
However, in-camera corrections or some simple processing of the RAW files will take care of most of this.
While image stabilization will only be of very limited use to sports photographers, it’s nonetheless worth mentioning that it works brilliantly.
More importantly from our point of view, however, is that autofocus is also excellent.
Finally, while the lens is fairly big and heavy, it is at least very solidly built.
Ultimately, then, if ultrawides are your thing, there’s really no reason not to go with the RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L.
Canon clearly started out here with an admirable goal; produce a compact and lightweight telephoto lens for the RF line that offers a lot of magnification for a very reasonable price.
And at first glance Canon’s RF 600mm lens might appear to be a great choice for sports photographers.
But with a maximum (and also minimum) aperture of f/11?
I’m accustomed to seeing slower shutter speeds on longer lenses. By which I mean f/4 or f/5.6.
For some purposes they can be quite workable. But the only scenario in which I can imagine a 600mm f/11 lens being useful would be outdoor field sports such as soccer or athletics under strong midday sun.
Of course, these sports often do take place under precisely such conditions. Which is why I haven’t totally laughed this lens out the door, and am instead including it here.
But when I say that this lens comes at a “reasonable price,” we’re still talking a few hundred dollars north of a total bargain.
And it’s one thing that you might sometimes want to shoot at f/11 when conditions allow it.
Quite another that your lens will not permit you to shoot at any other aperture at all, ever – because there is no lens iris!
But don’t let me prejudice you. This lens must have something going for it, right? Otherwise why would Canon have bothered?
And yes, if we can ignore the obvious for a moment, the 600mm f/11 does offer certain charms.
For a start, image quality is superb. It’s great in the center of the frame and actually doesn’t change much as you get closer to the edges either. There is a little vignetting, but nothing to speak of in the way of chromatic aberrations.
Autofocus also works very well. Meaning that it is consistently both fast and accurate, but also that eye-focus and tracking are extremely effective too.
What’s more, the lens features image stabilization which functions brilliantly. Although just how useful this might be for your sports photography will to some degree depend on the precise sports you photograph, and how.
Ultimately, then, if you really need to be able to shoot at the focal length offered by this lens, but can’t contemplate spending the eye-watering sums of money such lenses typically retail for (see above), the 600mm f/11 (and it’s even longer sibling, the 800mm f/11) provide the only real solution.
In some ways, then, developing these two lenses was a generous gesture on Canon’s part.
However, just how many photographers will take Canon up on their offer remains to be seen. Indeed, whether a lens of such limited use will be of value to you, Dear Reader, is a question that only you can answer for yourself.
The Canon RF Sports Photographer Buying Guide
Having seen what the current Canon RF line has to offer sports photographers, let’s now turn our attention to considering the finer details of choosing the right lens.
Which specifications are essential in a sports photography lens, and which can you live without?
Sport pushes people to extremes. And it’s kind of the same with lenses.
What I mean is, it would be extremely rare for anyone to shoot any kind of sport on a 50mm lens.
For most team and field sports, you’d be left with the subject too small in the frame; whereas for edgier more extreme sports, such as climbing, snowboarding, or parkour, you’ll probably want something that creates a more dynamic perspective.
In practice, then, your standard kit zoom probably isn’t going to be up to the job.
Unfortunately the reality is that any one single lens probably isn’t going to cut it either. Unless of course you go for a zoom (but see the next section for a discussion of their merits vis-a-vis primes).
Depending on the type of sports you photograph, you may need to cover anywhere from between about 100mm through to 600mm and beyond. Quite possibly switching between these extremes quite rapidly.
However, there are many exceptions to this. In fact, although when we think of sports we tend to default to team games or athletics, in reality not all sports are field sports.
And the list of sports that can look great when captured on a wide angle lens is actually pretty extensive.
Basketball, cycling, motocross, skate, surf, ski, snowboarding, mountaineering, parkour; basically any sport where you have the opportunity to get close to the participants.
Of course, you could use a 50mm lens in many of these situations, too.
But the “neutral” perspective of a standard lens lacks the drama created by a wide angle. And with certain sports it can also be an advantage to show a wide expanse of background behind the subject for context.
Having said this, if you choose a lens that is too wide, you’ll need to get so close to the subject that you might end up putting both yourself and others at risk of injury. In most cases then, something around the 28-35mm mark will be the best solution.
Primes vs Zooms
Zooms can certainly be pretty appealing for sports photography. A twist of the barrel and you can follow the action from the far side of a sports field to just a few meters from where you’re standing, without missing a shot.
Traditionally, though, zooms have tended to come with compromises in other areas. Such as image quality and maximum aperture.
True, in recent years we’ve seen an increasing number of zooms come on the market that almost achieve the impossible; combining fast apertures, excellent sharpness, and impressive focal reach in the same lens.
Sadly, though, few of these have been for the Canon RF mount.
With that said, there have been some exceptions. A number of which are listed above. As we’ve already seen, though, certain compromises remain with rf mount lenses.
However, overall, zoom lenses make excellent options for sports photography, and you will definitely want to give them serious consideration when evaluating which lens(es) to buy.
It might at first appear strange to start a section on aperture by instead discussing shutter speed. But that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
The reason for this is that the average sports photographer’s obsession with fast lens aperture simply comes down to trying to achieve the fastest shutter speed possible.
There are very few sports that don’t involve extreme speed – whether that be human-propelled or mechanical. And in order to freeze this action you will need to use a much faster shutter speed than would be sufficient for a static subject.
In practice, then, an extra stop of light coming into the lens means being able to use a doubly fast shutter speed.
That might take you from 1/250 of a second to 1/500. A significant increase in speed that can make all the difference to the final shot in terms of sharpness.
This being the case, if you ask me what a truly “good” sports photography lens looks like, I’ll tell you that is has a fast aperture.
As we’ve just seen above, though, things don’t always work out this way in practice.
For sports photographers, blurred backgrounds are rarely an aesthetic choice so much as they are simply a necessary byproduct of the need to shoot at a fast shutter speed on a telephoto lens.
However, given that background blur is all but unavoidable in this genre, you would do well to check that any lens you are considering purchasing produces good bokeh; i.e. out of focus rendering.
If all your photos will have blurred backgrounds, you’re going to want them to be nicely blurred backgrounds, right?
When considering your priorities for a sport photography lens, the top spot should undoubtedly be shared by focus accuracy and maximum aperture.
It won’t matter how fast your shutter speed is, or how amazing the bokeh or image quality of your lens are, if the focus is off.
Thankfully Canon is well known for the superiority of its AF systems. And none of the lenses reviewed here are likely to let you down on this front.
However, there is some slight variation in performance between the different lenses, with those including the initials USM (Ultra Sonic Motor) in the name often being the top performers in terms of both speed and silence.
So if these criteria are especially important to you – and certainly the former should be – keep on the lookout for those three little letters.
You should also pay particular attention to eye-detect and focus tracking performance, as these features can be remarkably useful in locking on to a subject and keeping it sharply focused as you follow the action.
Image stabilization is an amazing invention. But it only helps to freeze camera movement, not the movement of the subject.
In fact, IS can sometimes interfere with the natural movement of your subject, or even just with the panning motion of your camera. And in sport photography your subject is pretty much always going to be moving.
In short, as sports photographers we should not allow ourselves to be overly influenced by Canon’s marketing; trying to convince us that we all need five stops or more of image stabilization at all times.
Buy a lens with image stabilization by all means, but just keep in mind that you will want to have it switched off while shooting sports.
In some genres of photography image quality is everything. Personally I don’t think that sports photography is one of those genres.
I’m not going to go as far as to say that sports photographers shouldn’t care about image quality.
But I would argue that image quality is a lot less important for sport photography than, say, focal length, maximum aperture, and autofocus.
Get those elements right, and then worry about sharpness and contrast.
A little flare, vignetting, or even some distortion? Let software take care of them.
In any case, all the Canon RF lenses under review here produce excellent results. So you really don’t need to worry about this side of things too much in my opinion.
Sports photographers ask a lot of their lenses. They need exceptionally fast autofocus, wide aperture openings, and typically very, very long focal lengths. These are not easy elements to combine.
Thankfully Canon has risen to the challenge with its RF line, offering an impressive range of sports photography lenses that will satisfy even the most demanding of professionals. The only catch being the price tag.
Still, if you are willing to compromise a little on one of these three criteria, slightly more affordable options are also available.
And if the very top of the Canon RF line is out of your price range, hopefully by reading through my guide to the best Canon RF lenses for sports photography you now have a much better idea of which other options work best for you.