Glass for Hoops

A decently tight shot from last night in Tupelo, Oklahoma, using the 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor.
A decently tight shot from last night in Tupelo, using the 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor.

Alternate title:

Lens Selection for Basketball Action

I shoot a lot of sports, and in winter, I shoot a lot of basketball. Over the years I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at it, and while I am set in some of my ways, I am still flexible in some of my choices, like lens selection. I have four lenses I commonly regard as suitable for basketball action, and pick one based on various factors such as light and work space. I typically carry the “action” lens on one camera and a wide angle on another.

85mm f/1.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 200mm f/2.0, and 180mm f/2.8 Nikkor lenses.
Lenses I commonly use for shooting basketball: 85mm f/1.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 200mm f/2.0, and 180mm f/2.8.
  • The Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 ED-IF AF-S. This is my bread-and-butter lens for basketball, and the one I use the most. I’m not alone; I see various iterations of the 70-200 or 80-200 at most of the games I cover, from tiny high schools to big-time college games. This lens is sharp and quick to focus. It holds its f/2.8 through the entire zoom range. Backgrounds are nice and clean, and since it’s a zoom, it’s very versatile, allowing me to shoot action from about one free throw line to the other when I am working at one of the baselines, and the entire court when I am working from a mid-court position. Disadvantages include the fact that it’s heavy, very expensive, and that sometimes f/2.8 isn’t bright enough.
  • The Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 AF. Often the 85mm is my last choice for basketball because it doesn’t focus very fast and is the least sharp of the bunch, particularly when shooting at apertures bigger than f/2.8, which is the main reason for choosing it. Despite this, this lens can deliver good results at f/2 or so. When working from the baseline, it only reaches to about the three-point line, but most of the action is there. It’s biggest advantage other than a large maximum aperture is that it is lightweight, which matters more to me with each passing year. The 85mm also has the distinct advantage of being much more affordable than the other lenses discussed here, and therefore it is the one I recommend most for people upgrading from a consumer or kit zoom.

    Made last night in Stonewall with my 180mm; shooting this tight gives a sense of intimacy that is lacking with looser images.
    Made last night in Stonewall with my 180mm; shooting this tight gives a sense of intimacy that is lacking with looser images.
  • The Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ED-IF AF. I rarely see this lens, but it has shown up a time or two in the field. The 180mm was the lens of choice in the film days prior to autofocus. The AF 180 feature superb optics even better than the old manual version. I consider this lens the backup for my 80-200mm, in large measure because it is as sharp, as bright, focuses nearly as fast, and is much lighter weight than the zoom. I love the results I get from it, so once in a while I’ll use it just for the variety. That has the advantage of forcing me to shoot everything really tight, since I can’t zoom out when the action comes toward me. I got this one on eBay for a fraction of what I would have paid for an f/2.8 zoom.
  • The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF. This lens is so rare that mine is literally the only one I have ever seen. I don’t use it much because, quite frankly, it is too much work. Not only does it weigh almost six pounds, it is a manual focus lens, and the focus “throw” (the amount you have to turn the focus ring) is huge. The result is that I miss a lot more images, and thus have to shoot a bunch more to get the product I need. When I do “hit” with it (meaning that I get it in focus), the payoff is spectacular, especially at f/2. Of course, why would I even bring this behemoth unless I was going to shoot at f/2? Nikon now makes an autofocus version of this lens, which still weighs about as much and costs about $6000.

You get the idea. Bigger = better most of the time. It also means heavier and more expensive, which makes it like a lot of life’s trade-offs. Once in while (even just an hour before writing this) I’ll see someone shooting basketball with a 50mm lens. I do that once in a while, but for the most part I am doing it to challenge myself, since the 50 is really only enough lens for action very close to you. It’s fun, and with enough patience, a 50mm can deliver. I also see people trying to shoot with a consumer 70-300mm lens, sometimes combined with the pop-up flash on top of the cameras. I know their images must be disappointing at best.

If you shoot indoor sports action like basketball, consider the lenses I recommended today. They are capable of great imaging.

WIth the 85mm, you spend a lot of time waiting for the action to come to you. When it does, like in this moment from last night in Coalgate, this lens is ready to deliver.
WIth the 85mm, you spend a lot of time waiting for the action to come to you. When it does, like in this moment from last night in Coalgate, this lens is ready to deliver.
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2 Comments

  1. “…pick one based on various factors such as light and work space…”

    This is the hardest part to get across to a new photographer. (I remember being that new guy…)

    People ask me all the time: “Is [lens name] the best lens for basketball?” after seeing some of my images. The correct answer, as you’ve indicated, is always: “It depends.”

    I’ll certainly back your statement that f/2.8 isn’t always fast enough for basketball, especially at the high school level. I almost sighed with relief each time I walked into a gym and saw it was well-lit enough to use my 70-200mm f/2.8.

    From your description though, it sounds like the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 isn’t built the same as Canon’s 85mm f/1.8, which has lightning quick focus, and is sharper than many “L” lenses.

    I only mention this last bit for the readers who may be Canon users. The 85mm was my staple for basketball. Yes, you’re limited by distance, and I generally found that the corners were the best place to shoot from with this lens.

    (Canon’s 200mm f/2 is just as rare as Nikon’s, I think, and prohibitively expensive. I’ve never seen one in person.)

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  2. The 85mm Nikkor is a great lens, but it just doesn’t measure up to the other three. At f/2.8, it’s just as sharp as the others, but if I can shoot at f/2.8, I’ll use the 80-200 or the 180. It also has the habit of “hanging,” meaning that it’s time for the focus to move, but it wants to stay put. The zoom absolutely never does that.

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