There is no one general rule in sport, even less so regarding the focal length, the choice of which is dictated by many different factors.
Take Artistic Gymnastics, for example: the gymnasts compete at the same time as one another. This forces the photographer to choose a position that gives him a view of the whole competition floor and enables him to follow five different gymnasts on five different pieces of apparatus, with exposures sometimes even with two f-stops difference and different shutter speeds needed.
In such cases, a 200mm – 400mm zoom lens would be the best lens to use, due to its relatively fast aperture and flexibility.
Same sport, Gymnastics, different discipline, Team Rhythmic Gymnastics. A 200mm or 400mm may end up being too narrow. The five gymnasts in the team, along with the apparatus they perform on, require a shorter lens, unless you are happy to settle with pictures taken only at the beginning and end of the competition, when the gymnasts are gathered together in static poses, which are more easily done.
You must also consider the applicable regulations: in the UK, many stadiums are structured in such a way as not to allow use of the ends of the pitch during national championships, these positions being guaranteed only in FIFA-UEFA competitions, during which the first three rows of seats, usually allocated to spectators, are set aside for photographers. This is why a 400mm from the pitch side and a remote camera under the goal are essential.
Sports photography generally also means that you would require a type of accreditation. The same event but two different accreditations can mean totally contrasting viewpoints. In Cycling, the best images are taken mainly from a motorbike or scooter: minimal lens, usually a 70-200mm and a wide-angle lens with a 300mm in the side bags for the finish. It’s the total opposite in Skiing, where you need a 600 or 800mm, essential for the long distances purely for reasons of security and safety, in positions allocated only to a select circle of photographers.
Today, Tennis and Swimming have a great ally: the fantastic 200-400mm zoom.
Swimming also has its underwater world which is often achieved using dedicated radio or remote controlled sliders to move cameras equipped with a 14mm-24mm short zoom lens or similar along the bottom of the pool.
The MotoGP and Formula 1 are captured primarily by a 500-600m, due to the escape roads that have distanced photographers ever further from the track over the years, and by a 70-200mm and wide-angle lens for working in the pits.
Basketball involves a remote camera from above the hoop with a 24-70mm, whilst a 200mm fixed wide aperture lens comes in handy from the court side. Volleyball, I would use a 300mm as a basic lens from the court and a 400mm from the stands. Fencing requires a 70-200mm from the side and a 400mm from the ends, whilst in Boxing you shoot from below the ring with a 24-70mm and again with a 400mm from the stands, relative to the distance.
In Rugby, a 500mm and 600mm are the basic requirements. For sports that take place in the sea, such as regattas, it’s the photographer’s mode of transportation that determines the focal length: a large part of the work is carried out from a boat or a dinghy, although some shoot from a helicopter. With a 200-400mm, it is possible to cover both positions.
Camera lenses are constantly evolving and the big brands Canon and Nikon are producing dynamic examples that allow you to do pretty much everything. In order to carry less weight around and cover a wide range of disciplines, the 200-400mm and 80-400mm (though the latter is low-luminosity for indoors) are definitely the best lenses to suit all your needs. Every discipline has its own world of different distances, lighting, atmospheres and timing.
Certainly, in the world of sports photography, the telephoto lens rules, though an ultra wide-angle lens in the right position can produce some great results.
This is the case with remote cameras placed behind the goal in football or in aquatic sports where, as I mentioned above, you can get amazing effects thanks to remote controlled, or robotised, cameras, mounted on rails or set up in strategic points in the pool. This type of intervention allows photographs to be taken from critical positions, such as from ski posts, the sea or pool bottom or from the catwalk in indoor sports venues. But managing remote cameras in water requires serious expertise and is the prerogative of few, excellent photographers. In the past few years, big photography brands have invested heavily in robotic techniques that create images of great visual impact, many of which are winning international awards. Therefore, anyone interested in sports photography should consider knowledge of remote camera technology an essential part of professional preparation.
In extreme sports, such as Parachuting, Surfing or Deltaplaning, an increasing number of images are taken using GoPro cameras attached to helmets, boards or worn on the wrist, and the results, despite not always being taken by professionals, are often successful because they are unusual.
Added to these new techniques is a new and increasingly powerful generation of sports photographers armed with drones able to offer totally new viewpoints. It’s not hard to imagine how much market demand there is for images taken vertically on a football pitch for example, or in surfing or sailing. The response to this will be provided by the current regulations of the various countries and by the pressure to keep abreast with a continuously and rapidly evolving demand.
And I forgot to mention: in Rally Car racing, it’s best to take two cameras with you and never change your lenses to prevent your sensor being dirtied by sand and dust – the same goes for salt residue when you’re at sea. I could go on forever; let me know what you like and I will tell you how to do it.