I have had several questions from people who are considering mirrorless options for sports photography so I put together this post to discuss some of the pros and cons of this decision over the DSLR setups. First, let me disclose that while I do own a mirrorless camera, I use a Canon DSLR and a variety of lenses for my primary photography, including sports. Saying that, I can offer a number of observations as an experienced photographer for those wanting opinions about mirrorless options for sports photography.
In general terms, one of the obvious advantages of the mirrorless cameras is their smaller size and weight. That’s not a small concern as lugging around the heavier equipment all day gets tiring, especially as one gets older. Their image quality and performance have significantly improved to the point that converting to mirrorless is a viable consideration, particularly if you are a landscape or portrait photographer. The autofocus capabilities are very responsive but the professionals that I know are not convinced that, on average, they are as good as the DSLR’s in their camera bag. Note, the very top models (e.g. SONY A9) may have caught up but their prices are as high or higher than the DSLR’s. So, whether the average mirrorless options are as good for sports is a question I cannot definitively answer, particularly indoor sports. I can say that my mirrorless camera’s autofocus system (in terms of tracking a moving subject) is not as good as my DSLR but I also have an older mirrorless camera so today’s cameras are bound to be better.
At present, one of the most obvious disadvantages is cost. Canon recently came out with a great mirrorless option but when I looked at the price of that and it’s accompanying lenses, I was done. It wouldn’t make sense for me financially. I know I can use an adapter to use my ef lenses on the mirrorless camera but if reducing size and weight is the objective, what’s the point?
With those general observations, lets focus on some of the better mirrorless options out there and discuss some of their strengths/weaknesses as they relate to indoor sports photography. I will particularly make my observations as it relates to photographing indoor volleyball games, though the same would be applicable to basketball, hockey, or any other indoor event. Unlike professional indoor venues that are very well lit for television purposes, most will be photographing in gyms with very poor light and this will dictate the need to use fast lenses (f/2.8 or faster) and higher ISO settings (e.g. 3200-6400).
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SONY A7 III
- Full-frame, 24mp sensor
- ISO 100-51,200 range
- 4K video
- Good High ISO performance
- 693 AF (autofocus) points, makes it very responsive so it can track a subject. Users report it locks on a subject but often for a split second so real-world tracking may be useable, but perhaps a bit less reliable.
- Dual card slots (only one is fast so buffering can be an issue if shooting to both simultaneously)
- 10 fps continuous shooting at 24mp for up to 89 images in RAW format. Actual usage closer to 8 per owners of this camera.
- Good battery performance – rated at 710 images on one battery charge (note these are clinical lab tests, user experiences report significantly higher numbers)
- $1200 less than the A7R3
- Good selection of native glass
- 5-axis in camera body stabilization
- Essentially identical to Sony A7III with the following differences
- Better EVF (electronic viewfinder) over the A7III
- 42mp full frame sensor
- More weather sealing than A7III (not an issue indoors but stating an advantage)
- Fewer autofocus points (399)—users report it is not a noticeable difference in real-time shooting
- Shutter – rated at a slightly longer lifespan
- Battery life rated at 610 images on one battery charge
- ISO 100-32000 range
Canon EOS R
- Good all around camera (rumored concerns about performance with longer telephoto lenses, i.e. beyond 300mm)
- 30 mp sensor
- ISO 100-40,000 range (good high ISO performance)
- Up to 8 fps for 47 frames in RAW
- Accurate AF system
- Lacks a joystick to conveniently select AF point
- Single Card Slot
- With Adapter, can use any EF or EF-S lenses (focusing slowed slightly with adapter)
- Fewer native R-mount options
Olympus OMD-E1 Mk II
- 20mp micro 4/3 sensor (2x crop factor)
- Dual card slot (one is faster than other so buffering may be a concern if writing to both cards simultaneously)
- 200-6400 ISO Range (Good High ISO performance)
- 4K video
- 5 axis in-camera body stabilization
- Up to 15 fps at 20 mp. BUT, no continuous AF so anticipating the action becomes paramount
- Low Speed Sequential yields about 10fps WITH continuous AF capability
- Single point AF system is most accurate over entire focusing area
- Battery rated at 400 images. Again, actual usage is significantly improved.
- Full rotating screen
Overall, each of these cameras is a viable option for indoor sports. If I had to choose one and I did not own any other camera system, I would go with the SONY A7III. SONY sensor quality is outstanding and the full frame sensor and native lens choices make it very attractive. As important as the camera bodies are, what matters most is the glass you use. Specifically for indoor volleyball games, the following focal lengths are ideal: 24-70mm and 70-200mm. As mentioned, these need to be fast (at least f/2.8) to get shutter speeds high enough to freeze action in poorly lit gymnasiums. If one photographs from the side (e.g. positioned at the net), the 24-70 lens will be ideal from midcourt to camera. Players on the far court can be photographed but you will likely crop to the desired composition (not a problem with 24mp). From the same position, the 70-200 mm on a full frame sensor will be ideal for everyone on the court except the hitter closest to the photographer. From the end of the court, or from further in the stands in a school gym, the 70-200 is ideal for any of the players on the court. I prefer to be at court level so I tend to position myself near the net. I have photographed entirely with a 50mm lens on a crop camera (essentially an 80mm lens) and taken some spectacular images. I’ve also photographed an entire game with just the 70-200mm lens with the same results. I highly recommend you get the best glass you can. Below are some options that I recommend:
SONY FE 24-70mm f/2.8
SONY FE 70-200mm f/2.8
The two lenses above should cover most any indoor photographic need. There are other options that one could chose that may be more affordable. For example, one could select a faster prime in a desired focal length (e.g. 50mm on crop factor camera or 85mm on a full frame). Alternatively, one might select a 3rd party lens in the desired focal length. Below are a few alternatives worth considering.
Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8
Sony 50mm f/1.8
Sony 85mm f/1.8
There are some excellent f/4 lenses in the Sony lineup that are solid performers; but again, given the poor lighting conditions of most indoor gyms, I do not think these are real options. Using an f/4 lens is going to force one to use high ISO settings in the 6400+ range and this introduces a significant amount of noise to the image. It’s useable and can be cleaned up in post processing but starting off with a cleaner file is best. If one is shooting outdoor sports, then these f/4 options become significant considerations and their f/4 aperture offers a cost savings relative to the more expensive f/2.8 lenses.
Mirrorless cameras–is it their time? For me, not yet. I’m not sure if they ever will be given my significant investment in current Canon glass. I’ve always been intrigued with the Olympus micro 4/3 camera setups and their pro lenses (12-24, 40-150, and 300mm), but at their prices, I am better off simply investing in better glass for my current DSLR. The full frame sensor on the Sony mirrorless cameras has also always been enticing but for me, none of these options make sense. If you are starting out, or if physical conditions dictate that you need a smaller/lighter system, then mirrorless cameras may just be the best option as camera manufacturers seem pretty dedicated in continuing to expand the performance of these camera systems. Their performance today is impressive so look for continued improvements in the years ahead.
I hope this post has been useful. If you want to consider traditional DSLR systems, check out my gear recommendation page for my input on the various Canon cameras and lenses that I use.
Until next time, good light and keep shooting– KEVIN