I’m going to start this off by saying that obviously, among the four cameras I shot the game with, the Nikon D4s would “win”. How could it not? At $6,500, it’s the best that money can buy for sports/action photography on the Nikon side. It’s what this great body is designed for. In fact, it can handle anything. It’s at the top of the food chain.
That said, this real world shootout was designed to see how each of these cameras would perform on their own merits in the hands of someone who knows how to get the most out of each of them.
As a career photojournalist (aka newspaper photographer) I’ve shot a lot of sports. A LOT of sports. And in the worst conditions. We photojournalists refer to high school gyms as “caves and dungeons” because lighting isn’t exactly a priority for schools. Clearly. They’re horrid. So, as sensor technology progresses and cameras makers give us cleaner, higher ISOs, those of us shooting high school sports will be increasingly happier.
Most of my Associated Press journalism awards are for my sports photography. Of everything I’ve shot, sports is what I do best. Which is interesting considering I’m not a huge sports fan. Maybe that’s actually an asset.
Since a basketball game has four periods and I had four camera bodies on me, I decided to shoot one camera per period and see how it went. I definitely have a clear thoughts on how each camera handled shooting high school basketball.
Westlake High School, Saratoga Springs, Utah USA
On to the shootout…
Nikon D4s – 1st period
I don’t think anyone will at all be surprised that Nikon’s flagship, $6,500 pro body, is the clear winner. Shocker right?!!! It’s partly what this great beast of a camera is designed for. It just doesn’t get any better on the Nikon side of things.
The D4s’ autofocus is awesome. It’s fast, it’s accurate and it did a wonderful job of locking on to a player and maintaining that focus. I could count on the D4s to mostly take AF out of the equation when it came to being concerned about whether or not I’d have issues with focus. It just gets the job done and you have a high degree of confidence in this.
The number of “keepers” I got from the period I shot with the D4s and the awesome Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Sport lens (which I used exclusively on all the Nikons) were significantly higher than with any of the other cameras. While the Nikon D750 has great autofocus, at 6.5 fps it just can’t keep up with the 12 fps the D4s can do. And while I’m not at all a “spray and pray” shooter, having 12 fps to throw at some quick moving action in a short period of time simply can’t be beat.
For indoor sports in dim environments, the Nikon D4s, if you have the budget for one, is going to be a great choice. While a luxury, it’s a luxury which really delivers. If you know how to shoot with it, the Nikon D4s is going to be the right tool for the job.
Nikon D750 – 2nd period
The D750 is a joy to use. Granted, it’s not the amazingly capable beast that the D4s is, but it gets the job done. I shot it in Continuous High mode and chose to use the center AF point. With basketball, things are moving so quickly that this is usually the way to go. There’s no time to focus and recompose. I shot all the cameras this way actually.
Among the reasons why we picked the D750 as our “DSLR of the Year 2014” is its incredible autofocus. It’s astoundingly accurate. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than most cameras? Heck yeah it is! You can be reasonably confident that a large percentage of your photos will be in focus with this camera. Nikon really knocked it out of the park when it comes to the AF in this very capable body.
With a great autofocus system in the D750, the keeper rate was pretty high. It locked on and usually kept up with me as the players made their away about the court. With 6.5 fps to work with, I had quite a bit to chose from when the action was high and I decided to throw more frames at the action.
The D750 is a shockingly good camera at this price point. It borrows its autofocus from its bigger brothers and that gives it huge marks. While a D4s would be nice, and you could certainly make use of the additional 5.5 fps the D4s has over this body, you could certainly get the job done with the Nikon D750. I feel quite comfortable recommending this great body for indoor sports.
Nikon D700 – 3rd period
I’ve had my D700 since December 2008 and love this camera. I know it inside and out. I know its strengths and its weaknesses. Despite being more than six years old as I write this, it’s an incredibly capable camera and holds up very well.
Being a more than six year old camera, the autofocus is obviously not up to today’s standards. That said, the AF on the D700 has always been really nice. I did notice situations in which the D700 struggled where the D4s and even the D750 likely wouldn’t have had a problem, but it wasn’t a massive issue. Noticeable, but I didn’t feel like it was huge.
The keeper rate was very nice. The D700 can do 5 fps without the vertical/battery grip attached and 8 fps with it. I shot it at 8 fps of course and that, along with decent AF, made for a really nice keeper rate.
Shooting with my aging D700 reminded me how great this camera is and how well it handles indoor sports. While the autofocus isn’t as accurate as in a more modern body, it’s quite capable in helping to deliver a high number of sharp images. If you don’t need to shoot video and want to save some money, the D700 continues to be an excellent choice.
Sony a6000 – 4th period
If you’ve been following this site and/or my podcasts, you know how much I love the Sony a6000. For a $550 USD camera, it’s incredibly capable…when you have a decent amount of light. Shooting high school basketball really showed me the limitations that still exist in these little mirrorless cameras .
The Sony a6000’s AF is touted as being the fastest in the world and while it is certainly incredibly fast, I wouldn’t say it was the most accurate. The gym I shot in was amongst the brightest I shoot in so it wasn’t a lack of light that was the issue. It’s the same lighting the other three cameras were shot in. So it’s interesting that it had a problem maintaining focus. I didn’t find this to be a problem at all when I shot an entire high school football championship game with this little camera. For that article, click here.
The keeper rate, as you might have gathered by the above, was not as good as the DSLRs. I suspect that while the a6000 is able to handle the more predictable motion of a football player, the quicker more unpredictable movements of a basketball player is a bit outside its reach. But remember, this is a $550 camera and I got enough shots to make it work. It just wasn’t as ideal as even my more than six year old Nikon D700.
While I love the Sony a6000 and think it’s an amazing camera (especially for being only $550), it’s not particularly well-suited for indoor sports and this was in a very bright gym. At 11 fps it’s easy to hit the buffer and have to wait to take more photos. While not a deal breaker, having to wait for all photos to write to the card before you can review them is frustrating. Indoor sports is not its strong suit. As of this writing, a DSLR is going to be the better choice.
Winner: Nikon D4s
This wasn’t at all a fair fight and we knew this going in. The D4s is a beast of a camera. It’s the best Nikon that money can buy for this type of shooting. If you watch the Super Bowl or any large sporting event, when you see a Nikon, it’s the flagship body and that’s the D4s at the moment. It’s not a tiny mirrorless camera. It’s not even a D750. It’s the best of the best. But for those of us who are photographing our kids in youth sports, shooting high school games for a newspaper or website, etc., any one of these cameras can get the job done…even a $550 mirrorless camera in capable hands.
It’s a great time to be a photographer.