Nov 9, 2020 | Sports

Why You Want To Use a DSLR or Mirrorless to Photograph Your Athlete’s Games



football game

To get the very best quality, as well as get better shots, you need to invest in a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

If you want to get the best quality images of your athlete, you are probably going to want to step up to a larger camera with interchangeable lenses.  If your athlete is in a sport where you can get close, say poolside for a swimming athlete, your cell phone can do nicely.  If distance is your enemy, you will need more power.

The biggest advantage is more optical zoom

I’m not going to bury the lead on this one.  If you are having to get your images from a distance away, you are going to need big glass to do it.  Cell phones take great photos and from within about twenty feet your images can be spectacular.  This works great if you can get close enough.

If your child plays on a field, especially a football field, you are going to need glass to get acceptable imagery.  You could take some photos with your iPhone and tell everyone which ant-looking figure is yours, or put some glass on it.  Digital zoom is an option, but usually not a very good one.  Digital zoom will get you closer, but the image quality suffers.  Read my article about optical vs digital zoom here.

The sensor in a DSLR is much, much bigger

There will be times that your camera phone might take better photos in low-light situations.  Through the power of computational photography, cell phones like the iPhone 11 Pro can seamlessly merge multiple exposures together to make an image in low light turn out spectacularly.  This, however, does not always work out well for action photos where the subjects are moving and in different places in each of those multiple exposures

Image Sensor Size Chart
The iPhone 11 Pro has a sensor size of 1/2.5″ while a Canon 90D uses the APS-C sensor.

When dealing with low-light situations, generally speaking, a larger sensor will capture more light than a smaller sensor.  There is just more area on a larger sensor being exposed to light.  The sensor on even a modest Canon T7 is still almost twenty times larger than your camera phone and that CanonT7 does not have the largest image sensor around, not by far.  Ten times the light gathering ability is tough to compete with and I’ll explain why in the next section.

More sensitivity to light

That 24 megapixel DSLR might have twice the megapixels of your cell phone camera, but those pixels are five times the size on the DSLR image sensor.  That doesn’t mean that the image from the DSLR with the larger pixels on the image sensor will look pixelated.  

Quite the contrary, since the pixels on the DSLR image sensor are larger, they have a greater opportunity to be struck by a sufficient quantity of light photons.  A greater quantity of photons hitting the image sensor means that the sensor has more data to work with to determine the luminance and hue of that (and every other) pixel in the image.  

On the other hand, the image sensor on a typical cell phone is much smaller than on a DSLR camera.  Therefore the pixels on the image sensor are much smaller than on a DSLR camera.  Logically it follows that a smaller pixel size means that less light photons might be able to fall onto each pixel in the smaller sensor in a low light scene.  Less light photons mean less information for the image sensor to work with and more noise in the image.

In well lit scenes, either camera will work well.  On a well-lit day there will be plenty of light for large or small pixels to gather data with.  It is in low-light situations where the image sensor size will become more obvious.  Low light scenes are one of the times that the size of the image sensor makes a big difference.  Even some DSLR or mirrorless cameras might struggle during night games if the field is not very well-lit.

Faster shutter speeds and more flexible controls

Most people will take photos with their cell phone camera with auto settings.  Many cell phone cameras don’t have manual controls or, if they do, have limited functionality.  Typically cell phone cameras don’t have adjustable apertures in their lenses so the user will be left with only shutter speed and ISO sensitivity to work with.

A DSLR camera will have an auto mode for sure, that’s what most people will work with.  A DSLR camera will also have full access to the camera’s aperture settings, shutter speed settings as well as ISO sensitivity.  All of those will be able to be modified by the photographer to suit whatever specific need is encountered.

If you want to freeze the action in a sports shot, but still show a slight amount of motion blur in the image to convey motion, the photographer can pick the shutter speed for that.  If you want to isolate the subject from the background, essentially blurring the background while the subject remains in focus, the photographer can adjust the aperture setting on the camera.  Need a little more light sensitivity to make the image work and not be as dark, adjust the ISO sensitivity to compensate.

All of these settings have been manipulated by photographers for decades to produce higher quality images.  Also settings are very, and seem to get better each year – especially with smartphones.  Being able to take over and manually expose the image, while reliant on experience and technique, can produce far superior images.

Ability to separate the subject from the background

As touched on above, the ability to separate the subject from the background is much easier with a DSLR camera.  With a DSLR camera, the photographer will use a combination of settings to separate the subject and blur out the background.  A selection of focal length (zoom), aperture size along with the size of the image sensor in the camera itself (bigger is better) will produce the “bokeh” or blurred background.  

The background being slightly blurred causes the viewer to naturally focus on the subject, which would have a razor sharp focus.  This technique is a hallmark of professional photographers.  It is not terribly difficult to produce images with nice bokeh, you just have to know how.

Most cell phone cameras had lenses with fixed focal lengths, fixed apertures and small sensor sizes.  There is very little working in the cell phone camera’s favor when working to create bokeh.  Recently, computational photography has come to the rescue with “portrait mode” on some cellular cameras allowing the camera to guess where the subject is and artificially blur the background.  

The process has become quite good in recent years, but remember it is still a scientific guess as to what the subject is and it only works at specific distances, it will not work at distances typical of action sports photography.  Since the cell phone is still guessing, it makes mistakes.  With a DSLR and proper settings, there is no guessing what the subject is.  Physics dictates what is in focus and what is bokeh.  It’s predictable, it’s repeatable and it’s what the pros do.


While using an iPhone or other cellular phone is certainly enough to take photos of your child at some events, at others it will fall short.  Those with children playing sports on a field may wish to look at a consumer or prosumer level DSLR or mirrorless camera and big enough glass to get close to the action.  

Digital zoom is NOT advisable to use in place of optical glass.  The quality difference is readily apparent, especially at the higher digital zoom ranges.  There simply is no substitute for quality optical glass.  See my article on optical versus digital zoom here.

You definitely do not need professional gear to photograph your young athlete’s games, but there is a good chance your cell phone won’t cut it on the field.  Whatever gear you decide to go with, make sure you have enough optical zoom to get in close enough and a large enough sensor to work in low light situations.

Thank you for reading, please leave a comment below and leave a suggestion at the link above.  Until next time, go take some pictures!



Ralph is an avid photographer in his spare time. He spends a lot of his photography time shooting sports photos of his daughter, who plays softball and swims. He also has a keen interest in mobile photography.


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