You haven't yet saved any bookmarks. To bookmark a post, just click .

  • Taking it to the Limit with the Nikon D5: Meeting the Challenges of Sports Photography

  • Not only is sports photography one of the most competitive genres, it’s also one of the most challenging. We talk to three Nikon pro sports photographers at the top of their game to find out why they demand so much from their D5 and if mirrorless is an option for them yet.


    Whether it’s rain, hail, sleet or snow, the games go on and sports photographers are in the thick of it. They’re constantly travelling, and when shooting major events, they’re lugging long lenses around all day in extremes of heat and cold, between venues that are often miles apart.  Physical challenges apart, there are practical ones. When they get to the venue, they’re potentially dealing with anything from artificial light, to shadow or sunshine – or a combination of all three. And the choice of shooting position is rare on large events, so the biggest challenge is to take a better shot than everyone else sharing the same viewpoint.


    Snowboarding, sports photography
    Nikon D5 + AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED | 38mm | f/5 | 1/3200 s | ISO 400 © Joel Marklund / Bildbyrån


    Nikon Ambassador, Joel Marklund, from Sweden, is a veteran of international tennis tournaments, swimming and football championships, and the Olympics. Joel tells us his first priority is a camera that he can trust, and the D5 delivers. “Of course the camera needs to be fast and reliable, the AF needs to be on top of everything, and I need to be able to know it’s going to work in all weather conditions – from desert to arctic conditions, it needs to work in every moment. It can’t let me down. The D5 is built that way. It’s going to work in all conditions.”


    But even when you’ve nailed the variables of the location, the athletes’ particular quirks are also thrown into the mix. Joel is known for his meticulous research, and it allows him to envision the type of image he wants to create. “All sports have their own difficulties, but also a lot of similarities. Whatever you’re covering, you need to know the sport and the athletes. You need to know how they behave and what their personalities are. If you watch Serena Williams in tennis, you can see how she builds up a momentum and then finally there’s a roar that comes out of her. There’s a lot of research. I know most of it from following athletes over the years, but when there’s a new name coming up, I’ll watch on YouTube to see what they do. There are always clips on people and how they react.”


    Reflecting on the low-light challenges he faces constantly in his work, Joel said, “The D5 has pushed the boundaries on low-light photography. I can shoot a lot of situations now, where before if you shot it, it wouldn’t look as good, because it had a lot of grain. So you can shoot at higher settings – what you ideally want – in bad lighting. Combined with better AF, you will still nail that shot in that setting.”


    Of course impeccable autofocus is high on his list of priorities. When asked for his go-to feature on the D5, Joel told us, “The AF is so reliable, and I’ve started using lenses like the AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED. I can use a portrait lens and shoot sport. It’s amazing that it’s so accurate, and gives this really beautiful background. Combine the AF with quality lenses and you can create good-looking images that are still sharp at the right places.”


    And the long battery life of the D5 is ideal for Joel’s style of photography too. “I rarely use up a battery during the whole day. Most of the time at events, I can even go multiple days, which is quite incredible.”


    Joel has been shooting with Nikon’s  Z series mirrorless cameras, but for the moment it’s the D5 that has the leading edge for him. “I’ve used the Z series for feature shots and the files look amazing, plus the possibility to have lighter lenses is exciting. I think the future of mirrorless is very interesting and exciting, but overall the technology isn’t really there yet for sports photographers. There’s no pro model yet by Nikon or any other brand that is capable of my workflow, and until there’s a pro model I’m not going to switch to mirrorless. Right now, for what I’m doing, the D5 is the go-to camera.”


    Athletics, sports photography, pole vault
    Nikon D5 + AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR | 95mm | f/4 | 1/200 s | ISO 160 © Matthias Hangst / Getty Images


    Getty Images’ Chief Photographer – Sports, Matthias Hangst, shoots a wide range of sports, editorial and commercial work, while also managing photographers. “There are all different sports I’m involved in but most of them mean travelling, major events, and global events, but the daily business is in Germany and football coverage. Not just editorial, but also commercial work. I’m not just going out to get a decent set of pictures for our media clients. Getty Images is the official photographic partner to over 80 of the world’s leading sports governing bodies, leagues, and clubs, so I also spend a lot of time working exclusively for the federations, the clubs, and the leagues. I’m shooting football as normal, but I get special access to dressing rooms, the tunnels, special positions on the field, and the materials exclusively shot for the client, which we call commercial work or paid assignment work.”


    Constantly changing light conditions are major challenges in Matthias’ work, pushing the D5’s exceptional low-light capability on a daily basis. “Shooting in arenas means that you cover football under artificial light or under tricky light conditions. Because these modern arenas accommodate between 50-70,000 spectators, they’re really high and some of them have a roof over the pitch, so you could see sun, shadow and artificial light in one match. The D5’s improved low-light performance gives me another third or two thirds of shutter speed. In football it’s all about freezing action, freezing the moment. So if I can shoot at 1/1600 or 1/2000 of a second I would get more out of the game than shooting on 1/1000 second, which means I can go higher with my ISO – with the same performance and same quality of pictures – and use a faster shutter speed, which gives me more pictures in the end, and better pictures.”


    But ultimately, Matthias – like any other seasoned pro – doesn’t want to focus on the camera, he wants to focus on getting the shot. “I want to use it as a tool, and that’s the great thing about the D5. I came to a point where I didn’t need to think about it. I’m just using it like I’m driving a car without thinking. These days I’ve reached a level with the D5, where I just pick it up, it’s customised, it’s all there.”


    Matthias sees potential for mirrorless, but only when there’s a robust pro model that can support his workflow. The D5 remains his camera of choice. “It’s all about connectivity. It’s an extremely important thing for us. I’ve played around with different models, testing them and trying them out. At the moment, it’s not working for me in the world of sports. And I’m a big fan of seeing real. I don’t want to have the feeling of even a minimal delay. I need to see what’s going on. That gives me the opportunity to trigger in a split second. These challenges need to be sorted. At the moment, with the D5, there is no reason for me to pick up a mirrorless in my daily business.”


    Tennis, sports photography, Wimbledon
    Nikon D5 + AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR | 165mm| f/2.8 | 1/4000 s | ISO 400 © Andy Hooper / Daily Mail


    Andy Hooper is Chief Sports Photographer for the Daily Mail and MailOnline, shooting 50/50 live sports and feature work. He covers all sports in the UK, including horseracing, cricket, tennis and a bit of golf, but mainly Premiership football and one-to-one features. Andy shares similar frustrations with arena lighting issues, although he sees that UK venue lighting is improving. “It is better, but it’s still a challenge, because you want the nicest, brightest, crisp, colourful image you can get. Lighting’s your biggest challenge, then the arena backgrounds, and your shooting position. You only have certain positions, so you want to try and get the best one or you’ve got to work within the one you’ve got.”


    Having won Sports Photographer Of The Year six times, Andy is adept at capturing the exact evocative moment in sport. “You can wait all day for a split second or something to happen, like on a court in tennis. Or you can photograph a volley or a backhand or a forehand all day long but you really want some dive that makes that game unique – and then there’s the picture of that game, and that might only last for a second out of a whole match. It’s about speed and continuous shooting. You need a dependable, fast camera like the D5 to do that.”


    But in the highly-paced world of sports photography, it’s always going to come down to who gets their pictures in first. And that’s where the D5’s connectivity really comes into play for Andy. “The whole workflow is something we couldn’t do before. The D5’s touch screen has really helped, being able to input and change the captions fairly quickly. It’s a sort of generic caption, but you can change it every five minutes if you want to. And the speed of transmission is vastly improved, so when I’m using wireless and LAN at events, if their Wi-Fi® isn’t working on one network, I can change to a second network quite quickly. MailOnline is one of the world’s biggest news websites, so there are rolling deadlines. If I send a picture in ten seconds after someone else, they’ll use someone else’s. I want my picture in, so I do everything I can.”


    Working on both a daily newspaper and its online version means Andy has double demands on how he produces images. “We do send live very quickly and then we edit and send to the newspaper afterwards. It’s at the same time, but in two different ways. We get them out quickly, then decide on the main pictures and caption those. There are editors on events like Wimbledon, but on a football match there aren’t, so we do it ourselves. Connectivity on the D5 has allowed us to bypass the editing side of it, which is streamlining the workflow. I have to go through my stuff at the end of the day, but it’s quicker than it used to be. That’s really important for live sport photographers. The Nikon D5’s great – the touch screen is really good, and quickens things up a lot.”


    Even when he’s shooting portraits of sportsmen and sportswomen, the D5 will often be Andy’s camera of choice. “In a recent project, they wanted to keep the action but take portraits. I thought I’d use the D850 for the bigger file size, but I ended up using the D5 because it’s so much quicker. You don’t miss anything. With the lower frame rate in the D850 you might miss a frame in between.”


    The potential of mirrorless for sports photography isn’t quite there yet for Andy either. “Obviously the lightness of the camera is a massive advantage, but it’s a disadvantage with a long lens. They haven’t quite got the balance right yet. We’re nearly there, but probably a generation away.”


    Finally, Andy has a vital insight into sports portraiture for aspiring photographers, harking back to the greatest need for sports photographers – to be so comfortable with the camera they can forget about it and focus on capturing the moment. “I always say when talking to young photographers, that they don’t communicate with their subject because they’re looking through the camera. There are about twenty different things in there that you’re trying to organise, plus your lights, and then you don’t talk to the person that you’re photographing. You have to talk to the person. The D5 lets you talk to your subject because you don’t have quite so many things to worry about.”


    To learn more about the capabilities of Nikon’s D5, visit: