The Best Camera System for Action Photography
Action photography requires more from of your camera system than what the base-model DSLR body and kit lens can do. In fact, action photography typically requires some of the fastest-focusing, high-frame-rate cameras available on the market today. I explored some of the latest gear* to decide whether one camera system was better than another for action photography.
A Complete Camera System for Action Photography
If you decide that action photography is for you, be it adventure sports, car racing, or something as exotic as aviation, you will need to begin with a camera manufacturer that offers up a complete camera system.
There are times when shooting action could demand a super wide angle view, like a fisheye, or even a super-telephoto lens, like a 600mm, to bring your viewer directly into what you are shooting.
You need a camera body that shoots frame rates above 7 FPS. You may need the ability to add flash into the mix. Before you buy anything, rent gear from Borrowlenses to determine whether a specific product will work for you.
For this review, I picked brands that offer great overall camera systems. I’ll call out specific features that I feel are important for the action photographer. Canon, Sony, Fuji, and Leica were my test systems. I pit the Canon 1D X Mark II, Sony a7 III, Fuji X-H1, and Leica SL against each other.
I left Nikon out because their system is very similar to what Canon offers. They also use Sony sensors. So if you like bigger DSLR bodies, but hate Canon and also don’t care for the mirrorless cameras from Sony, then Nikon might be your answer.
The Importance of Speed for Action Photography
[su_frame]Maverick: “I feel the need …”
Goose: “… the need for speed!”
– Top Gun[/su_frame]
I know you are immediately going to question my leaving out the Sony a9 with its insane frame rate of 20 FPS. Here’s the deal, though: unless you are photographing humming birds drag racing, 20 FPS is only going to make you work twice as hard when culling and editing your shots. Think about 4K video shot at 24 FPS. Do you want to essentially edit individual video frames for your still captures? I don’t.
If I am so against a 20 FPS camera for action, what am I willing to accept? Every camera I tested shoots 10 FPS or faster. That is a more than ample frame rate for any photographer. You’ll easily capture an action sequence that tells your viewer a story showing movement.
The “slowest” body of the list is the Sony a7 III at 10 FPS. After that, it’s the Leica SL at 11 FPS. The Canon 1D X Mark II and Fuji X-H1 shoot at 14 FPS. Spoiler alert: the Fuji X-H1 is going to surprise you.
Weight is More than Just a Number
Weight shouldn’t be considered on its own. There are a few other things to consider when using weight to help you narrow down your choices. One, how strong are you? If you are a brutal gym rat who bench presses twice your body weight, a few pounds in camera weight isn’t going to matter to you. However, you need to consider the distance you are going to carry that weight.
If you are shooting car racing or football, you only typically need to carry your gear from the parking lot to the area of the event where you will be stationed. If you are like me, you’re taking a camera system on a 20 mile mountain bike ride with an athlete who is going to kick your ass. You really want your camera to weigh less than some futuristic space-age material they put on the Space Shuttle.
The other thing to think about is that more weight usually means more volume. That volume needs a larger pack. A larger pack adds even more weight. If that larger pack is also bulkier, then you have to think about how your 20 mile mountain bike ride will be when your elbows keep bumping into your pack while going over obstacles.
By this measure, Canon is the loser on all accounts. Their system is massive (see handling below) and it tips the scales at a whopping 11.1 pounds. Fuji wins at a meager 7.6 pounds. But for compactness, Sony wins.
Canon 1D X Mark II and Lenses for Action Photography
Leica SL (Typ 601) and Lenses for Action Photography
Leica SL Camera: 895 Grams
Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16-35mm f/3.5-4.5 Lens: 990 Grams
Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Lens: 1170 Grams
APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 Lens: 1710 Grams
Total: 4765 Grams
Sony a7 III and Lenses for Action Photography
Fuji X-H1 and Lenses for Action Photography
While most camera manufacturers dust-seal their pro level bodies today, if you are shooting action, you also need durability.
Leica wins hands down here. Their system is bombproof and the craftsmanship tolerances destroy the other three manufacturers. Everything Leica makes is metal, there is little-to-no plastic in any of the construction for the SL body and lenses. Leica focus and zoom rings are fluid and smooth. They feel like butter as you rotate through the ranges. The body is milled out of two pieces of aluminum and everything is sealed as tight as a submarine.
Canon definitely takes second place with their build quality of the 1D X II. As a Canon photographer for 15 years, I think many of Canon’s lenses lack the quality of their upper-end camera bodies though. Despite that, they have taken my abuse pretty astoundingly over the course of 15 years.
Sony’s lenses feel smoother and tighter than Canon’s but I think I would break their body into pieces on my 20 mile mountain bike ride.
Fuji loses here. I just don’t feel that their camera and lenses are that well made. The lenses feel loose when zooming and focusing. The lenses also feel like there is a substantial plastic component involved.
Controls and How They Feel In-Hand
If you are a big-handed, 6’2” monster like me, then you are probably going to struggle with the controls on the Sony a7 III and Fuji X-H1. I tested the Fuji X-T2 last fall and missed the camera control buttons during almost every photo that I took. The buttons were either too close to each other or too flat to even feel them. Fuji has definitely taken that into account with the new X-H1, making it more comfortable for hands like mind to find control buttons while shooting. Still, not using a Sony or Fuji on a regular basis, I feel they are a bit small. Perhaps over time I’d get used to it.
While buttons might be an issue, dials are another subject. Fuji and Sony incorporate old-school dials from film cameras of yesteryear. This definitely helps and I do find them easier to use than scrolling through menus and pressing buttons on the Canon 1D X II.
If you’re fine with buttons, Canon is the king of the button. They put more buttons on a camera body than any other manufacturer. The Canon 1D X II is quite possibly the largest pro DSLR on the market, so the buttons have tons of room. The 1D X II body feels big even by my big-hand standards. I think Sasquatch could use it! My 13 year old daughter hated how big and heavy it was. Keep this mind when deciding on a system.
The Leica SL body is the happy medium here. Its profile is bigger than the Fuji or Sony but still significantly smaller than the 1D X II (and probably most pro-body DSLRs). The SL also symbolizes the epitome of simplistic modern European design. I love that the back buttons have multiple functions: touch for one function, touch and hold to activate another. While I would love to tell you what button does what on the Leica SL, you actually get to program most of them to your own liking.
Yes, all of the cameras here have programmable buttons, but Leica takes it to a higher level. They don’t even mark the controls on the camera body. All four bodies have touchscreen functionality as well, so those used to smartphone-style navigation will be comfortable in that sense with any of these systems.
What if you could have a pro camera system for under $6,000? Well, you can. The Fuji X-H1 system with a 10-24mm, a 16-55mm, and a 100-400mm lens is only $5,996.00. That is 14 FPS at 24MP with a great collection of versatile lenses for less than $6K!
A Sony a7 III system is a close second. Body, 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lenses will run you $8,892.00.
A similar Canon 1D X II system is $10,896.00.
The Leica SL system with the 16-35mm f/3.5-4.5, 24-90 f/2.8-4, and 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lenses will cost you the price of a new small car – $22,835.00!
Why so much? Probably because Leica builds a fraction of the number of cameras the other manufacturers do and there is a build quality to their cameras and lenses you just don’t get with Sony, Canon, Fuji, and Nikon. There is also simply branding that some feel is worth paying for.
I couldn’t talk about mirrorless without mentioning the viewfinders. For someone coming from a DSLR, mirrorless is going to be a bit of a change. When you look through the viewfinder of the Canon 1D X II you see reality. When you look through the Sony, Fuji, or Leica you see a TV screen image of reality. Mirrorless will probably drive you crazy in low light. The screens display a lot of noise. There is a lag to some of them and most of them have a pretty pixelated view.
What I personally cannot believe is that Sony has the lowest resolution viewfinder in the mirrorless pro camera market at this point. I would think that since they produce TVs they would have the best resolution of them all!
However, the Fuji X-H1 and Leica SL boast 3.69 and 4.4 million dot viewfinders, respectively. The Sony a7 III and Sony’s entire line all have 2.36 million dot viewfinders. This means that the resolution you see of the natural world is somewhat pixelated. While you wouldn’t think this would matter that much, it definitely does when you are trying to manually focus.
One thing that mirrorless camera manufactures are producing over the DSLR market is more autofocus points within the sensor area. The Canon 1D X II has 61 autofocus points that only cover a portion of the viewfinder area. Whereas the Sony a7 III has 693 points across the entire viewfinder. The Leica SL has 49 autofocus fields that contain 529 autofocus points. The Fuji X-H1 comes in third with 325 selectable points. The mirrorless systems give you a lot more area to place a focusable subject in your frame.
The photo industry seems to have found a sweet spot for sensors. The Leica, Sony, and Fuji in this test all shoot a 24MP image file. The Canon shoots a 20MP file.
The Sony, Leica, and Canon are full frame sensors, meaning the lens’ focal length matches a 35mm film camera. The Fuji X-H1 uses a 1.5x cropped sensor. That is also why their lens’ focal lengths are so different when compared to the other manufacturers in this test. Learn more about the difference full frame vs APS-C cropped frame sensors have on filed of view and lens focal length in New DSLR Owners: What You Must Know About Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens.
Here is one other interesting point of note. The Leica shoots a non-proprietary DNG RAW, while Sony, Canon, and Fuji all shoot a proprietary RAW file. So when you import Leica RAWs into Lightroom, there is a lot of automatic functionality going on with lens corrections and automatic noise adjustments. As a photographer shooting Leica, you will actually get some automation from a computer!
I just wanted to mention video, even though I barely ever use it. All these cameras shoot 4K video at 24 FPS. However, the Canon 1D X II needs to have a CFast memory card in order to do so. That’s more expense. None of the other manufacturers’ bodies need anything but a nominally fast SD card and pressing the video record button.
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner
So what’s the best camera for action photography? That is a decision you will have to make for yourself. I firmly believe that any of these four manufacturers produce a system worth investing in (as well as Nikon, being very similar to Canon in build, quality, and price point). Any one of these cameras is producing quality images at most higher ISOs as well.
If money is an issue, you should go with the Fuji X-H1. If size is something you need to consider, then Sony is the winner. If product quality is what you are looking for then Leica will blow you away.
What I Chose for Myself After this Comparison
Welcome to the craziest thing that I have ever done. I switched from Canon to Leica.
I have tried all of these cameras many times in many situations. The Leica SL produces a file that reminds me of my days shooting film. It doesn’t look like a digital file to me and the lenses produce the nicest bokeh of any lens I have ever used. In the coming weeks, I will be writing an article on my Pro Journal blog discussing all of the reasons why I chose Leica over all of the mainstream brands.
Until then, know that my second choice was Sony. And I believe that the Sony a7 III is the best camera in the world for its price point. Here are the 4 cameras compared side-by-side:
[table id=action-camera-review /]
*At the time of this writing.
**At the time of this writing. Prices subject to change.