The Best Camera System for Action Photography

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

Maverick: “I feel the need …”
Goose: “… the need for speed!”
– Top Gun

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.

Any Canon pro body is going to be big but the 1D X II is particularly large. This system is ideal for arena or track sports where you are mainly in 1 spot using a monopod for support. It may also be a good setup for birding if you’re not hiking in too far. It may be too heavy and bulky for folks participating in the action or who backpack into remote spots.

Canon 1D X Mark II and Lenses for Action Photography

1D X Mark II Camera: 1530 Grams
16-35mm f/2.8L III Lens: 875 Grams
24-70mm f/2.8L II Lens: 890 Grams
100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Lens: 1745 Grams
Total: 5040 Grams

Lenses are a big sleeker on the Leica set but because of the rugged materials, they are not particularly lightweight.

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 is surprisingly not the lightest of these setups. Part of this is because their GM glass rivals Canon and Nikon’s in size. But for the lengths you get, this is the most compact higher-end system.

Sony a7 III and Lenses for Action Photography

Sony a7 III Camera: 655 Grams
16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens: 785 Grams
24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens: 975 Grams
100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens: 1625 Grams
Total: 4040 Grams

Fuji uses lighter materials, which saves on both bulk and weight. But the less robust build might keep some sports shooters away.

Fuji X-H1 and Lenses for Action Photography

Fuji X-H1 Camera: 680 Grams
10-24mm f/4 R OIS Lens: 470 Grams
16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR Lens: 725 Grams
100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens: 1585 Grams
Total: 3460 Grams

Build Quality

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.

This will give you a sense for how difficult it may be for you to hand-hold each system for long periods of time. The Fuji is the slightest but the Sony is the sleekest.

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.

Price

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.

Viewfinders

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.

Autofocus

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 Canon 1D-X Mark II, Leica SL, and Sony a7 III have full frame sensors. This will provide a qualitative difference in light sensitivity, bokeh, and field of view. Keep this in mind when choosing your next new camera. This portrait was taken with the Canon 1D X Mark II at ISO 400, f/4, and 1/2000th of a second with the 70-200mm f/4L IS II lens, which is smaller and easier to handle than the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II or 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II.

Image Resolution

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.

Taken with the Sony a7 III at 24mm, ISO 3200, 1/125th of a second, and f/16 on a 24-105mm f/4 G OSS lens (file optimized for web – for a better view, click here). Choosing between full frame and crop frame cameras requires you to think about the kinds of scenes you like to shoot. If you’re very interested in vistas and wide expanses, having the full field of view offered with full frame cameras is important. If you’re more about wildlife and getting extra perceived “reach”, crop frame might be better suited.

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!

For more on the capabilities of the 1D X Mark II, including rolling shutter, AF, and more, see my Sony a9 vs Canon 1D X Mark II for Action and Adventure Shooting post.

Video

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.

Fuji produces color-accurate, beautiful results. At ISO 1600, the imagery is clean. Taken at 1/550th of a second and f/9 with the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS lens.

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.

To me, the transition from the extreme highlights to the extreme shadows looks more natural and lifelike with the Leica SL. Taken at ISO 1600 with little-to-no noise, 1/25th of a second at f/22. Focal length is 24mm and you can see little-to-no distortion.

Another example of where the Leica really shines in transitioning well between extreme highlights and shadows in the same scene.

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:

 Canon 1D X Mark IISony a7 IIILeica SLFuji X-H1
Sensor21.5MP Full Frame CMOS (5472 x 3648px) 25.3MP Full Frame CMOS (6000 x 4000px)24MP Full Frame CMOS (6000 x 4000px)24.3MP APS-C CMOS (6000 x 4000px)
Shooting Speed (at Full Resolution)14 FPS10 FPS11 FPS14 FPS
Video Recording4096 x 2160p up to 59.94 FPS, 800 Mb/s3840 x 2160p up to 29.97 FPS, 100 Mb/s4096 × 2160p up to 24 FPS, 100 Mb/s4096 x 2160p up to 24 FPS, 200 Mb/s
ISO Range (Extended)50-409,60050-204,80050-50,000100-51,200
AF Points61 (Phase, 41 Cross-Type)693 (Phase), 425 (Contrast)49 (Contrast)325 (Hybrid)
LCD3.2" Touchscreen3" Tilting Touchscreen2.95" Touchscreen3" Tilting Touchscreen
ViewfinderPentaprism, 100% Coverage5" 2,359,000px EVF, 100% Coverage.66" 4,400,000px EVF, 100% Coverage.5" 3,690,000px EVF, 100% Coverage
Ports3.5mm Headphone, 3.5mm Microphone, HDMI C, USB 3.03.5mm Headphone, 3.5mm Microphone, HDMI D, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB-C3.5mm Headphone, 3.5mm Microphone, HDMI A, USB 3.02.5mm Sub-Mini, HDMI D, USB 3.0
Size/Weight6.2 x 6.6 x 3.3", 3.37 lbs5 x 3.8 x 2.9", 1.43 lbs5.8 x 4.1 x 1.5", 1.86 lbs5.5 x 3.8 x 3.4", 1.48 lbs
7 Day Rental Price**$326$118N/A$110

*At the time of this writing.

**At the time of this writing. Prices subject to change.

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Jay Goodrich

Jay Goodrich is a professional photographer and author living in Jackson, Wyoming. His goal is to help people capture unique photos from any location around the globe. For more info visit his website.

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