Best sports DSLRs: 6 tested
10th Oct 2012 | 10:20
The best affordable cameras for action shots
Sports DSLRs explained
Whether it's football, athletics, cricket, tennis, rugby, motor racing, family fun at the local park or something else, there's always some sort of sport to shoot.
Compared with compact cameras and compact system cameras (CSCs), the optical viewfinder of a DSLR gives you a real-time, unadulterated view of the sporting action right through the lens. There's no flickering electronic viewfinder with a finite refresh rate, so panning with a DSLR (to enhance movement) is smooth.
Unlike the vast majority of compact cameras, the manual zoom rings of DSLR lenses make it much faster and easier to set exactly the focal length you want. Under the bonnet, the phase-detection autofocus systems of DSLRs tend to be faster and more accurate than a compact camera's or CSC's contrast-detection system.
This is especially true when tracking people or objects in continuous autofocus mode, and in dull lighting conditions.
What price quality?
We've all seen pro photographers at sporting events, touting a camera and telephoto lens combination that probably costs around £10,000/$13,000. Indeed, the latest fully pro-spec bodies often cost £5,000/$7,000 on their own, so what can you expect for just £500/$650? As it turns out, quite a lot.
If you've got a budget digital SLR that's a few years old, a new budget body is likely to give you much greater image resolution. You can also expect faster image processing, which often helps to deliver a faster continuous shooting rate, which is essential.
Best DSLR: top cameras by price and brand
You'll enjoy better all-round image quality too, especially when it comes to low-noise performance at high ISO settings. For both drive rates and sensitivity, it comes down to speed.
To capture the defining moment in any sporting event, it's often best to shoot a series of images in rapid succession. But just how rapid are these budget DSLRs? The Canon EOS 1100D and Nikon D3100 are the slowest in the group with a maximum drive rate of 3fps (frames per second).
However, the Canon EOS 1100D drops further still, to just 2fps, if you switch to raw quality mode instead of shooting JPEGs. Switch to raw+JPEG mode and the 1100D limps along at a horribly pedestrian 0.8fps.
With a fast memory card, you can expect to keep shooting with most of these cameras at their maximum drive rate for around 100 shots, although the Nikon D3200 slows down after about 40 shots. At least, that's the case if you're shooting in JPEG mode.
In raw mode, you're likely to clog up any of the cameras' internal memory buffers much faster. There's space for five or six raw files in the Canon buffers, and between 13 and 18 in the Nikons'.
The speed of image processing and writing data to the memory card can vary considerably between cameras.
For example, we found that with a fast SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card, the Nikon D3200 has significantly faster write speeds than the D5100, writing a full buffer's worth of raw files to the card in just 15 seconds, compared with the D5100's 25 seconds. That's no mean feat, considering that the D3200's buffer is also larger than that of the D5100.
There are plenty of optically stabilised lenses available for Canon and Nikon DSLRs. That's good news for fending off camera-shake, especially when shooting with a telephoto zoom lens. However, no amount of stabilisation can help you to freeze the action in a sports shot.
The only way to do this is to use a fast shutter speed, which is no problem outdoors on a sunny day. When it's overcast, and even more so in indoor arenas, you'll need to increase the camera's sensitivity to enable fast shutter speeds.
We used to consider ISO 800 film pretty 'fast', but the latest digital SLRs can deliver decent image quality even at super-high sensitivity settings of ISO 3200 and above. This is testament to how far DSLRs have come, and will enable you to shoot in a whole range of challenging situations.
All the cameras here but the Nikon D3100 stretch to ISO 6400 in their standard sensitivity ranges, and all but the Canon EOS 1100D offer extended sensitivity settings equivalent to ISO 12800 (and ISO 25600 for the Nikon D51200).
Image quality tends to look grainy and lacks fine detail at expanded ISO settings, but at least you should be assured of a sharp shot even in very low lighting conditions, which is better than not getting the shot at all.
The bigger picture
Those sensors with a much higher resolution enable you to crop images more tightly and still end up with shots that are big enough for printing. Nikon lists this an advantage of the D3200, with its class-leading 24.2MP sensor.
In practical terms, however, this resolution doesn't enable prints to be made much bigger than, say, the 18MP Canon EOS 550D and 600D. Even so, when you consider that you only need a 3MP image for a full A4 (around US letter) photo print, cropping can often reduce the need to use a longer telephoto lens.
Tight cropping doesn't come without its drawbacks, though. When you're only using a small section of an image, it puts enormous demands on the quality of the lens, especially in terms of sharpness and colour fringing, even though current Nikon DSLRs feature automatic correction for the latter.
Another potential risk of image sensors that have very high resolutions is an increase in image noise, especially when using high ISO settings in low-light conditions. The physical dimensions of the sensor are the same, so higher resolutions demand placing more pixels in the same overall area.
Individual pixels are therefore smaller and gather less light, making image noise more of a problem. When you crop in very tight to use only a small part of the image, noise can be all the more noticeable.
Canon EOS 1100D - £300/$500
The least expensive camera body in this group, the 1100D is actually cheaper than most other bodies on test, even if you include its kit 18-55mm IS lens.
You get quite a lot for your money, with a similar layout of control buttons and dials to the Canon EOS 550D and Canon EOS 600D, along with the same iFCL (intelligent Focus Colour Luminance) metering system, Digic 4 image processor and a nine-point autofocus system.
However, while all three Canon cameras feature a cross-type AF point at the centre, the Canon EOS 1100D's doesn't offer extra sensitivity when using 'fast' lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or larger.
In some respects, the Canon EOS 1100D isn't really a great sporting option. Its maximum drive rate of 3fps is the joint slowest in the group, with the Nikon D3100. Unlike with the Nikon, though, this slows to a very disappointing 2fps if you shoot in raw rather than JPEG mode.
It's also the only camera here that delivers just 720p rather than 1080p (full HD) video resolution. The three-inch LCD screen also has a relatively low 230k-pixel resolution, again in common with the Nikon D3100.
Image quality is similar to that of the Canon EOS 550D and 600D in terms of colour rendition and contrast, as you'd expect from a camera that has the same image processor and auto lighting optimiser.
However, despite also having the same metering system, the Canon EOS 1100D's images are often rather lighter than those from the other Canon cameras and can sometimes look a bit washed out. Resolution is also substantially lower, as the 1100D only has a 12.2MP sensor, compared to the 18MP sensors of the other two Canons in the group.
There are plenty of direct access buttons to enhance responsiveness, but handling is significantly impaired by the unfortunate lack of any textured surfaces on the grip areas. On hot, sunny days when you're shooting with sweaty hands, the Canon EOS 1100D feels positively slippery.
The Canon EOS 1100D tends to produce rather light images, often at the expense of highlight detail and vibrant skies.
Boasting a modest 12.2MP image sensor, the Canon EOS 1100D has the joint lowest resolution score in the group.
Partly due to its lower-resolution sensor, image noise is less noticeable than with the other Canons at high ISOs in low light.
The Canon EOS 1100D gives natural-looking colour rendition, but its tendency towards light exposures can drain saturation.
Image test verdict
Sporting images from the Canon EOS 1100D can look a little insipid, but the camera redeems itself in low light with very good high ISO performance.
Nikon D3100 - £360/$500
The 14.2MP image resolution is respectable enough and, unlike the other Nikon cameras on test, it features a handy lever next to the mode dial which provides quick access to single, continuous, self-timer and quiet drive modes.
Autofocus is based on the same Multi-CAM 1000 sensor module that's used in the D3200 and D5100, and has 11 selectable AF points with a cross-type point at the centre. This can resolve detail in both horizontal and vertical planes, enabling greater accuracy for tricky targets, especially in poor lighting conditions.
Unlike the Canon cameras, all Nikon DSLRs in this group test have an AF illuminator to help with autofocus at close quarters when there's little ambient light. The Canon solution is to fire a flickering and rather annoying pulse of light from the pop-up flash.
Along with all the usual shooting modes, there's a particularly good Guide mode, which acts as an interactive tutor to help beginners get to grips with the ideal shooting settings. This has been further refined on the D3200.
Using a 18-55mm VR kit lens, autofocus is reasonably rapid and very accurate. However, despite featuring an ultrasonic motor, it's no quicker than with the Canon cameras using their kit lenses, which only have a more basic electric motor.
To get any real improvement in autofocus speed, you would need to invest in an up-market lens that has ring-type ultrasonic focus.
Metering is wonderfully consistent, and the D3100 makes a habit of nailing the correct exposure settings in even the trickiest of conditions. The continuous drive rate of 3fps is sluggish, but at least it doesn't slow down even more in raw shooting mode, unlike the 1100D, and the memory buffer has a greater capacity for holding more shots.
Images tend to be brighter than with the other Nikons, but have more contrast than those taken with the Canons. Greens can be overly vivid.
Getting the most out of its 14.2MP sensor, the Nikon D3100 delivers greater image resolution than any of the Canon cameras.
The Nikon D3100 delivers the outright smoothest images in the whole of this group at high ISO settings, but fine detail is often lacking.
Even in its Standard Picture Control setting, colour rendition is very vivid, which can result in images looking over-saturated.
Image test verdict
The almost overly vibrant and very vivid image quality is a good match for sports photography, delivering bright, colourful shots.
Nikon D5100 - £400/$550
The Nikon D3200's 24.2MP image resolution makes the Nikon D5100's 16.2MP look a bit of a poor relation, and the D3200 also equals the D5100's speedy continuous frame rate of 4fps. The D3200's EXPEED image-processing engine is also a generation newer, and it's much faster at clearing raw files through the buffer and into the waiting memory card.
The Nikon D5100 still has plenty to shout about, though, with a number of wide-ranging Custom Functions.
For example, you can choose release-priority or focus-priority when using continuous autofocus. The former will keep firing regardless of autofocus tracking after the first shot, whereas the latter will only take subsequent images if focus-tracking remains locked onto the target.
There's also an exposure delay mode that is particularly useful for avoiding mirror-bounce when a camera and long telephoto lens are mounted on a tripod. It's similarly useful for macro photography, though this is beyond the sports remit. These and many other custom settings are lacking on the Nikon D3100 and Nikon D3200.
Like the other two Nikon cameras in the group, the D5100 has no fewer than four continuous autofocus modes. These are single-point AF, Dynamic-area AF, Auto-area AF and 3D tracking. This gives great flexibility when choosing the ideal mode for shooting a wide range of sports scenarios. And, as with the Canon EOS 600D, you get the joy of a fully articulated LCD screen.
Apart from being a bit sluggish at clearing its internal buffer to a memory card (a complaint we've also levelled at the Nikon D7000), the Nikon D5100's performance is excellent.
Autofocus and metering are accurate and it simply delivers wonderfully vibrant sports images practically every time, even in challenging lighting conditions.
A lot of this is due to the Active D-Lighting system that's also employed on the Nikon D3100 and Nikon D3200. However, as with most other settings, it's more customisable on the Nikon D5100, giving greater control.
With classic Nikon image attributes, outdoor shots from the D5100 are a little darker, but full of vibrancy and rich colour saturation.
The D5100 delivers better image resolution than the 18MP 600D, despite its modest 16.2MP sensor, putting it in second place here.
A good compromise between the D3100 and D3200, high ISO shots look nice and smooth, but with good retention of fine detail.
Slightly darker exposures make for very bold colour rendition, but accuracy is very good and much better than with the D3100.
Image test verdict
Rich, vibrant and well-saturated shots are hallmarks of the D5100, and it also fares very well in low lighting conditions at high ISO settings.
Canon EOS 550D - £440/$400
There's a good deal more resolution on tap here than with the Canon EOS 1100D, as the Canon EOS 550D boasts an 18MP sensor that matches far more advanced cameras in Canon's line-up, like the Canon EOS 60D and Canon EOS 7D.
As with other current Canon DSLRs, iFCL metering is extremely accurate, taking colour and luminance information into account, as well as the focus setting. However, the Nikon cameras also do this, so it's not something that's exclusive to Canon.
What we have noticed is that the Canon DSLRs tend to bias exposure settings much more to the light and colour levels at the active focus point, so you need to be more careful that the active AF point doesn't line up with a particularly light or dark region in the frame.
The memory buffer of the Canon EOS 550D and Canon EOS 600D is a little larger than that of the Canon EOS 1100D, and is able to hold six 18MP raw files instead of just five 12.2MP raw files.
It seems rather strange that Canon's specifications suggest that the Canon EOS 1100D can shoot 830 JPEG images in continuous drive mode before slowing down, whereas the Canon EOS 550D and Canon EOS 600D are only rated at 34 JPEGs.
In our tests, with a fast memory card, none of the Canon cameras featured in this group suffered a slowdown in long sequences of around 100 JPEG shots.
Textured grip areas make for much more assured handheld shooting compared to the 1100D, and image review is aided by an LCD screen that's of far higher resolution and is much less reflective. The 3.7fps maximum drive rate is a step up from the 1100D, but still not quite as quick as the 4fps of the Nikon D3200 and D5100 models.
As with both of the other Canon cameras in this test, images don't tend to look as punchy and vibrant as the ones taken by the Nikon cameras. In addition to this, the Auto Lighting Optimizer is more prone to reducing apparent contrast in pictures, especially when compared with Nikon's Active D-Lighting system.
Images aren't quite as bright as with the Canon EOS 1100D, but they still lack the vibrant punch achieved by the Nikon cameras on test.
Despite having the same 18MP sensor as the Canon EOS 600D, the Canon EOS 550D scores poorly for resolution, coming joint bottom with the Canon EOS 1100D.
Image noise at high ISO settings is much more pronounced than with the Canon EOS 1100D, or the Nikon D3100 and Nikon D5100.
Typical of Canon cameras, colour quality is very true to life. Retention of saturation in highlights is better than with the Canon EOS 1100D.
Image test verdict
Image quality is very natural but, as with the Canon EOS 600D, Canon's Auto Lighting Optimizer can sometimes drain contrast from scenes.
Canon EOS 600D - £500/$550
Best DSLRs for video
For starters, the full Auto (green square) shooting mode is a more intelligent affair that analyses the scene in real time and adjusts camera settings automatically for best results. This feature is new to Canon DSLRs, although Nikon has long used a similar system for analysing scenes and comparing them with a built-in data bank.
Other improvements include in-camera editing that offers some neat tricks like fisheye effect, toy camera, grainy black and white and soft focus.
Basic+ shooting modes, as featured in the 1100D but not the 550D, enable you to adjust the white balance and 'ambience' (like Soft and Intense) when shooting in Basic Zone modes like Sports, Landscape and Portrait. However, of all the new features, our favourite for sports shooting is the pivoting LCD screen.
This innovative LCD makes it much easier to hold the camera high up and shoot over people's heads if you're stuck in a crowd of spectators, or to shoot from really low down for creative effect. The only drawback is that you have to shoot in Live View mode to compose images on the LCD, which brings with it a big reduction in autofocus speed.
Canon has thought out its AI Servo continuous autofocus mode rather cleverly. If you select this mode in conjunction with multi-point autofocus (AF), for example, the 600D uses only the centre AF point to achieve initial autofocus.
However, if the target strays to other areas of the frame, alternative AF points are utilised to track its movement. The system works well in practice, and is also featured on Canon's 1100D and 550D cameras.
As far as image quality, autofocus speed, continuous drive rate and metering accuracy are concerned, there's really nothing to choose between the 550D and 600D.
There's practically no difference in outdoor performance compared with the 550D, although this test shot is marginally lighter.
A step up from the 1100D and 550D, image resolution is still only equal to the 14.2MP Nikon D3100 and slightly lower than the other two Nikons.
There's no obvious difference in high-ISO image noise between the 600D and 550D, both cameras performing well under low lighting.
The 600D produces images with greater saturation than the 550D. As a result the images tend to be more pleasing straight from the camera.
Image test verdict
Lab tests revealed better resolution and colour than with the 550D, but in other respects image quality is very similar with the two cameras.
Nikon D3200 - £500/$650
After lagging behind Canon for quite a while in the resolution stakes, Nikon has struck back at the professional end with its 36.3MP Nikon D800, and down at the budget end with the 24.2MP Nikon D3200.
Naturally, there are many of us who don't think a £500/$650 camera body has a particularly 'budget' price tag, but the Nikon D3200 is still very new, and we'd expect the street price to drop right below that of the Nikon D5100 once the novelty has worn off a bit.
So what's actually new here? As well as having nearly twice the image resolution of the Nikon D3100, the Guide shooting mode is bigger and better, with more choices and smarter pictorial illustrations of all the salient points. These features are very good news for beginners.
For sporty shooters, there's faster EXPEED 3 image processing, whereas the Nikon D3100 and Nikon D5100 have the previous generation EXPEED 2. Processing and write speeds from the internal buffer to the memory card are also considerably quicker than with the other two cameras.
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Those who like to shoot video of sports action as well as stills will be pleased by the addition of an external microphone socket, which was lacking on the Nikon D3100.
Back in stills mode, there's a jump from the D3100's 3fps to 4fps in continuous drive mode. The LCD is also boosted from 230k to 921k dots, matching the Nikon D5100's resolution, but lacking its pivot facility.
The first casualty of increased sensor resolution is often high ISO performance, with images taking on a grainy appearance or lacking fine detail. The Nikon D3200 does well to limit the damage, producing crisp, clean images all the way up to ISO 3200, while still delivering usable results at its highest ISO settings.
Some of the Nikon D5100's little luxuries are lacking, like an exposure delay shooting mode (to avoid mirror bounce) and a feast of Custom Functions, but it's clear that the Nikon D3200 is definitely a major step up from the Nikon D3100.
Punchy, vivid and not quite as bright as with the Nikon D3100, outdoor quality is actually very similar to that of the up-market Nikon D7000.
Helped by its 24.2MP sensor, the Nikon D3200 rules the roost for image resolution, but you'll need a high- quality lens to make the most of it.
In low lighting conditions at high ISO settings, the Nikon D3200 produces slightly grainier-looking images than other cameras, but fine detail is retained.
There's very little to choose between the Nikon D3200 and the Nikon D5100, and colour accuracy is very good in both cases.
Image test verdict
The Nikon D3200 gives punchy image quality that's more natural-looking than the Nikon D3100. Image noise at high ISO settings is more noticeable though.
Verdict: best sports DSLR
In a fiercely fought match, the Nikon D5100 is our group test grand-slam champion. The Nikon D5100 is a great camera for sports photography on a tight budget.
The Multi-CAM 1000 autofocus system is fast and highly accurate, while light metering is virtually foolproof. This combination delivers consistently sharp and well-exposed shots when you're trying to keep up with the action and don't have time to fuss about with camera settings.
The Nikon D5100 also has the joint fastest continuous drive rate in the group, at 4fps. This is matched by the Nikon D3200 but, with the newer camera's ultra-high 24.2MP image sensor, the Nikon D3200 is more prone to slowing down in long sequences.
The extra resolution also demands top-quality lenses for the sharpest results and Nikon's 18-55mm VR kit lens doesn't do the camera justice.
In addition to a host of custom settings, the Nikon D5100's pivoting LCD enables easy shooting from over other spectators' heads in a crowd, or from low angles for an unusual perspective.
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The Canon EOS 600D also features a very handy pivoting LCD and is an excellent choice for shooting different types of sporting action. Like the Canon EOS 550D, it almost matches the Nikon D5100 and Nikon D3200 for continuous shooting, with a frame rate of 3.7fps.
However, the relatively small buffer in these two Canon cameras only enables continuous shooting for six shots in raw quality mode.
In addition to this, sports images from the Canon models often lack the punchy vibrancy of those from the Nikon cameras.