Basketball Photography with the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM?

A couple of months ago at WPPI, as I stood around in the Sony exhibit chatting with some other photographers about the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM lens we were using, someone said “This lens focuses so fast, I wonder what it would be like to shoot sports with it?” You’d have to be a little crazy to do it, I thought: the depth of field would be terribly shallow, and the focal length isn’t really ideal for any sport (too short for football, too long for basketball) … but of course, the f/1.8 aperture would provide a nice amount of light and background separation.

When the lens arrived in the mail, the thought was still lingering in the back of my mind, so I decided to give it a shot.

Girls basketball is probably the ideal sport to test a lens. There’s plenty of quick action, and the lighting is invariably awful. Even when a tournament is being played on multiple courts at a large venue, the girls tend to get stuck out on the smaller, darker ones.

So, a week ago, I shot a game at the Boys & Girls Club in Tacoma, on the second court (not the one that local hero Isaiah Thomas built for the club). The light wasn’t as terrible as some; shooting with an f/2.8 lens, my exposure was 1/1000th second at ISO 6400. With the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM wide open, though, I shot at 1/1600th or 1/2000th and ISO4000. Those exposures are not supposed to be equivalent, but the 135mm’s higher light transmission made them much closer than I’d have expected.

And the Sony GM’s speed was great, as it turned out. Even when players were only a few paces away from me, it tracked their faces and kept them sharp (more reliably than I could manage to keep their faces in the frame, that tight). But it wasn’t just that the AF mechanism was fast, it was also that the lens was responsive. When I changed from one player to another, the Sony grabbed focus immediately (unlike the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 ART lens, which sometimes just seemed to sit there and do nothing for a moment before getting started again. More on that in an upcoming video).

I shot the next game with the Sigma equivalent in Sony E-mount, and I also got plenty of decent shots. The autofocus was slower than the Sony but still fast enough, generally. The problem that I ran into with the Sigma was only that it wasn’t responsive enough; sometimes it seemed to just give up, and focus wouldn’t update focus or even hunt for focus.

Basketball player shooting the ball
Matthew Gore | Light And Matter Shot with the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 ART.

Conclusion: Would I Shoot Sports With the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM Lens?

I certainly would use the Sony 135mm if it were the best focal length for the job. I typically shoot basketball from under the basket on the weak-side of the key with a 24-70 or 28-75mm f/2.8 lens and a 70-200 f/2.8 lens. The wider lens is great for capturing full-body action in the paint and layups, and if I needed more light than an f/2.8 lens can give me, I’d opt for a 35mm f/1.4 instead, probably.

Matthew Gore | Light And Matter Shot with the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8, at 28mm, but slightly cropped to about what you’d expect from a 35mm lens.

However, for those shots where I’d normally use the 70-200mm lens, the 135mm f/1.8 is a surprisingly good alternative. Unless I’m using a super-telephoto, I generally will use zoom lenses if I can for shooting sports. The flexibility is just too important to give up, especially when shooting at high ISO and I want to avoid cropping as much as possible (since it makes noise so much more prominent).

Ultimately, I wouldn’t buy the lens to shoot sports… but if I were in the market for a good portrait lens, the fact that I could also use it to shoot action or events would give me a good firm push in the direction of the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM lens.

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