Photographing Sports (Part III – the light)

Photographing Sports (Part III – the light)

The camera settings you use for photographing sports are pretty straightforward.  You want to use the fastest shutter speed at the most acceptable ISO possible. That said, your gear (and the light you have to work with) is likely going to dictate what that speed can be.

I think of the conditions under which I’m photographing sports in the terms of what kind of light comes from those conditions. If you’re concerned about “the conditions” being rain or snow, buy a coat for yourself and for your camera something like this.

When outdoors I (obviously?) opt to have my back to the sun within reason. If it’s a night game (or indoors) the lights are usually evenly spread so I look for the best background (like full stands) and try to position myself accordingly.

When you’re photographing sports, the slowest shutter speed you should consider is 1/500 of a second. This speed will freeze most action to a point that is acceptable. Your shots won’t always be super crisp and you’ll encounter a little blur with ball and hand movement but again, it’s acceptable. If you shoot at slower speeds you’ll get lucky from time to time and sometimes you’ll even get the cool effect of lots of blur with just the subjects face “sharp”, but the slower your shutter speed, the less lucky you’ll be.

Jam at 1/500

Jam at 1/500, note the lack of sharpness on the ball.

Outside in bright sun you should have no problem achieving much faster than 1/500 regardless of the lens you have. In thick overcast skies or indoors with crappy poor light it’s another story.

So here’s the catch with photographing sports, if you don’t have a fast lens or really good light you’re bound to get crappy “substandard” photos. Lets say you’re using this 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens, (I’m not knocking it, I have one on the shelf in my office.)  The two best things about this glass are the long zoom length and the low retail cost, but with everything there is a trade-off. Your trade-off for that low price and nice length is the relatively “slow” (and) variable aperture.  Racked at 75mm you have a maximum aperture of f/4.0, but as you zoom your way to 300mm you drop to f/5.6. Under less than optimal lighting conditions these are challenging apertures to work with so you have to compensate with cranking up your ISO. 

So let’s recap a little. You’re in a dark high school gym and you want to freeze the action of a volleyball game. We’re aiming for a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 and standing right by the court we can settle for shooting at 75mm (with the above lens) at f/4.0. What ISO you’re using will depend on what the school decided to spend on lighting the gym. If you’re (really really) lucky you’ll be at 2000. More likely you’ll have to push to 3200 or 6400. This is where the technology of your camera’s sensor will come in, how grainy will your images be? The higher the quality of your sensor the better (less grainy) those images will be.

With all this said, eventually you’re going to consider using a flash. Don’t. Just don’t. I’m sorry for even bringing it up. Seriously, it’s a bad bad idea.

This article has 5 comments

  1. […] an aside, I recommend you use your lens fastest largest aperture setting whether you’re in a dark gym or bright sun. The separation of your subject and its background […]

  2. I would imagine similar setting should be used for photographing active kids! Can you recommend a consumer-grade digital camera that can to a decent job of this? Thanks!

    • The camera market has evolved to a point where the lines between consumer, “prosumer”, and professional models have thoroughly blurred. When suggesting a camera I sort of break it down in two ways… What’s your budget and how serious do you think you are about becoming more advanced? In an effort to cover both those bases I’ll suggest the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, it’s a phenomenal “low end” consumer option. You’ll be able to capture those kids with no problem.

  3. What about Wide Angle lenses?
    What do you recommend for settings in indoor light for that kind of lens; varying focal lengths.

    • Wide angle lens are fun, especially fish eyes. I’d say the settings should be the same. The only catch with a lens that isn’t intended for sports is that it may not be able to (auto) focus fast enough. You may actually have better results manually focusing. It’s kind of like driving a standard transmission, it takes a while to learn, can be lots of fun, but can get tiresome quickly (think of driving in bumper to bumper traffic.)

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