Key Tips For Night Sports Photography & Processing

Anyone who has ever tried their hand at Photography  for a night High School football game or any indoor sporting event in the past knows that the challenges presented are many. Night Sports Photography (Or low light Indoor Sports Photography) can be and is very challenging. The light is not what we would consider “good light.”  When low lighting situations present themselves to us in non action shooting situations, the remedy is pretty simple: Slow down your shutter speed, use a tripod, add lighting, etc. With sports photography, those fixes just won’t work. It is imperative to capture the action with the best exposure possible. How can this be accomplished? Below are some tips and techniques along with general information that will help you freeze the fast moving world of sports when the lighting isn’t optimal.

Equipment Needs

We often hear in the world of digital photography that it isn’t the equipment but rather the photographer that makes the image.  There is a whole lot of truth to this statement but up to a point. There are many types of photography where the camera and lenses are not the most important thing. When shooting low ISO images with decent lenses and plenty of light available, the difference between a really expensive professional camera and an entry level DSLR aren’t very noticeable.

You don't need the best equipment to shoot sports like these two brand new beauties but having a camera body that can produce good images at higher ISO settings is a MUST!

You don’t need the best equipment to shoot sports like these two brand new beauties but having a camera body that can produce good images at higher ISO settings is a MUST!

The sensor is not being pushed allowing for clean, noise free images. There isn’t a need for a “fast lens” since there is plenty of light and this means the requirement for expensive glass isn’t a factor either. But what about Sports or low light action photography? This is where it becomes a whole new world.

Pictured above are the two new flagship cameras from Nikon and Canon. You can click HERE for the Nikon D5 and HERE for the Canon 1Dx MII.

Camera Sensors

Today’s modern digital sensors are amazing in what they can do. Just a few short years ago it was unheard of to shoot a camera at an ISO over 1,600. Today we can shoot at ISO ranges of 20,000 and beyond and get useable images. However, this does come with a price increase and you will need a camera that is a little bit better than an entry level model if you really want to get these low light, fast moving type images.

Sensor quality is a big factor in low light, high ISO shooting. Here is an enthusiast level Nikon D750 vs an entry level D3200 at ISO 6400. The D750 is much cleaner and capable of making good images where with the D3200 you are really pushing the files to the point where they fall apart.

Sensor quality is a big factor in low light, high ISO shooting. Here is an enthusiast level Nikon D750 vs an entry level D3200 at ISO 6400. The D750 is much cleaner and capable of making good images where with the D3200 you are really pushing the files to the point where they fall apart.

You certainly don’t need a Canon 1DX Mark II or a Nikon D5  but shooting a night high school football game with a Nikon D3200 (or any brand entry level camera) and kit lenses just isn’t going to yield results that you desire.

Lenses

This is, as usual, the most important part of getting good images and sports are no different. You have probably heard that a “FAST LENS” is the sought after piece of gear needed for properly capturing fast action sports. What does that mean?? It is rather simple when you stop and think about the Exposure Triangle – the three factors that determine exposure with your camera. Aperture is the “EYE” of the lens or light hole that allows in a little or a lot of light. The wider the aperture (i.e. Smaller number such as f1.8) the more light comes in and this allows for faster shutter speeds hence the “FAST LENS” term. Also, when there is more light coming in, your digital sensor’s ISO can be at a lower value which will produce cleaner shots.

This Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM II is a BEAST of a lens and it is seen in the bags of many top pro shooters. At about $10,000, it isn't going to be seen by many other than those who earn a living shooting sports and wildlife.

This Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM II is a BEAST of a lens and it is seen in the bags of many top pro shooters. At about $10,000, it isn’t going to be seen by many other than those who earn a living shooting sports and wildlife. A 70-200 f2.8 will yield great shots but you will have to crop many of them to get closer to the action. Remember, shooting during the day will allow you to get away with using much less expensive gear so if that is a concern, day shooting may be the way to get going with sports photography.

Generally it is a good idea to have a lens with an aperture of f2.8 or larger (Again, larger means smaller number!!). For example, Nikon has a 200-500mm (LINK) f5.6 lens that has a zoom range that many would find great for sports and wildlife. There is a big catch here, however. Since it is a f5.6 lens, it is not a good choice for low light shooting. An f2.8 lens will let in 4 times the amount of light that a 5.6 lens will and that is EVERYTHING!

F2.8 vs Smaller

When shooting at any aperture, your camera and lens are taking in all the light and metering information with the lens wide open – we will use 2.8 in this example. This means the focusing speed and accuracy of an f2.8 lens vs an f5.6 is like night and day. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. You are letting in 4x the amount of light at f2.8 vs f5.6.

This is the lens I have used to shoot night football and indoor basketball. While it is too short at 200mm for some of the action, it is more than capable of getting fast action shots in challenging lighting conditions.

This is the lens I have used to shoot night football and indoor basketball. At 200mm you may miss some of the close up action if it is far away from you, it is more than capable of getting fast action shots in challenging lighting conditions.

I know I am repeating that here but it is of such importance that it must be repeated. When you have a running back running toward you, the AF speed will be the difference between you getting the shot or not and that’s pretty much all that matters.

HIGH ISO VS REALLY HIGH ISO

Considering many images are shot at ISO values of 8,000 and up in these low light situations, that would mean an image shot at 1/800th of a second at f2.8 ISO 8,000 would be the same as shooting at ISO 32,000 if trying to keep the shutter speed the same with an f5.6 lens!! And 1/800th is often not fast enough as 1/1000th is usually what you want to be shooting at for sports! And this isn’t even considering the impossible task of trying to focus in the dark with a maximum aperture of f5.6. In other words, that lens and lenses like it simply are not useable for night shooting.

Depending on the sport or event, a 70-200mm f2.8 lens is probably going to be good for many images but not all. A fast f2.8 lens with a range bewteen 300-400 is perfect for things such as Football and Basketball but they come with a hefty price tag.  A 70-200mm f2.8 is more than ok to use but you will have to crop down on many shots in post and this will lead to loss of resolution.

Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction

Many lenses today and even some camera bodies have vibration control built in to help eliminate vibration or movements caused by the camera. When shooting at shutter speeds of 1/800th and up, this is of little or no concern since the shutter is opening and closing so fast that any motion made by the photographer is negated. Also, using the “1 over focal length rule” means if you’re shooting at 200mm with a 1/800th Shutter Speed, VR, IS, VC – whatever you want to call it, is totally useless.  Motion blur and camera shake are two totally opposite things and they should not be confused. Having the Vibration Control (IS, VR, etc) on is actually only going to cause you to drain battery quicker so avoid it when shooting sports. It will do NOTHING to help you capture fast moving sports.

Monopod

One thing worth mentioning here is the use of a monopod. Now you may be thinking “If I am shooting such fast action with fast shutter speeds, why do I need a Monopod??” The simple answer is WEIGHT. Shooting a heavy f2.8 lens such as a 70-200 for a couple of hours can become annoyingly heavy. Mounting your lens collar right to the monopod (or head) will allow you to keep the lens anchored to the ground and keeps the weight out of your hands.

Second Camera

This is certainly not a needed item but it helps greatly!! If you have two decent camera bodies that are both good performers at higher ISO values, attaching a long lens to one and a more wide angle type lens to the other gives you great flexibility on the sidelines as the action approaches you or moves away. For example, with a 70-200mm at a football game, as the play develops and the players start heading your way, it’s great to be able to put your longer lens to the side and grab the shorter lens/camera combo that is around your neck and begin shooting. It is no accident that every photographer  you see on the TV each Sunday during NFL games has two cameras ready to go at all times. The new Nikon D500 is a crop body with amazing low light capability. Putting a 70-200mm on that body with the Nikon 1.5x crop will give you more reach with an effective focal length of 105-300mm which is a pretty good jump.

Settings

The settings for shooting will vary depending on the light present  but it is best to shoot wide open to allow the most light in on the sensor. This also helps separate the player from distracting background elements. This would mean shooting at f2.8 on many lenses such as a 70-200.

Your shutter speed should be at or around 1/1000th of a second or as fast as possible in order to freeze the action. If you have your Shutter at 1/1250th at f2.8 and the ISO is at a range that you know you can use, great. The faster shutter speed the better. But you must keep an eye on the exposure or you can use a real handy helper and that is AUTO ISO.

This is simply taken right off the back of my LCD as far as settings go. Auto Focus set to continuous is a must (AI Servo). Using back button focus is also very helpful. If your camera has adjustment regarding how quickly it will refocus when there is sudden loss of focus (example here being a Swimmers water splash causing AF to change) try adjusting that to suit your needs.

This is simply taken right off the back of my LCD as far as settings go. Auto Focus set to continuous is a must (AI Servo). Using back button focus is also very helpful. If your camera has adjustment regarding how quickly it will refocus when there is sudden loss of focus (example here being a Swimmers water splash causing AF to change) try adjusting that to suit your needs.

This way you will always have a proper exposure and not have to keep worrying about the ISO. Most cameras that have AUTO ISO allow you to set upper limits so the camera doesn’t go too high and produce images that simply aren’t useable.

Use The ISO range

Many photographers are very concerned about shooting with the ISO at a very high level. You need to find out what is good and what is not good with your particular camera in terms of ISO limits. Camera manufacturers have native ISO limits listed with their different models and also extended ISO limits. The extended ranges CAN be used but you will have much more noise on the higher end. Just because a camera says it can shoot at 3,000,000 ISO doesn’t mean those images are at all useable so don’t fall for this marketing gimmick. Useable ISO is what is important here.

Simple White Balance Tip

A very quick and easy way to get the WB very close to what it should be at an indoor basketball game or a football game is to use the Kelvin White Balance setting in your image. How do you know where to set it? Use live view and look at your LCD. Adjust the Kelvin setting until you see on the screen what you see in real life. Bingo. You’re set and the WB will remain the same throughout your shooting. There won’t be any fluctuations and this makes post processing much more simple. There is a caveat however. This is assuming the light isn’t changing. An indoor sporting event and night football game where the game starts under the lights when it’s totally dark out and ends that way will be great for using the above set-it-and-forget-it method.

If you are shooting a football game and it’s still fairly bright out, the ambient light will be changing during the game so be aware of this. Shooting AUTO is a real headache in these situations as your WB will be all over the place and setting it later in post is a real pain. To have images with WB the same across the board – EVEN IF WRONG – is so much more simple than fixing each image one by one.

Now I would like to talk a little bit about actually shooting the games…

Techniques For Capturing The Action

Get Low

If you’re on the field or basketball court, getting low is essential to capturing great images. Think about it. Watch an NBA game. Watch an NFL game. In basketball all the photographers are on the court sitting or kneeling. NFL? Same thing. Most of them are on the sidelines or at rear of endzone and often they are down low or on a knee. This gives a perspective that is different than what we normally see since we are always upright. It allows more of the action to be placed within the frame also – ground up.

Stay Ahead of The Action

Knowing the sport that you are shooting helps out immensely. For example, if I were to shoot a field hockey game, the images would probably not be so good as I have very little idea what goes on in the game of Field Hockey.

In a football game, stay in front of the action and shoot at the team on offence as they come toward you. Shooting away from the action just doesn’t make sense. Unless you’re trying to get lucky and shoot an interception return (I actually got lucky and did this), there isn’t going to be much action if you are behind the offense in a football game.

Staying ahead of the action will allow you to get facial expressions and the eyes of the players. They always tell the story!

Staying ahead of the action will allow you to get facial expressions and the eyes of the players. They always tell the story!

If you can, try to get a list of the better players as they tend to get the ball more often and that will be where the center of action usually is. During basketball games, keep your non camera eye on the top scorers and their “go to”  players so you’re ready to get that shot once they get the ball. With the fast shooting allowed with digital cameras, don’t be afraid to shoot, shoot and shoot some more.

Be Aware Of Surroundings

Just because the action on the field or court is what everyone is watching, there may be some action off the field that is every bit as interesting. A coach can have facial or body expressions during the game that can be priceless. Don’t miss it!! A concerned parent in the stands could also be very interesting to capture. The Cheerleaders are part of the whole experience too and they would love to be photographed and part of the action. Don’t forget them. After the team has scored a touchdown or a player has hit a huge shot in a basketball game, the teams may celebrate with lots of excitement. Make sure you get that as those are some of the best shots possible.

Try not to “CHIMP” (looking at LCD) during the event. This can help save you from getting injured and even more important is the fact that you might miss a very key shot! (kidding – safety First!!)  Don’t let that happen – keep your head on the action. Looking at the LCD isn’t going to help anything. Once you have your exposure correct, the LCD can pretty much be ignored.

Processing Images

Cleaning up noise in post is essential when shooting at ISO ranges that push your sensor.

Cleaning up noise in post is essential when shooting at ISO ranges that push your sensor.

Now that you have an SD card or two filled up with all these images, what’s next? Processing them of course and this is either the fun part or the part you hate. Some people don’t like processing images while others love it. It is something that must be done so just accept it and do your best. If you don’t like processing your images, it is amazing how well the JPEG files come from the camera and sometimes, that’s just fine and good enough! Personally I shoot a Nikon D750 and it has dual SD card slots. Shooting one set to RAW (slot one) and the other set to HIGH quality JPEG gives the option of full control over RAW edits or to just use the JPEGs. With a Fine Quality JPEG, a quick crop and maybe some contrast adjustments are all that are needed for some pretty nice results.

Cull & Crop

If you’re using an application such as lightroom, you are going to have lots and lots of images to go through. Culling images is the process of picking and choosing the keepers and the non keepers. Make sure to do this in the LIBRARY module to help quicken the process. There are many ways of doing this. You may like the simple system I use:

  • Import all images
  • While holding the shift key in Lightroom, I will press “X” to mark as rejected or “P” as a flagged pick. LR will move to the next image when shift is held down
  • Once thru, I will filter the images so that only the “Picked” images now show
  • I’ll pick them using shift key again but this time use either a 1 or 2 as a rating.
  • Again I filter out the 1’s and use only the 2’s going forward and begin editing them.
  • If I use VIRTUAL copy, I use a RED color label so I can quickly see it is a copy

There are tons of ways to cull your images. That’s just something that is simple and works in my head. Develop your own and stick with it. You need to be organized. Drifting aimlessly through 1,000 images is a sure way to lose focus and drive yourself mad.

Develop Mode Tips

Cropping the images is usually the first thing you should do. Try to keep the aspect ratio the same and use standard size ratios because this will make it much easier if someone wants a print down the road. Standard size prints are easy to deal with while odd sized images are simply a pain.

Use the basic composition rules here. Try not to cut off feet at the edge of the image. Getting eyes in on the action is always interesting. Remember in Lightroom to toggle between portrait orientation and landscape in the crop overlay by hitting the “X” key and you can hit “O” for different overlay views also.

Sliders In Lightroom

Once in develop mode, there are a few things to look for. Highlight detail can be recovered by reducing the highlight slider and also the whites slider.

Avoid increasing exposure or shadow detail as this will increase the presence of visible noise in the image.

Bringing the blacks slider down can make the noise in the dark areas quiet down somewhat. It’s still there but we just don’t see it as much because the dark areas are being turned, well, dark and this is where digital noise really dwells.

Clarity slider should be used with care and try not to over do it here. Many new photographers (myself included when first starting out) tend to overuse the clarity slider and it creates crunchy images that have too much contrasts in the mid tone areas and causes some nasty effects.

Vibrancy and saturation can be used to taste and once again, be careful here as it is very easy to over do it with color. The green grass on a football field is one of these areas we have seen in many images where it is just way too neon green. Be aware of this and use your judgement.

Reducing Noise

Within Lightroom there is the Details panel when using the develop module. There is sharpening as well as noise reduction. The noise reducing tool within Lightroom is actually very good and can produce amazing results on its own. By using the detail recovery slider, Lightroom can find the detailed areas within the image and sort of eliminate the noise reduction in those areas to leave detail where detail should be and noise reduction where it should be. It’s a delicate balancing act but one that can work.

Clean Up With Virtual Copy

A way to create very clean images with strong noise reduction where it is needed and clean details where they are needed is to make a duplicate copy within LR (Create Virtual Copy) and then take the noise reduction slider all the way to 100. That’s it. Leave the other detail panel sliders alone. This copy is made after your initial basic adjustments. What this is doing is allowing us to bring in the original image that has noise and also the noise reduction copy and layer them with the noise reduction copy on top layer in Photoshop.

Simply select both copies (click on one and then CMD/CTRL click the other so both are selected).

Right click and choose “Edit it Adobe Photoshop” and then go down to where it says Open as Layers.

Please CLICK HERE for a video I made explaining this.

Using simple or more complex masking techniques will allow you to target the noise reduction where you want it & where you don't!

Using simple or more complex masking techniques will allow you to target the noise reduction where you want it & where you don’t! Make sure to watch the video where I explain how to use color range to create very specific masks.

Once in PS, make sure the layer with noise reduction applied is on top. This will allow you to mask away the noise reduction to the areas of the image where you want all the detail retained. It may contain some noise since these are HIGH ISO images but the contrast between clean, noise free surroundings and the fine details of the image really make for crisp images that pop. This method takes a couple of minutes and you’re not going to do this for each image but it is great for those images you really want to make great.

Once you’re done in PS simply save the file back to LR by hitting CMD/CTRL & S and then close out the image in PS. Your new noise free image is now back in LR and you can then apply final edits and export!

I hope this helped some of you who may want to shoot events with low lighting where freezing the action is a must. It’s a whole lot of fun and learning new tricks and ways to shoot helps broaden your understanding of photography as a whole. You’ll have extreme levels of credit for the people that did this before all this great technology we now have!!

Happy Shooting!!

 


About the Author

Brian Pex

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Brian is a 43 year old hobbyist photographer who only picked up his first REAL camera in March of 2015. He has been obsessed ever since. "I'll wake up at 3AM with a thought of a new post processing idea and I just have to try it out - then and there!" With today's technology and the overflowing wealth of knowledge available online, Brian says "If you have the passion and drive, you can go as far as you want to go!" When people ask Brian where to start when getting into photography, the answer is easy: "ImprovePhotography.com - it is really that simple. Jim Harmer makes it almost too easy - he even has a video course called Photography Start! How can you top that?" Feel free to inbox Brian on Facebook - he always replies :-)

Comments

  1. Monopod is also a great tool for blocking deflected footballs, basketballs, etc., or kicked soccer balls. I’ve crushed some monopods but it beats crushing some important body parts!

    1. I used my Vanguard Monopod as a ward against polo ponies. They will run you over but are afraid of a 6′ ish monopod held out like a pike. Also good for straightening out uppity jockeys.

  2. Funny you say that. I did have a football come at me last weekend and I batted it away with the middle of the Monopod!!

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