Action Sports in Low Light
You took yourself out to the ball game last night, hoping to capture some great action shots.
Deciding to relax a bit, you set your camera on ‘Auto’ mode. Then you have a great evening cheering for the home team, and enjoying some ballpark food (and maybe even consuming an adult beverage or two.)
To top it all off, your team comes from behind to win the game in the last inning. Your night just couldn’t get any better!
But when you get home and look at your photos, your victory smile vanishes. A furrow grows between your brows…
A lot of your photos are nothing but a blur.
And many of your shots are just too dark to be usable.
What the heck just happened?
What the Heck Just Happened?
What happened was the photographer’s trifecta of sorrow.
- A shutter speed that was too slow to freeze motion
- An f-stop setting that wasn't wide enough to let enough ambient light for a good exposure
- Your camera compensated for the lack of light by turning the ISO up high
The result? Not only did your photos turn out blurry and dark…they’re grainy too!
So what can you do?
When you want to capture action sports in low-light you have to plan ahead.
What to Know Before You Head to the Game – and What to Avoid
It’s crucial that you fully understand the exposure triangle before you hit the field.
And not only do you need to understand which lenses to use – but also know which ones to avoid when lighting is less than ideal.
But armed with a little knowledge you can capture exceptional action sports photos in low light.
Your Shutter Speed Must Be Fast
A shutter speed that’s too slow is the usually the main culprit whenever you see a blurry photo.
Although you might think that your blurry photo is out of focus, it's probably not the case. It's much more likely that your shutter speed was too low to freeze motion in a moving subject.
How low is too low?
Consider the level the players are at when deciding what shutter speed you need for a crisp, clear photo.
What do I mean?
A Shutter Speed Fast Enough for Elementary School Athletes Isn't Fast Enough for College Athletes
Seven-year-olds playing tee ball are fast, but nowhere near as fast as a high school varsity basketball team. And high school athletes aren’t as fast as elite college level or pro athletes are.
For elementary-school aged kids, I’d start with a shutter speed of 1/400 then check for motion.
I’d keep bumping up my shutter speed until I was satisfied that I had frozen motion in my subject.
Older, more elite athletes require even fast shutter speeds all the way up to 1/1000 in order to freeze motion.
Fast Shutter Speed Tradeoffs
But as with everything in photography, there are trade offs. A fast shutter speed does freeze motion, but it also has an unintended effect.
The faster your shutter speed, the darker your image becomes.
It’s like Newton stated so many years ago: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
So when your shutter speed is very fast, it doesn't give the sensor as much time to record the light.
The result is a darker image – something you don’t need when the light is not great in the first place.
So what can you do to lighten up that image?
One thing you can do is to shoot with a wide aperture.
However if you shoot with a kit lens, it will definitely limit you in low light conditions.
Your Kit Lens Won’t Cut It in Low Light
For photographers just starting out, it’s great that most camera manufacturers sell their entry level cameras as part of a kit, commonly along with an f4-5.6 18-55mm lens.
These lenses work great on a nice sunny day when you can safely close down your aperture. But when the sun goes down, kit lens drawbacks quickly appear.
Below is an illustration of the differences in aperture size between f-stops.
Illustration by Cbuckley
I think the illustration helps to understand why kit lenses don't work well in low light.
Your kit lens with a maximum aperture of f4-5.6 only allows half as much light in through its as a lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8.
To capture action sports in low light, the sweet spot for your aperture is f2.8 – f4. And most kit lenses have a maximum aperture of f4-5.6, which is less than optimal in low light conditions.
What About a ‘Nifty-Fifty' Lens?
I always recommend a 50mm f1.8 lens as an inexpensive option for both new and experienced photographers.
But although this lens will open up to f1.8, and creates sharp, detailed photos, its drawback for capturing action sports is that you can't zoom in with it.
With a prime lens you have to zoom with your feet by moving closer to the action. (Of course this may not always be possible, especially if you are photographing collegiate or pro sports.)
This is one time that shooting with a crop sensor camera can be a real advantage.
Crop Sensor Cameras and Sports Photography
With a crop sensor camera like the Canon Rebel or Nikon DX series that you effectively gain focal length because of the magnification factor of the smaller sensor.
A crop sensor effectively adds focal length of approximately 1.5x, which makes shooting with a 50mm more like shooting with a 75mm.
In other words, you can zoom in closer without needing huge heavy telephoto lenses.
If you have a bigger budget, then by all means go for a f-2.8 70-200mm lens so you can zoom in close on your subject.
This doesn't mean that you necessarily need a brand-new lens from your camera manufacturer though!
There's Nothing Wrong with Used or Third-Party Lenses
Don’t rule out used lenses as an option when you're ready to upgrade. Sometimes you can pick up a great deal.
You may already know that can pick up some great deals on Ebay and the Facebook Marketplace. But you may not know that reputable camera stores like B & H Photo have used departments where you can score big discounts on used equipment.
As well as name-brand lenses, consider lenses made by third party manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron and Tokina because they offer excellent quality for far less than you’d pay for a name-brand lens.
Another way to get more light into your sensor when lighting conditions are less than ideal is to increase your ISO.
But again, be prepared for a trade off.
Higher ISO = Increased Light Sensitivity = Increased Risk of Noise
Turning up your ISO allows you to shoot at the faster shutter speeds needed to freeze motion in low light because it increases your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light.
Shooting at high ISO can introduce noise into your images, so many photographers are hesitant to turn up their ISO.
But if you’re only interested in posting your image to social media instead of printing your images, then noise is less of an issue.
(The larger your print, the more imperfections you'll see in your images.)
But that doesn't mean you should avoid turning up your ISO if you need to shoot at a fast shutter speed.
Don't Be Afraid to Turn Up Your ISO
You might be quite surprised how high you can push your ISO without any significant consequences, despite all the fear-mongering on popular photography forums.
Most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras introduce a minimum of noise at ISOs of 1000 – 1250, so don't be afraid to turn up your ISO if needed.
Plus, if you shoot in RAW mode, you can easily reduce any noise in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW.
To follow are more tips on capturing athletes in dark gyms and outdoor nighttime events.
More Tips for Shooting Action Sports in Low Light
Here are a few more quick tips on how to capture action photos in low light. Combine these tips with the advice above for some incredible sports photos.
- Don’t use flash – while it might be tempting to try flash to add a little more light to the scene, the reality is that light from a flash falls off quickly and will likely never reach the field. All flash will do is annoy the people around you. If for some reason you do decide to use flash at a sporting event, make sure you have permission from the facility first (flash is banned in many stadiums.)
- Artificial lights and low-light can create some funky color-casts – Turn your white balance to tungsten for regular bulbs or fluorescent for shooting under fluorescent light. Or let your camera figure out the white balance with AUTO white balance. You can always use the eye-dropper in Lightroom or Photoshop to make a correction to your white balance in post-processing.
- Use continuous focus – trying to adjust your focus manually while capturing action is just too much for mere mortals. Instead, use a continuous focus mode like AI-Servo to keep your subject in focus at all times.
- Shoot in burst mode – because athletes move fast! You’ll end up taking more photos than in single shot mode, so you have more chances to freeze motion in your subjects
- JPG instead of RAW (maybe!) – While I generally advise students to shoot in RAW mode, if you decide to use burst mode, you might prefer to use JPG. The reason is that RAW files are so large that you’ll fill your memory card fast in burst mode. Or stick to RAW, but be sure to use a memory card with large storage capacity like the SanDisk 128GB Extreme PRO UHS-I SDXC Memory Card. I would also keep some backup cards handy in my bag because memory cards can and do fail on occasion.
- Crouch down and shoot up – it makes the athletes look more powerful and impressive.
- Shoot in Shutter Priority mode – if you’re nervous about getting your camera settings right, shoot in Shutter Priority Mode. In this mode, you only need to select your shutter speed and the camera will take care of the ISO and aperture settings.
Don't Forget to Have Fun!
Above all, don't put too much pressure on yourself. Practice makes perfect, so try out these tips the next time you want to capture sports when the lights are low.
If you'd like a little more help getting your camera settings down, then join me for a FREE camera training session!
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