Better Sports Photos in Bad Lighting


The real problem: Indoor gyms and non-professional stadiums donít have a lot of light. Even a ďbrightĒ high school ball field will have less than a thousandth of the light outside at high noon.


Another real problem: Most of us donít have as much money as we would like.  


So we say ďIím just an amateur, so I donít need as good a lens as a pro.Ē  


What we donít say, but really mean
with my limited budget, I want to take photos in badly-lit amateur venues and get pictures as good as those on the cover of Sports Illustrated!


Professional sports photographers use fast lenses,  monopods, and get close to the action.


The ideal solution:

  • Expensive professional lens(es) with fast fixed aperture (f-stop) and image stabilization.
  • Sideline passes at the Superbowl.


In the real world:

  • Those high speed lenses are big, heavy,  and very EXPENSIVE. For example, a 300mm f2.8AF lens can easily cost $4,000.
  • Popular-priced zoom lenses are at their slowest Ė least sensitive to light Ė when the longer focal lengths are selected.
  • You canít get sideline passes but you can get nosebleed seats in the high school stadium. The lights in the high school stadium are not very bright.


One possible solution:

  • Fixed focal length 135mm or 200mm lens are often much faster than zooms, if you can find one that fits your camera.
  • Cameras that have a lot of backward compatibility, like the Pentax *ist series, will work with cheap old 135mm f2.8 or 2.5 lenses that often have more than four times the light gathering ability of modern zooms!
  • For the more popular autofocus cameras such as the Nikon, Minolta and Canon cameras, very few of these lenses have ever been made available at popular prices.


Real world: Set your camera to do the best that it can and hold the camera steadier than your body can do on its own.


Get down on the sidelines so youíre closer to the action


Donít let your worries about ďgrainĒ ruin your photos:


Higher film speeds or digital equivalent have higher noise levels or grain. So far, so true.


Some photographers worry so much about a little grain that they choose slow film speeds (ASA or ISO ratings).


Yes,  thatís a good choice for brightly-lit landscapes Ė not for action!


Action photos need high shutter speeds, and you canít get high shutter speeds without high film speeds (or the digital equivalent).


A sharp image thatís a little grainy is better than a grainless image which is blurred.

Therefore, set the ISO as high as it will go.


Set the camera to the AV or A setting. This is the exposure mode where you choose the lens opening and the camera chooses the highest shutter speed possible under the lighting conditions.


Shoot with the lens wide open (largest aperture).


A $35 monopod provides more image stability than an IS lens that costs an extra $500 (or more). While neither image stabilization nor a monopod can freeze action, they both greatly reduce the shakiness of your hands and body moving.


Since a monopod only has one leg, if the action comes toward the sidelines itís easy to run away!


It also helps keep your neck and back from aching due to the weight of the camera and lens.


Itís absolutely the best tool you can buy for sports photography.


Shoot at the peak of the action.


Pan along with the subject most important to you. When the principal subject is stationary relative to the camera, even slow shutter speeds can look sharp.


Panning means swinging the camera and lens along with the action. When done properly, you can get fairly sharp photos even at speeds as slow as 1/30th of a second.


Frame the action tightly. Even if you only get a couple of good pictures out of a session, thatís not such a bad thing.


Think ahead of the action. Be ready when the athletes get to the perfect spot. 


Bring your sports photos to us. Weíll look them over and tell you candidly what you can do to make them better.