Mastering Low Light Sports and Action Photography | Digital Photography Tutorial
In my last post I talked about mastering motorsport photography, and today I’m going to talk about something I touched on in that post, low light photography.
Sometimes you have little or no control over how a subject is lit. Sports is one of those areas of photography where you have no control – if its an outdoors event you are at the mercy of the weather, indoors you are at the mercy of whatever lighting has been provided for the competitors.
In this post I want to focus on the indoor arena, although some of this advice is applicable to outdoor photography when the weather is poor, the light is beginning to fade towards the end of the day, or you are under the cover of trees where the sun cannot penetrate the canopy.
Indoor Sports and Action Photography
Low light is the photographers enemy when it comes to sports or action shots. Ideally you want to use a nice fast shutter speed and cature a sharp image. However, you have probably been frustrated at some point in the past by trying to get the elusive sharp photo when the lighting is poor and found that you’ve ended up with a blurred mess.
The problem lies in the fact that the camera senses the light is poor, so decreases the shutter speed to compensate, resulting in a longer exposure time than you want, and hence the blur you get in your photos. You may even be tempted to use your camera’s flash (it probably comes on automatically if you are using a point and shoot camera,) but you will find that because you are so far away from the action, it has no effect.
Ever wonder why all those flashes you see going of at pop concerts never result in great photos? Its because the flash gets no where near its intended target and just ends up lighting empty space.
To counter the problem of the camera trying to do what its thinks is best, you need to put it into manual mode if its a point and shoot, or switch it to shutter-priority mode if its a DSLR. The important thing here is that you need to retain control over how fast a shutter speed the camera uses. You know what you are shooting, not the camera, and therefore you need the exercise the control over the camera that you have to put it into the right mode.
Once you have the camera in shutter priority mode, you are in control. You will need to step through a number of different shutter speeds to see what effect they have – there is no right or wrong answer here as each location may be lit differently and therefore requires a different shutter speed. If your camera has a histogram function, make use of it to check the spread of light you are getting.
Shutter speed is king
Remember, the faster your shutter speed, the less light that gets to the sensor, so you need to use a fast aperture (i.e. use a fast lens with a constant f2.8 across the zoom) and/or increase the ISO rating. As the ISO rating increases, the more noise that gets introduced to the final photo, and the more sensitive the sensor becomes to light.
Ideally you want to use a fast lens in combination with a high shutter speed and low ISO (although the newer Nikon and Canon cameras are getting better at handling noise in low light situations, upto ISO6400.) but there is a cost to this kind of setup, out of reach of many amateur photographers.
Some lenses have VR or IS (Vibration Reduction – Nikon, Image Stabilisation – Canon) that allows you to shoot at a lower speed without introducing camera shake. These may help in low light situations, allowing you to have a slower shutter speed to let more light in.
Record the settings that work best for your camera
One of the best bits of advice to give here is to note what settings give you the best results each time you go shooting. This is easiest to do when you review your shots back at home at your computer. Over time you start to learn which settings work best for your camera in certain lighting situations. Take these notes with you whenever you go out photographing events where the lighting is bad as a reference sheet. This will give you a good starting point for that days shooting.