I’ve been going through the inter-school competition for Basketball photos for my eldest son and daughter for the schools photo collection. It started out being just me taking photos of my own children but when the coaches see you have a non-smartphone camera you’re labelled as the photo-guy. I was approached initially by some of the parents on our own teams, and then by the coaches, if I was already taking photos then would I mind taking a few photos of each of the players for the school? I didn’t mind helping out and so for the past two school seasons I was no longer just photos of my own kids, but effectively now everyone in the team.
I sift through the photos I’ve taken, try to find one of each kid doing something awesome during the game then put them in a shared NextCloud folder and share a link with the Coach for the team in question. For no real reason I’ve been systematically going backwards in time and watching my photography deteriorate as I experimented in reverse. It’s made me stop and think about my evolution as an indoor sports photographer (of a sort) over the past four months in particular of this season, and I thought I might share a few things I’ve learned. They might (or mightn’t) be useful or helpful for others.
In low light conditions you need better gear to get better results
I’m sorry but it’s true and in my experimenting I’ve found that unless you want grainy photos, you need a sensor with excellent low light performance. Of course if you think grainy is a good look or if you’re not interested in colour reproduction then stick to black and white and a cheap body will do you just fine, but that’s not what most people want.
After lots of research I picked a Nikon D500 that I regularly push beyond ISO1600 without any visible grain, and it’s still pretty clean up to ISO6400. The issue with appreciating the difference between what they say a camera can do and what it can actually do in the real world is that too many digital camera manufacturers say they can support ISOs beyond 1600 easily and yes they take a photograph. The truth is you don’t want to be using them as high as they can go unless you like the look of grainy photos and if I wanted that look, I’d save myself a few thousand dollars and I’ll digitally zoom my iPhone instead.
As for lenses I’ve tried a lot of different ones and basically I’ve concluded go Prime or go home. The affordable zooms with the most reach won’t crack an aperture wider than f4 which kills the precious light you have to work with and with fast moving action, you need that light. I tried a 55mm-200mm f4.5-f5.6 with vibration reduction and I’ve also tried a 24mm-70mm Tamron f/2.8 constant aperture zoom and whilst the Tamron gets better results for light it really doesn’t have the right amount of reach I need. Compared to an f/1.8 prime, it still killing my precious light, and that isn’t ideal. I’ve tried an 18mm-55mm kit lens which is abysmal indoors so don’t bother unless it’s group portraits with no movement and a flash.
In primes I have three I’ve tried, all f/1.8 in a 35mm, 50mm and most recently 85mm. Because I have a cropped sensor that equates to a full frame equivalent of 52.5mm, 75mm and 127.5mm respectively. There’s no question that from the court sideline, 35mm is too wide for anything other than a full court shot, which I avoid since you’re too far away to capture any emotion. The 50mm is great for capturing more isolated groups of players in the frame and the 85mm is perfect for capturing the same from half-court or perfect for isolating a single player. The light available in these lenses is amazing meaning I can keep the ISO under grain-inducing levels.
The 35mm and 50mm primes also focus very quickly, and whilst the 85mm isn’t as quick it’s quick enough if you’re set in the right spot ahead of time and know the shot you’re waiting for. I also love on my camera that I have an AF-ON button that allows me to separate auto-focus from taking a shot with a completely different button (i.e. not the shutter). Pre-focussing can be very handy (more on that in a minute)
All that gear adds up. You can still get respectable photos (i.e. better than the best smartphone camera can take today) but if you want your best chance of success in the most challenging lighting conditions, get good prime lenses and a camera body with a good low light sensor. It lets you keep a fast shutter speed to make sure you don’t get motion blur and keep the best image quality: sharp and in focus action shots.
The only other thing I wish I had was in-body image sensor stabilisation, but for me I just couldn’t afford to cross that bridge too. Have to draw a line somewhere.
If you have good gear you can still easily get bad results if you don’t put some effort in
With everything I just said above, honestly, you can’t go wrong? Um, no. I discovered that even with pretty amazing gear, you can mess it up spectacularly. I’ve tried to “trust” the camera in Aperture priority or Shutter priority but no matter how many times I’ve tried it, I end up going back to manual. I do that because I want to make sure there’s no image blur if the camera tries to slow down the shutter speed too much - it can’t know if this is a fast or slow paced game! For example, I slow down my shutter when I’m taking photos of the girls basketball because they don’t run as hard or as fast as the boys team (sorry but I checked they actually don’t). Less speed means slower shutter before I get blur means lower ISO means less grain. Winning! The camera doesn’t know any of those details.
I also want to change my depth of field based on the type of shot I’m taking - is it one subject or many subjects? I’ll know that but the camera doesn’t. If I want to ensure my maximum ISO is set at a certain level, I’ve found the camera just dials it out to that maximum ISO when I’m indoors no matter the shot. The rationale is that if I’m setting my max ISO and my Aperture then I’m effectively in manual already, so what’s the point of an Automatic mode? To stay in complete control of the photo to get the best result that YOU want, not what the camera thinks you might want, you need to shoot in manual and that means you need to put some effort in.
Don’t just sit in the grand-stands, get out beside the court, down the ends, in the corners, behind the basket
But it’s not just about the effort of learning how to take photos in manual, it’s also about positioning. I started out sitting in the grandstands (if you can call them that - most of these stadiums they play in it’s a few chairs either just at ground level or a few rows tiered maybe four maximum) but that severely restricts what photos you can take not just because of reach but because the majority of emotion you won’t capture in the center, it’s near the ends where the goals are. So you need to put in some physical effort and set yourself up where the action is happening you want to capture.
Follow-along or set it up
I started essentially following my kids along, point the camera at them, continuously auto-focusing to keep them sharp and in the center of the image, no matter which way they ran, thinking I would pick the best shot out of those. Turns out that’s a bad strategy. I took so many pictures of their backs, when their heads were turned, while they were standing in one place, not moving and ultimately they were almost all very boring photos.
I’ve come to believe (I imagine this will continue to evolve the longer I take photos) that sports photography is about capturing the emotion of the players and for humans our expressions primarily come across through our faces - hence if it isn’t a front or slightly off-front face shot, it’s probably not a photo I’ll keep.
To really get the best results I’ve had to stop thinking about following along and rather to set myself in a position where I can capture the shot I want, from the angle I want, pre-focus the camera if I can (auto-focus slows down your FPS when shooting) and be patient and wait for the right shot. I’d rather sift through 50 great shots and pick a dozen than sift through 500 average follow-along shots and whittle that down to a dozen.
I can safely say that because I’ve literally just done exactly that for 6 hours today and it isn’t my idea of fun. Setting up the shot first and taking less photos during the game? Your future self with thank your present self for your restraint.
Subject or Subjects
It’s all well and good taking a photo of your child, a single “subject” they call it in the biz (apparently) but if a picture wants to convey more than just one persons emotion that’s fine if it’s a standalone emotion, but generally in a game of sports it’s in reaction to something else happening in the game, which means you need context or their reaction makes less sense. Again I started just focusing on a single subject, but then I learned to tell more of the context I’ve started including more context in each photo where I can.
Each Sport needs a different approach
This one I’ve only learned more recently and maybe it sounds obvious but I guess I’m a slow learner. If you’re trying to capture the expression on a basketball shooters face when they’re shooting at the hoop, the angle you need to be standing or crouching in, centre front on or to the side, needs to be considered when you’re positioning yourself ahead of time, otherwise their arms will get in the way, the ball will get in the way or other players will too. Soccer is different again where standing alongside the field aiming down towards the goalie as they’re lining up for a kick lets you capture that moment without obstruction. Cricket for batting and bowling are different yet again.
Take a few lenses but don’t swap them all the time
When you’re shooting a game the last thing you want to do is lose a minute of game time swapping lenses. I’ve found that it’s a good idea to keep a wider angle lens and flash for the first and last games of the season since group photos are typically taken then, but for all games I’ll take the 50mm and 85mm primes and that’s it. If I want to change the types of shots I’m taking then I’ll generally swap lenses during half-time so I don’t miss anything. Hard-core photographers would say “buy a second camera” but to that I say, “I’m staying paying off my current camera thank you…no”
Shooting indoor sports is the most challenging photography I’ve wanted to tackle. Fast speed action, low light, lots of energy and lots of asking for permission first. I’ve learned a lot about it in a few short years and I know I have a lot more to learn but hopefully the above thoughts might be useful to others that want to give it a try, or to help make their current endeavours more successful.