Photographing Field Sports in Low light Zamani Feelings

Most photographers who cover youth sports will inevitably encounter the challenge of photographing night games and especially those under the “Friday Night lights”. While the lighting conditions have likely improved over the years (and camera technology has become more equipped to meet our demands) it is still never ideal and it becomes a source of frustration for many photographers. The culprits are normally issues around image deterioration from high ISO’s, poorly lit areas of the fields and problems with the cameras locking focus on subjects in those poorly lit areas.

Canon 1DX, 25,600 ISO, 1000 Shutter, f 2.8

GEAR/ISO/FOCUS

Low light sports is what challenges a lot of the consumer camera equipment and gives somewhat of an advantage to those who own professional sports cameras and/or lenses. The differences are mainly related to noise handling and focusing ability. In general, full frame DSLR’s will do better handling noise and image quality loss at higher ISO’s than consumer crop sensor cameras however this varies from camera to camera and relies greatly on how current the models are etc. Each generation of consumer as well as pro cameras become better at handling higher ISO numbers. Sports oriented cameras are usually more equipped and adept at tracking action than consumer cameras as well with some of the same exceptions as mentioned previously. For field sports especially, telephoto zooms with low F-stops (2.8) are ideal because of their ability to shoot wide open and still obtain sharp images as well as these lenses being faster focusing in general.

Some consumer and pro camera bodies and lenses

Because sports photography demands that we use higher shutter speeds, this also necessitates that we utilize higher ISO’s in low light and subsequently (even when shooting wide open) that can require that we use higher numbers than we find desirable and we then encounter the photographers dirty word “Noise”. Higher ISO’s create more than the unpleasant “grain” but also causes deterioration of the image quality of photographs, lowers the contrast and can dull the color as well. Because of that we are always trying to find a way to keep those numbers as low as possible.

Canon 1DX, 1/800, F2.8, 20,000 ISO
Canon 1D Mark 4, 400mm 2.8, 1000 shutter, f2.8, 12,800 ISO

The following are things that I have found that help me get better images when photographing sports in low light.

SHUTTER SPEED

This is an obvious one but my first suggestion is to use as slow of a shutter speed necessary to effectively freeze the action. There are no hard and fast rules and it is very dependent on the capability of your camera but I wouldn’t normally suggest any shutter speed below 640 for anything actively moving on the field. So if you are capturing a wide receiver running towards you, in most cases you wouldn’t want to be shooting at under that shutter speed. It doesn’t mean that you will absolutely get motion blurring in that sequence but the chances are higher at 500 and below. If you are shooting a QB dropping back to pass and his feet are set and the player is relatively stationary you will have an easier time of having a frozen moment. If he is throwing the ball however that could also create a problem.

OVEREXPOSURE

Overexposing a photo slightly is usually my recommendation for shooting in poor light at high ISO’s. While that may seem counterproductive since most times you will be using a higher ISO to achieve that overexposure it has a couple of benefits. In most cases an underexposed will appear more noisy than a slightly overexposed capture. Also attempting to raise the exposure in post almost always brings out more noise in the photo, almost to where it appears unusable. If you are certain that you can expose every capture perfectly in camera and not have any underexposed images that occur due to light changes on the field than you are fine but if not, it’s best to overexpose for everything and bring it down in post.

Shot in camera. Overexposed intentionally. Edited version below.

DIRECTION OF LIGHT

Try to position yourself where the subjects face and/or the ball is facing the light source. In other words setup to capture the players when the lights pointing to the field are at your back. This helps in two ways. One is that direct light on the subject tends to kill shadows on the subject that would make noise more visible. In general (in my opinion) a shot taken with a subject in full light will appear to have little noise compared to one of the same player is is only partially illuminated and is in the shadows. The other reason for positioning yourself where the light hits the players is that some cameras can struggle tracking action in lower light and the illumination from the artificial lights will help the camera lock onto the subject easier and you can avoid out of focus captures.

Canon 1DX, 400mm, f2.8 1000 shutter, 20,000 ISO

In practice this could mean altering your general mode of capturing the sport. For example, when shooting football, I normally like to stay ahead of the offense or shoot from behind the defense. When I am shooting a high school football game however, I will tend to shoot more from the sidelines and in the backfield since the lights are usually behind me and are directly illuminating the subjects in front of me. This may not be an ideal approach for the entire game because there will be significant action happening in the centers of the field that you won’t just want to capture from the side angle but facing you as well but its an easier way to capture some better illuminated highlights of the game and its where I inevitably shoot from a great majority of the time.

Canon 1DX, 400mm 2.8, 1000 shutter, 16,000 iso

PROXIMITY (SHOOT TIGHT)

Cropping is a part of sports photography composition. Unfortunately in low light and subsequently higher ISO’s cropping in too tightly can introduce more noise than the same cropped photo at lower ISO numbers, therefore I always make it a point to stay closer to the action and try to shoot as tight as possible when shooting in these conditions.

LOWER SHUTTER SPEED FOR NON ACTION

Part of high school football is the off the field events and moments and often these things are as simple as a fan, coach or player on the sidelines or a cheerleader or some special moment happening off field and many times these aren’t high action moments and the subjects are relatively still. These are the times where you can lower your ISO and bring down your shutter speed significantly and capture those pictures without the worry of dealing with the noise issues of some of the on field photos.

Canon 1DX, 400MM 2.8, 200 shutter, 2000 ISO F2.8

NOISE REDUCTION/SHARPENING IN POST

Noise reduction is our post production technique (unless you shoot JPEG and use in camera NR) and way of trying to address the end results of what we have captured. Noise reduction software helps remove the noise but also generally reduces the detail and sharpness of the subject. Before applying the noise reduction I tend to do a few things to retrieve some of that detail first. In my experience lowering the contrast to the point where the photo doesn’t look too “washed out” tends to give the appearance of more detail and to an extent tends to make the noise a little less visible. Increasing contrast and especially clarity can tend to aggravate the noise, especially in the backgrounds. Another method that some people use is to use an adjustment tool and brush out the backgrounds with a combination of raising the noise reduction slider and lowering the sharpness. Conversely some will also brush in sharpness or clarity on the subject after applying the noise reduction to the image.

Canon 1DX, 400MM 2.8, 1000 shutter, f3.2, 25, 600 ISO
1000 Shutter, 25,600 ISO, 1000 shutter, f 2.8
Canon 400mm 2.8, 1250 shutter, f2.8, 20,000 ISO

Thanks for reading.

Check out my work at Zamanifeelings.net

Credits:

Photos by Zamani Feelings

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