Low light action photography Part 1


Even at a shutter speed of 1/800 sec, Indonesian badminton player Taufik Hidayat's racquet registers as a blur. Badminton, the fastest racquet sport, is one of the toughest to shoot because no flash is allowed and the gyms are usually not very bright. I used a Canon 40D, a 85mm 1.2 L lens, ISO 1600 at the U.S. Open 2 years ago.

Now that DSLRs are in the hands of more and more 1st-time camera owners, I’ve noticed this question come up a lot.

I’ve tried to photograph my son’s basketball games, but all my pictures are blurry. How do I get better pictures with my Canon EOS Digital Rebel?

When light levels are too low to stop action, you may have to resort to panning. This image of my daughter as she prepares for a vault was taken on a Nikon 1D at ISO 800 1/40 sec @f2.8. Inside the gym, everything had a yellowish tint. I set my daughter's dress as the White Point but found the highlights too blown out, so I chose a mid tone grey on the man

Successful indoor photography depends a lot on:

  1. your equipment, specifically what lens you have and what DSLR body
  2. your access, where you are allowed to go and where you can shoot from
  3. the lighting within the stadium, arena or hall and whether you can use flash
  4. the activity you’re trying to capture: the livelier the action, the more light you need
  5. your knowledge of the event you’re trying to capture, whether it’s a sport, concert or play

#1 Equipment

A typical kit lens sold with DSLRs gives you a range from 17 to 85mm focal length.

This lens has a variable aperture. On its short end, 17mm the aperture is f4, on the long end, 85mm, it is f5.6

The only way you’ll improve is to use your equipment a lot.

How else will you know the highest usable ISO for your camera?

Everyone has different tolerances for what is acceptable digital noise.

In the case of the picture of my daughter, even though the image is noisy, I don’t mind it.

I’d rather have a noisy image than no image.

So make some 8 x 10 prints at different ISO’s and test to see what you’re willing to live with.

Buy fast lenses. If you are going to be shooting indoors, a fast lens is always going to be a better investment than a more expensive camera body because it’s like choosing optical zoom versus digital zoom.

Kit lenses are great for beginners, but their limitations become very apparent once you understand the basic controls of your camera.

#2 Access

Having carte blanche to move about can be the difference between getting good pictures and great pictures.

Picture 2 photographers, both have the same bodies but different lenses and different access.

Say one has a 70-200 f2.8 lens but is confined to his seat in the stands.

The other has a 50mm f1.4 lens with unrestricted access.

My money is on the latter who has a $400 lens versus the former with a $2,500 lens.

Being able to approach your subject and to move is a big deal.

You can pick out “uncluttered” or “cleaner backgrounds” and you can find interesting angles.

You can also choose to shoot where the light is brighter.

Next: #3 Lighting, the lack of lighting

Peter Phun Photography

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3 thoughts on “Low light action photography Part 1”

  1. Amazing.

    Wins the Pulitzer and then nothing. It’s kept in a box in the attic. Bummer. I can think of a dozen better places for it.

    I knew LaRue was sued. We studied it in Press Law when I was in college. The two main points of why he lost copyright is that 1) He was an employee of the gas company on company time, and 2) the camera gear was owned the gas company.

  2. Hi Paul,
    Happy New Year!
    I appreciate very much your contributions here, especially that bit about Charles Porter, IV, who won the Pulitzer for his picture of the firefighter holding the limp body of an injured baby in the Oklahoma City bombing.
    Yes, in matter of spot news, it’s all about being there.

    Now that you mentioned the Oklahoma City bombing pictures, there is an interesting backstory about the other photographer Lester LaRue, a safety coordinator employed by Okahoma Natural Gas Co. If you don’t already know it, head to this page and look for “Lester LaRue

    Don’t forget to read the last paragraph of that article “Moving On.” LaRue’s luck didn’t change for the better after taking such a powerful photo.

  3. Great job Peter.

    Especially the point about the access. How many times an amateur got better photos than a pro due to access.

    Case in point: The Oklahoma City bombing. Amateur photographer Charles Porter, IV, won the Pulitzer because he was there when the firefighters started pulling the kids out of the day care. He was there just down the block at his work when the explosion happened.

    It’s about being there.

    Thanks Peter.

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