Low light action photography Part 2

Acrobats in small circuses like Circus Vargas often work in very dim lights of their big top. ISO 400 1/160 f2.8 Nikon 1D. In 2001, the Nikon D1 was the best camera of its time, however, its low light capability was horrendous, that's why I exposed this at ISO 400

Of the obstacles you face whenever you want to take a picture, low light is probably the toughest to overcome. Things get even dicier when your subject is moving.

#3 Lighting

At religious ceremonies in church, you can sometimes get away with low shutter speeds like 1/30 sec @f2.8 ISO 800. With my 50mm, I could have used a higher shutter speed like 1/125 sec @ f1.4 but I wanted my son's hand to register as more of a blur as he waved to my wife. Canon 1D

Whenever light levels are low:

  • you won’t have the shutter speeds needed to handhold long lenses successfully
  • you can’t freeze the action even if you use a tripod or image stabilization because your subject is moving
  • your lens might not focus
  • color temperature or white balance might be an issue because most environments choose lights based on practicality and efficiency instead of whether it’s good for photography

Bear in mind, your ISO is already set to the highest that you can live with taking into account digital noise.
You can try:

With ISO already maxed, I knew I couldn't stop action. Under those conditions, my only option was to pan. Nikon D1. ISO 1600 1/40 sec f2.8
  • waiting till there is a pause in the action. Gymnasts often pose momentarily because they have to hold a pose for judging
  • instead of just the action, get in close and see if you can capture facial expression like jubilation or dejection
  • panning if your ISO is already maxed and you can’t use flash (see the picture in Part 1 of my daughter running before her vault)
  • have an assistant shine a bright light on your subject pre-fcous at that point, switch to manual focus then work on your timing of when to release the shutter
  • if no one objects, you could set up flash units on light stands to light an entire area and trigger them by radio slaves
  • do a custom white balance by shooting a sheet of white paper if the White Balance presets are not working

#4 The Activity at the Event

My kids creating their own cyclone running in circles was taken with my Powershot G3 ( I miss that camera) 1/30 sec f2.2 ISO 400.

Not every indoor event you photograph requires high shutter speeds.

Remember it’s more about the quality of the light not the quantity.

When your subject is running towards or away from you, you can sometimes freeze their motion with a relatively low shutter speed.

Take a look at the picture on the right.

Movement across your field of view requires a higher shutter speed to freeze.

Even if there is some blur in the picture, it may not be objectionable.

At times the motion blur adds an element of spontaneity to the moment because your subject obviously didn’t stop what they were doing to pose.

#5 Your Knowledge, Patience & Powers of Observation

Cameras have improved by leaps and bounds. When I took this picture, ISO 800 was not a very viable option due to the digital noise. So I had to drag the shutter and use off-camera flash.

If there is one tip I can offer parents trying to capture their child during a school play, or concert, it is this:

ask your child where they will be standing on the stage before hand.

If they are too young to know, then see if you can attend a rehearsal.

When you eliminate the guess work of where your child will be, you can concentrate on being on the right side of the aisle, closest to them and hopefully with the right lens.

Most indoor gyms are typically dark and have lights which have strange color temperatures. Canon 20D. ISO 1600 1/250 sec @ f2.8. You may have to use a Custom White Balance setting.

When it comes to indoor sports, knowing how a game is scored is extremely important because it allows you to anticipate where to be for the best picture when a critical moment takes place.

At some point, the actual goal being scored, the winning basket shouldn’t be your focus anymore.

If it’s the final seconds of a game, for instance, the picture that tells the story is the jubilation or the dejection.

It is not literal anymore, the expressions of the athletes is what will tell the tale.

At religious ceremonies, staying back, use a long lens and a monopod if you don't have an image stabilized lens.

That’s why positioning in those instances is important. You always want to be in position to see their faces when they win or  lose.

So knowing the key players and coaches is useful because in the dying seconds of a game, you are keying in on those faces and watching their reactions as the final whistle blows or the final buzzer sounds or when the game deciding rally finally ends.

In poorly lit gyms, you have to accept that 1/250sec @ f2.8 isn't going to stop peak action. You may have to rely on "pauses," timing and luck. Notice how pixelated this image is? There are software solutions like Noise Ninja which can reduce digital noise.

For games involving young children, you probably want to watch for reactions of parents and the players at the end.

This is the moment to shoot a lot. In fact this is the moment that you should just go nuts and make as many pictures as your camera will allow.

The reaction you see is genuine and real and can’t be recreated, that’s why.
Peter Phun Photography | 

2 thoughts on “Low light action photography Part 2”

  1. Thanks Paul. I anticipate that before long sporting events where kids are the athletes will become this crazy free-for-all as DSLRs become even cheaper.

    And it wouldn’t be inconceivable that local newspapers will just solicit those pictures from parents if they’re not already doing so.

    What is important is that parents not give the image away. I’m all for photographers showing their work but not if they unknowingly agree to forfeit all rights to their work.

    It’s important that photographers read the fine print before uploading their images to newspapers.

  2. Nice work Peter.

    “… knowing how a game is scored is extremely important because it allows you to anticipate where to be for the best picture when a critical moment takes place.”

    Great piece of advice. I think too many moms and dads stay in the bleachers and miss the good shot.

    Thanks for the great write up.

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