Better Indoor Action Photos

Wesley tries to drive in for two points despite a good defensive effort.

When I think about shooting indoor sports, the phrase “lights, camera, action!” readily comes to mind. Unfortunately, “lights” is the key word to consider, because, first, there usually isn’t a lot available, and, second, they can cause your photos to be the wrong color.

What frustrates me the most about indoor action photography are the cycling vapor lights and/or mix of tungsten and fluorescent lights that make getting the proper white balance tricky (photos can look yellow, magenta, and all shades in between). Your keeper rate (percentage of good shots) can be abysmally low, because even at 1600 ISO (ISO is the light sensitivity of the image sensor), you might not be able to use a fast-enough shutter speed to stop the action.

Shoot the action as it flies past you.

So what’s a PWC (Parent With Camera) supposed to do? First, it helps to have a “fast” lens, one that opens wide to f/1.4 or f/1.8. This lets in the most available light, no matter how crummy that light is. An 85mm lens is your best weapon for combatting slow-shutter-speed blur when shooting indoor sports. That 18-55mm kit lens that came with your digital SLR? Sadly, it can be useless when the action is fast and furious indoors.

It’s relatively easy to freeze free-throw action.

Second, you need to raise your ISO, probably to at least 1600. Don’t make the mistake of trying to use flash! Refs, players, and coaches don’t like them, and they don’t throw off enough light anyway and can cause monster red eyes. As you increase the ISO, it also raises your shutter speed. In order to stop the action, your speed needs to be at least 1/320th of a second.

If you’re shooting in aperture-priority mode (where you set the f-stop and the camera sets the shutter speed), be sure to put your aperture at the smallest number possible (e.g., f/1.8) to get the fastest shutter speed. Remember that to increase your shutter speed to minimize blur indoors, your f-stop needs to be wide open (on a small number) and/or you ISO must be high.

A close-in shot is contested.

Sidebar: A quick word about shooting modes. Auto or the “running man” settings are great for when you’re starting out, but don’t let the camera control the way you shoot! I prefer to set the aperture and let my Nikon take care of the shutter speed; however, I always make sure the speed is where it needs to be (fast enough or slow enough) for the effect I want.

The defender reacts too late.

Just be aware that the higher the ISO, the noisier your photo will be (what was called “grainy” when the dinosaurs shot film). I use noise-reduction software to help tame that grain. Noise is much better than blur, though! Check your camera’s manual to see how you set the ISO. Oh, and don’t forget to reset your ISO after you finish shooting. An outdoor pic in the sun at ISO 1600 is not pretty!

I mentioned “white balance” before. Anyone who has taken photos where there are tungsten or fluorescent lights can attest to the frustration of getting the color correct, because those pics can turn out with a green, orange, or magenta tint. Lights have different temperature/color levels. Our eyes naturally adjust, but digital cameras don’t.

The defense hopes to force a turnover.

The color problem is even worse in gyms where tungsten lights recycle many times per second. You can take three photos in rapid succession using burst mode, and each one could be a different color. In our high school’s small gym, photos shot at one end of the floor have a green tinge, while on the other side, those pics sport touches of magenta.

It’s difficult to manually correct for white balance in those situations. So I set my white balance on auto and let Photoshop do the heavy lifting for me and adjust for color imbalances there. It’s not perfect, but it’s usually pretty good. If you’re fussier, check your manual for how to custom set your white balance.

These two points are an easy dunk.

So now let’s set the scene: You’re in your child’s gym ready to snap great photos of your kiddo playing basketball. Digital SLR in your hand with your f-stop at the smallest-possible number (wide open) and your ISO set high enough for the shutter speed to be at least 1/320. White balance is on auto. Are you ready?

Lights, camera, action! Get out there and shoot!!

2 responses to “Better Indoor Action Photos

  1. My husband has tried for years to get shots of my son playing basketball. I’m going to make sure that in this, David’s last year, he reads your posts so we can finally get some.

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