Posted 10 January 2011,
Winter Athletics Photography
Photography for the winter varsity teams poses challenges unique to indoor sports. Not only is the natural light limited by the sun's altitude, which is quite low throughout the season (the sun's maximum altitude today is 27.4 degrees above the horizon), and the length of the days, which tend to be rather short (nine hours, twenty-seven minutes, and fifty-three seconds today), but most of the winter athletics venues are not lit for professional photography. The limited artificial and natural light forces photographers to find the best compromise between ISO equivalent sensor speed, shutter speed, and aperture.
I generally like to keep my shutter speed around 1/160th for most sports. This provides for sharp rendering of the face and body of the athlete while allowing a slight blur when hands and feet are moving quickly…which helps convey the action in the activity. When I look at images shot at 1/250th or higher I feel that the complete lack of movement makes the athlete look posed, as if I had staged the whole thing.
The compromise comes when I'm trying to balance my desired shutter speed with the loss of quality that comes with a high ISO equivalent for the camera's sensor and the loss of depth-of-field that comes with a near wide-open aperture. While my cameras produce very high-quality images, there is no doubt that an image shot at ISO 200 has smoother transitions from highlight to shadow and has better color rendering than does an image shot at ISO 3200. It's simple physics (well, or rather complex physics that are immutable) and no amount of chip design or software enhancement will change that.
The need to select a high ISO equivalent for the camera's sensor is the first and easiest decision to make. I try to keep my choice around 1600, although I certainly shoot at higher numbers. The aperture is the trickier part. All of the lenses that I use for athletics have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or greater (remembering that in this case "greater" means a lower number…f/2.0, f/1.2, and f/1.0 for example). While these "faster" lenses (so-called because the larger maximum aperture allows for faster shutter speeds) help a great deal with focusing and composition because of the greater amount of light they allow into the viewfinder, I try not to shoot "wide-open." I'm not worried so much about the quality of the image at the widest aperture, but I do worry about focus. Only in wrestling am I occasionally rewarded with a few seconds of minimal movement. Generally, the athletes are moving quickly and the number of sharply focused images do diminish as the aperture is opened wider. If I am lucky I am able to shoot with f/5.6, which usually gives me a small margin of error in my focus. Sometimes, however, I am forced into f/4.0, and I do notice a drop in the number of images that are in focus. To compensate I work harder to keep the subject(s) in focus and I try to find a greater number of opportunities so that the shots that I miss are replaced by the additional images that I capture during a game or meet. There's no doubt that winter athletics are more likely than other seasons to leave me exhausted at the end. It's hard work, but great fun. Besides, I love a good challenge.