Remember The Perfect Storm? It was a 1997 book by Sebastian Junger (and a movie in 2000) about the No Name Storm of 1991 that hit the Atlantic Seaboard and New England. It’s been some time since I read the book, but as I recall, the event earned its nickname due to the fact that every conceivable weather phenomenon that could have contributed to the storm’s danger and destructiveness was present. Everything added up to make that storm a worst-case scenario. Low-light sports photography is kind of like that!
My first paying gig as a photographer was kind of like that too. I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s death (that I know of), and did far less damage than the $200 million attributed to the storm, but everything that could have been present to challenge me was there. It may be a little melodramatic to compare that job to a deadly nor’easter, but it was kind of stressful for me, and besides, I had to hook you, the reader, somehow.
So the gig that I referred to above was a stint as the athletics photographer for a local, small community college. I shot all through the school year, and the sports to be captured included, basketball, volleyball, track, baseball, and softball. Shooting sports well, in my experience, requires a photographer to have some understanding of the sport (the more the better) in order to anticipate the play, and understand the significance of what’s happening so they can point the camera in the most relevant direction to capture the action. Makes sense.
Above and beyond pointing at the action, “capturing” it means producing clean, clear, crisp, sharp images of athletes doing athlete things, and experiencing a human, intense emotion. The operant words here are clean, and sharp. There are very few instances (none that I can recall) when the customer of your sports photojournalism is going to be OK with noisy, or blurry images of sporting activities. It might
happen, but it’s few and far between. Maybe panning shots in a bike race or a sprint? The moral of the story is that this need for sharpness DEMANDS high shutter speeds to go along with the rapid movement of the athletes. These demands are the same whether shooting in broad daylight, or for low-light sports photography.
The minimum shutter speed you might get away with is kind of dependent upon the sport, and what activity is going on. It’s possible to get a clean shot of a batter approaching the box at 1/250, or of a free-throw attempt. But, the instant that bat is swung, or the moment that free-throw is rebounded, you now want to be in the 1/1000 and up range. What’s more, we all know that shutter speed is insurance against camera shake, so getting all the shutter speed you can manage and still get good exposure is a good idea.
Sports shot outdoors, and during the day, present the fewest technical challenges, because there’s generally enough light (See Fig 1a and 1b). Even harsh sunlight (and equally harsh shadows) can be tolerated because they facilitate fast shutter speeds. BUT, indoor low-light sports photography or evening sports, especially at venues that can’t really afford the most modern, powerful lighting, can be extremely challenging (See Fig 2 and Fig 3). The nature of the event (bodies in rapid motion), customer expectations (sharp, frozen imagery), venue (dimly lit gyms, stadiums, etc.), the prohibition of using flash photography (not universal, but nearly), can all be present, and contribute to the challenge of good photography. In my case all these things conspired to make good photography hard. Maybe that perfect storm analogy wasn’t so inappropriate.
The real, fundamental question inherent in my low-light sports photography, was how to get a good exposure, at a really fast shutter speed that wasn’t noisy.
Why not just denoise in post?
Why couldn’t it be noisy? I mean, I mean we can denoise in post processing, right? At the time, especially given the extreme conditions of low-light sports photography I was dealing with, denoising in post turned the athletes into waxy, rubbery mannequins. This happened (and still does, if not careful), I think, because the software couldn’t necessarily distinguish the random data generated by noise, from the random data associated with detail and texture. They both got wiped out, or smoothed, in pursuit of denoting the image.
An additional consideration when thinking about what constitutes an acceptable exposure, is the presence or absence of shadows in the image. Sure, shadows are a function of the nature of the scene, and possibly the dynamic range of that scene. But, experience has shown me that shadows, even if there’s no clipping, are the home of ISO induced noise, and once noise has made a home in your shadows, it’s very difficult to root it out. The solution then is to continue raising ISO so as to fill the shadows with detail, but then that produces more noise. You can see where this is going.
At this point, I think it’s probably a good idea to clarify what I mean by noise. Now, I’m not sure of the value of getting into a technical discussion of the nature of image noise, like this article does (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_noise), because we really only have so many ways to control it once we’re on scene and have the model camera in our hands that we’re going to use. We can try to use the lowest ISO possible. We can add light (by using artificial light), opening aperture, or by extending shutter speed. Or we can manage it in post production.
Moving forward, I conferred with a fellow sports photographer, and hit on exposure settings for basketball (as an example) of 1/1000 or up, f/2.8 (as fast as my lens would go), and ISO 6400 or up. I was using a Fuji crop sensor camera, and I’ve since heard that sensor size can contribute to image noise (see the Wikipedia article above), which I could well believe given the horribly noisy images that resulted. Having said that, colleagues who were shooting full frame had the same or similar results. Another notable setting I used was that I shot in RAW (RAF files in Fuji speak) only (more about that later).
One technique for getting max shutter speed
One way to get the absolutely highest shutter speed you possibly can, while still getting an acceptable exposure in low-light sports photography, is to use Aperture Priority, or Aperture Value (for you Canon speakers). So, I know what you’re thinking: “if I want a high shutter speed, why would I be working in an aperture mode?” This is a valid question. The thing is though, when in an aperture mode, the camera will give you the highest shutter speed possible, while giving you an acceptable exposure, and considering your ISO, and considering your metering mode. It’s the indirect approach for getting Max shutter speed, instead of just the one you commanded.
It is entirely possible that as you follow a player around the gym, which could very well have variation in lighting from one side to the other, that the maximum possible shutter speed could vary from subject location to subject location. If you set Aperture Priority, and have your widest aperture aperture set, and some ISO that doesn’t produce too much noise, then the camera will give you the max shutter speed possible when the shutter is depressed. In manual mode, you may be able to find a group of settings that give you an exposure you like, and a shutter speed that creates sharp images, but it will NOT give you the highest possible shutter speed when shutter release is depressed. This could make a difference, and I’ve seen it happen.
Further, philosophically, I learn toward leveraging the technology that I’ve paid for, and learned to use. I use the analogy of a 747 captain flying over the Atlantic. I’m pretty sure they aren’t flying hands on for 7 hours, staring at a wet compass bobbing around, and navigating by the stars. Instead, they leverage the billions of dollars of technology built into the machine, so that they can do higher order thinking. HOWEVER, if something goes wrong with the aircraft’s autopilot, a proficient aircrew can and will take manual control of anything they have to in order to continue the mission. In the same way, just as we use autofocus modes to improve our image sharpness, we can and should use auto exposure modes when they make sense and are giving us the results we want. When they can’t, or don’t, then we have to be ready, willing, and able, to use manual exposure mode to get what we want. Of course, that is merely my perspective, for what it’s worth. But, regardless of whether I liked auto exposure assistance, or wanted to mix my own, in terrible lighting conditions associated with low-light sports photography, I was forced to play with high ISO in order to capture motion.
So, as I mentioned, I could capture action with screaming high ISOs which facilitated screaming high shutter speeds. But with ISOs of 6400 and up, the images turned out to be excessively noisy. “But wait” I hear you saying, “Fuji crop sensor cameras are ISO Invariant, so you shouldn’t get noise no matter how high your ISO setting was.” Uh, yep, I’ve heard that, but my real-world experience demonstrates that this is not completely accurate. Chris Lee of YouTube channel PAL2TECH, and Ken Rockwell have both done exhaustive testing with variable results on this. Suffice it to say that in my case, my cameras were definitely ISO VARIANT.
Post processing options
At the time, 2021, I had two ways of dealing with excessive noise resulting from the sky high ISOs necessary to enable a shutter speed that would freeze motion for low-light sports photography: I could try Lightroom Classic Denoise, or I could go with a third party denoise program. In the case of Lightroom Classic, the Noise Reduction feature is a function of Adobe Camera Raw, and so could just as easily have been used as a function of Photoshop as well. However, the amount of denoise required, almost always turned the images into something reminiscent of a paint-by-numbers painting…almost posterized…and the cure was worse than the cold. This forced me to look for an aftermarket solution, and based on the results of some colleagues, I settled on Topaz Labs Denoise AI. My experience at the time was mixed.
When Topaz Denoise AI would work, it worked very well, nearly miraculously. But when it didn’t work, it didn’t work. Further, I was unable to guess which denoise model, and what settings, were actually going to do the trick. This inconsistency of denoise settings in Topaz only aggravated another issue that I had, which was that I needed to batch edit somewhere between 50-100 images at a crack. Topaz has a batch process feature, but since different images required different tweaks, I was usually unable to use it. So, all in all, for me, my first few weeks at my new gig were a frustrating go in post processing.
I’ll write about the denoise features in Lightroom, because I think its use is more widespread in the photographic community than anything else (I could be wrong I guess). First, a disclaimer: I do not have a software engineer’s understanding of exactly what the sliders in this panel of the Develop Module do. I’ve been told what they do, watched some Youtube videos, and been shown a couple of techniques. My method was to begin manipulating the sliders in the direction that an image started looking better, until it started looking worse…and then back off a bit. Beyond that, I had to trust in the magic that is LrC.
Speaking of the sliders, I generally focused on luminance but every now and then I’d find an image that seemed to have colors bleeding from one object, on to a nearby object in the frame. Hands would have flesh colored halos around them, or basketballs would have orange coronas. I was baffled by this issue and even dealt with my camera manufacturer and Adobe to come up with a solution, to no avail. I can not now remember how I figured it out, but the problem seems to have been color noise. As soon as I started applying the color noise manual correction sliders, the issue became manageable. If I had known that I would one day have a call to show someone what I meant, I would have saved those miserable files. But, alas, those losers were deleted long ago. Sorry. What’s the morale of the story? Do not ignore color noise.
I think it’s worth talking about another control within LrC, which is sharpening. First, it’s important to understand that RAW files are not, sharpened. In fact, nothing happens to them. There may be some in-camera manipulation during the creation of the sidecar jpg, which provides a preview of the raw file on the back of your camera, and when importing, but the RAW files are just that; raw. Given this, you probably want to sharpen RAW images before exporting them. But, my experience was that if I sharpened before performing denoise operations on an image, the net effect was to sharpen the noise, and this seemed to make it even more difficult to get rid of. For that reason, I recommend doing denoise prior to sharpening, which I leave for very last. (I’ve included a link to a video below in which this is discussed by Anthony Morganti.)
I continued to slog along putting a lot of time into editing in order to save horribly noisy images, without turning them to wax. And, in order to cut down the amount of time from game to delivery, I started flirting with shooting in RAW + JPG. Fuji is kind of known for putting out really excellent jpgs, and I thought if I could add another element of color or style to my images, without having to do it in post, well, why not? Further, since the customer wanted jpgs anyway, and fast, if I could get to a presentable image right in camera, while also having the RAW file to fall back on just in case the jpg wasn’t sufficient, then all the better.
What I found while experimenting with the various film simulations, dynamic range manipulations, and color controls, was really powerful. Perhaps the most powerful thing I discovered, or at least the one that would address the most significant issue for me in low-light sports photography, was the ability to apply a denoise algorithm in-camera, during the production of the jpg. In-camera denoise was a game changer for me. It dramatically reduced the amount of work necessary to recover otherwise noisy images (see Fig 4).
For the three people who’ll read this post, who already shoot Fuji, you probably know about the power of the in-camera settings. If you really want to hear somebody preach about them, watch this YouTube video by Dan Bailey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sA–crVg2iO&t=15s).
But, for the rest of you, this isn’t Fujifilm advertisement, so I’m not really going to go any further into the details of how that camera brand handles their jpg generation, or anything else about how their settings work. But, I will urge everyone to at least familiarize themselves with their in-camera jpg manipulation settings, and perhaps to experiment with them a bit.
Some of you may be hesitant to do that, and subscribe to the mantra “always shoot RAW.” I get it. RAW files can really save your bacon sometimes, and any photo that is a winner (I think I have…five…OK…2…OK none) I definitely want to have a RAW archive copy of. But, I’ve also learned that in photography there are truly very few instances in which it’s wise to use either the word “never”, or “always.” So, I’d just ask everyone to please just take a little to learn about your system’s capabilities, and then decide if it can or should fit into your shooting style. What can it hurt? Having extolled the virtues of in-camera jpg settings, I can’t guarantee that they’ll work for anyone else. I think the chances of success are largely a matter of camera model, individual settings, exposure settings, and conditions.
Further, I have to admit that in-camera denoise was not a panacea. First, it could also be overdone, creating waxy looking surfaces similar to Lightroom. Second, It was frequently the case that additional manipulation was necessary anyway. But it was a big help, and I still regularly use it for nearly all conditions. Third, there are some lighting conditions in which sufficiently fast shutter speeds to freeze motion just simply aren’t possible.
About a year ago, I shot a college rodeo on a Friday night, in what was the worst lit stadium I think I’d ever seen. Speeds that gave me enough light to get even a poor exposure simply resulted in blurry images. ISO that provided a hope of even an under exposed image, were absolutely unusable due to noise (I even experimented with ISO 25600, which was simply disastrous). The in camera denoise capability was simply overwhelmed (See Figs 5 through 7).
I did get to see something interesting at the rodeo though, germane to this topic. The “official” photographer at the event was allowed to set up some very powerful strobes (3) outside the ring, and across from the bull chute. They were up on stands about…15 feet, and went off every time a bull exited. I saw the resulting images online, and didn’t find them particularly remarkable, but they were better than mine. I guess it just goes to show you that if you’re not getting any love from the Exposure Triangle, turn it into the Exposure Diamond.
Between the rodeo, and today, I really haven’t shot all that much stuff in low light conditions. However, during that period, something miraculous did happen: Adobe announced Lightroom Classic 12.3
(https://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom-classic/help/whats-new/2023-3.html). One of the major
changes was the introduction of an AI powered denoise tool, that also has a masking function built in. My experience with it, from the very beginning was that this new denoise feature was an absolute game changer. It was better than the old, manual, LrC denoise tool (IMHO), and was better than anything I was able to achieve with any of the versions of Topaz Denoise AI. What’s more, and you can find demonstrations of this online (New Lightroom Classic 12.3 – AI Noise Reduction), the AI tool did not appear to destroy detail in the pursuit of noise reduction. I think it’s a real boon. If you haven’t tried it do so. Learn it. Live it. Love it.
So, in the final analysis, where has this journey through the poorly lit halls of low-light sports photography world brought us? What are the techniques, tips, and tricks for dealing with low light situations, and especially action in low-light situations? After thinking about it at length, here are my suggestions:
- Get a fast lens. This will help you gather light, and it helps make your backgrounds fade into blur…sometimes.
- Stick to shutter speeds that suit the action you’re trying to capture. That will depend on the activity, and to some extent the focal length you intend to shoot at, so you’ll have to experiment.
- ISO can be your enemy, but like Machiavelli said “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” What I mean by that is that you’re simply going to have to flirt with high ISO, and what that does to your images will depend on the exact conditions, and the rest of your settings. You need to know those impacts.
- Don’t let your shadows harbor clipping or noise. Brighten them if you can with ISO.
- Explore the possibility of adding artificial light. If you can’t, then you can’t. But, if you can, then bonus!
- Consider going full frame, if you’re not already there.
- Be strategic, if you can put windows or other light sources behind you, use their illumination to assist you. I’ve even strategically used scoreboards to light athletes as they ran by.
- Know your equipment. Know what it can do, and how to make it do it. Explore the options of in-camera denoise. This applies to exposure modes too.
- Know your post-processing options. Explore the denoise capabilities of all the editing tools at your disposal.
Need help on deciding which lens is best for sports photography? Check out this article!