Photographing Indoor Events: The Need For Speed

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Indoor photography is always challenging. But standing head and shoulders above the rest in difficulty is the challenge of photographing large indoor events well. Rare is the well-lit auditorium, cafeteria or high school gym. Even most college sports venues aren't lit well enough to make life easy. In this article, I'll give you some tips on how to record events indoors effectively, whether they are your kid's sports, a concert, an exhibit or tradeshow that you need to chronicle...

The title really says it all—the need for speed. The biggest problem with indoor venues is low light levels. Pro sporting venues are often well lit for TV, but odds are your venue won't be. So the first thing you need to do is get a camera with the best low light performance you can afford. Simply put, low light performance is measured by how high you can crank up the ISO on your camera before the noise becomes unacceptable. Cameras with larger sensors and newer sensor designs tend to perform better than those with older or smaller sensors.

In my case, for example, I own both a Nikon D700 and a Nikon D300s, but I always use the D700 for indoor events, since the larger sensor gives me just about double the low-light performance. I can shoot as high as ISO 6400 in a pinch, and still have useable results. Even the D300 and D300s were a boost over my older D200 (perhaps ISO 2200 versus ISO 1100 on the older camera) which in turn performed better than cameras going all the way back to my first D1, which was tough to crank up above ISO 400 without noise.

Point and shoots, as you can probably guess by now, are the hardest to use for indoor events. But of course that is often what we have handy. If you need to use one, make sure and use whatever low light or high ISO mode it has, and if—like the Canon G12 or Canon S95—it allows you to capture Raw images, you'll be best off using it instead of the JPEG mode, and working with a separate noise reduction tool later.

Each doubling of the ISO lets you double the shutter speed you use. And shutter speed is crucial for event photography. You can have the best VR or IS (stabilization) system in the world, but it won't freeze the activity of your subjects. For indoor sports this is particularly important, since frenetic activity like volleyball or basketball requires shutter speeds around 1/500s to freeze action. For a tradeshow you may be able to get by with speeds as low as 1/60s.

Remember that the tighter you zoom in, the higher your shutter speed needs to be. If you are shooting a large, wide-angle view of an entire event, you can often get by with quite a low shutter speed, as motions will appear small in the frame. But if you are zoomed in on individual participants or athletes, then even small motions will produce unsharp images.

The Color of Light

The second lighting challenge indoors is the color and quality of light. Unless you are in a venue lit for television, it is unlikely to have full-spectrum lighting. Likely it has some mix of incandescent, fluorescent and other harsh artificial light sources. Especially if the venue is too large to use flash effectively, you'll be stuck with the lighting you find. Here again, shooting Raw lets you tweak the white balance (adjusting for the ambient lighting) later in Photoshop or your Raw processor, but if you can't, then experiment with your camera's white balance settings to get one that is closest to the light you've found.

Watch Your Exposure

Depending on what you want to photograph, you may need quite a bit of exposure compensation because of the wide variance in light levels in indoor situations. As an extreme, I wanted to photograph the "lightning" from this Tesla coil, so I had to both use flash to brighten the surroundings and minus compensation so that the electricity didn't blow out:

Using Flash (and When Not to)

We've all looked out across sporting events and seen dozens of tiny flashes popping as spectators try to take photos of stadium-sized venues with their built-in flashes going off. All they are doing is killing their batteries, confusing their camera, and slowing down their ability to capture multiple frames in sequence. If you find yourself in that position, do yourself a favor and turn off your flash.

But for indoor venues in particular, if you have a full-size speedlite like the Nikon SB-900 or Canon 580-EX ii, you may be surprised by how effective they can be. In the following image of a robotics competition in a large venue, I bounced the light from my SB-900 off the bright metal ceiling to fill out the light in the room.

What About Those Big Lenses?

If you own a pro telephoto zoom, you've probably been asked many times why you're using such a big lens, or how someone can get the same images without carrying such a heavy lens. And you probably know that the answer is that you can't. Speed in lenses—loosely defined as faster focusing and wider minimum aperture allowing in more light—comes at a price in cost, size and weight. A 70-200mm f/2.8 lens can let in more than twice as much light as its smaller, cheaper 70-300mm cousin.

So for indoor action like sports there really isn't any substitute for using the fastest lens you can afford and carry into the venue—even if it means a larger camera bag or using a monopod for stability. The image below of a volleyball game in a poorly lit gym was made without flash, back when I was using my D2H and could only go to ISO 800. I was still able to freeze the action by opening up the lens to f/2.8, getting me a shutter speed of 1/320s. Note, though, that nothing short of flash would help the quality of light, so the player's face just doesn't come alive the way it would have if I had been able to use flash or strobes.

If you'd like some more tips on photographing kids' sports, I've got an article with lots of handy pointers that you may want to read.

Noise and the Quiet Shutter

For most events, noise isn't an issue, but for certain types of music or for religious services it can be a big deal. When I was asked to photograph a memorial service, I had to choose between the low light performance of my D700 and the Quiet Shutter feature of my D300s. I wound up using both cameras—for the quiet shutter when I was close to the audience, and the D700 for the better low-light and wide-angle full-frame performance embodied by the 20mm overview of the stage and audience in the image below:

Use the Rehearsal

Theater and music performances are carefully controlled scenes with pre-determined lighting, and plenty of audience members who will resent a photographer sticking a large camera up in front of the stage. But dress rehearsals can be a goldmine for photographing plays or dances in particular. Often, by volunteering to take photos of the event, which the sponsors can use for promotion or just as keepsakes, you can get access to a rehearsal and have the freedom to take some great images. If you can, have them crank up the lights to their maximum, but if you can't, then you can use remote flashes to help out.

When photographing the dress rehearsal in the image below, I had three speedlites spread across the front of the stage, which I were controlling with a remote commander on my D700. That gave me maximum flexibility for lighting. I always have the lower right button on my camera programmed to be "flash kill" so I can take images with or without flash. In this case, the flash allowed me to freeze the motion of the dancer while keeping my ISO low enough to keep the image from becoming noisy:

Step Outside

One way to "fix" the lighting at an indoor event is simply to step outside. Of course you probably can't move the action outside, but if you are also taking portrait shots of individuals, families or teams, you may be able to get them to step outside briefly, to take advantage of natural daylight. My daughter and I took this portrait of ourselves before a recent event using a remote before stepping inside, where it would have been much more difficult.

Asking Permission or Asking Forgiveness

The minute you go indoors, you're of course on someone's property, and possibly at an event that is considered private or proprietary. So think about the permission(s) you might need in order to photograph, to use flash, or to publish the photographs. Of course, if it is an event or exhibit to which you've been invited, you'll want to make sure and get permission in advance. Some religions, for example, do not allow photography or do not allow flash photography. Others are fine with it, or might allow it for some types of services and not others.

Similarly, for sporting events there may be rules limiting your choice of equipment—many pro events have started refusing entrance to anyone with a DSLR, monopod or tripod, while others don't seem to care. High school events may prohibit the use of flash photography, while at college or pro events for the same sport you may see dozens of flashes going off.

And of course, your rights to use or sell the images may be limited if the event is owned by someone—almost always the case for professional sports, for example, and for most commercial concerts—or if you use recognizable images of people. As a practical matter, though, if you are taking images for your own enjoyment these issues aren't really a big deal. But if it is a private event, then obviously you should consider whether you need permission to post images publically.

Pro Tip: Photographing Projector Screens

Screens can often be much brighter than the room—especially if it has been darkened for easy viewing. You may need to dial in minus compensation if you want the screen to be readable, or get permission to briefly use flash to even out the light levels.

Learning More

If you've enjoyed these tips, please do visit my sites where you can find many others on all aspects of photography, cardinalphoto.com and nikondigital.org. And if you're ready to go to the next level, please consider joining me for one of my small group digital photo workshops and safaris. --David Cardinal

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"Screens can often be much brighter than the room—especially if it has been darkened for easy viewing. You may need to dial in minus compensation if you want the screen to be readable, or get permission to briefly use flash to even out the light levels."

So, which technique did you use to capture the image above?

Howard--In this case I used some flash bounced off the roof but in fairness the scene was not too extreme. The more darkened the room the more the high contrast is an issue and the harder the photographer ***** to work to have both the screen and the speaker and/or audience visible.--David

Another effect of many 'consumer' zooms is that their maximum aperture (lowest f/number) increases as the focal length goes up. More than a 'stop' may be lost when you go from wide-angle to zoomed-in. Point-and-shoot cameras may be worse. The Canon S95 is f/2.0 at it's widest and f/4.9 zoomed-in -- two and a half f/stops.

The photographer can choose, shoot 'wider' to collect more light (and be able to use a higher shutter speed) and then crop the image, or zoom in to take the picture but settle for a slower shutter speed.

I found this to be very helpful.  I am getting into photography as a hobby as my kids enter the sports age.  I have been told so many things by so many people, costing me thousands of dollars.  Utilizing proper shutter speeds and iso's has helped alot.  You mentioned being able to double the iso allows you to double the shutter speed.  Is this a linear progression (i.e. taking a shutter speed of 200 to 400 if I increase the ISO from 100 to 200?)

 Great article,

Any advice on buying? I use my camera for indoor sports of my kids.

My dilema is spending the extra cash, almost 3x as much for the Cannon A70-200mm f/2.8 or the comparable less expensive Tameron. 

Will the Tameron give me the quality I want or am I going to wish I saved my ******* and got the Cannon. I have also looked into used or refurbished Cannon lens but still it's 2x the cost of the Tameron

Thanks,

Hello, i found your tips about the noise and quiet shutter very helpful thank you and do keep posting!

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