By Steve Cavigliano. I find shooting indoor basketball without a flash to be both challenging and enjoyable. It may be difficult the first time out, but dont let that intimidate you. It really is a lot of fun and I can almost guarantee that the more you shoot indoor sports, the more pleased you will be with your results. Whether you have a loved one playing, or not, it can be very important to come home with some nice memories. I will attempt to cover the basics so you can do just that. The main reason this type of shooting is so challenging is because of the lighting. That and trying to stop, or freeze action, which will be covered later. Even though our eyes have no problem with typical gym lighting, cameras do. This lighting is 8-9 stops less than a sunny outdoor day. Depending on the gym you may not only experience different intensities of light, but also different lighting temperatures. Some gyms may have lighting that cycles. This can create strange colors in images, even if a Custom/Manual White Balance has been set. Gyms for elementary school children usually have the worst lighting. It is EV6 lighting and likely the worst you will face. High school gyms should have better lighting. College gyms better still.
If your goal is to print your results at large sizes (8x10 or larger) and you want to freeze action. You will almost certainly need to use a Digital SLR with a fast prime lens. By fast, I mean a lens with a maximum aperture no greater than F2.0. The appropriate focal length would depend on where you are able to shoot from and the lens multiplier factor of the camera. The most popular fast lenses are 50mm, 85mm, 100mm and 135mm. These lenses will allow you to shoot in poorly lit gyms at action-freezing speeds. This is not to say that this is the only set up that can capture some nice memories. One could use a non-SLR camera, with an F2.8 or faster lens that also provides ISO800. This option would likely restricted speeds to 1/125 or slower. Meaning the slower speeds required to properly expose the shot, would not freeze action. The slower the speed needed for a good exposure, the more likely motion blur. Despite some motion blur, you can still bring home some nice memories with patience, practice, a little noise reduction software and good timing. As this image, taken with a Sony F-717, F2.4, 1/125 and ISO800 illustrates.
I mentioned gyms may have different temperature lighting. This temperature will effect the colors within the image, as shooting under inside lighting normally does. Many gyms have very warm lighting that will give your images a warm color cast. If you will be shooting in JPG mode, then setting a Custom/Manual White Balance is the best way to ensure correct color temperature. Even if you will be shooting RAW, performing a Custom/Manual White Balance is highly recommended.
This image is typical of what an image might look like if you do not set the white balance prior to shooting. Notice the yellow-orange color cast? It is not very pleasant looking at tinted images in the LCD during review. It is also a pain to have to adjust white balance for each individual image during post-processing.
You can use Manual, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes. Whichever you find most comfortable. I would not recommend using a Sports mode unless you have used it successfully before in similar lighting. The lighting will be so poor, you should start by shooting at maximum aperture, using Manual or Aperture Priority. You can always stop down once you are certain you can obtain a fast speed. To freeze motion and for the sharpest results, a 1/500 shutter speed is ideal. If you choose to use Shutter Priority, set it for this speed. You can stop action, with some level of motion blur, using slower speeds. When using a camera/lens that cannot be set to yield a decent exposure at 1/500 speeds, you can minimize motion blur by trying to capture players at the top of their jump. Or, by panning with them as they move parallel to the lens face. ISO should be set at ISO800 up to ISO3200, depending on the lighting and the shutter speed desired. The higher the ISO, the faster speeds you will be able to obtain. The amount of image noise increases as ISO increases. For small prints or web viewing, this may not be much of an issue. For larger prints, it can be. There are many fine Noise Reduction solutions available. There are also techniques that can be used during post processing to reduce or minimize image noise. The key thing to remember is that you can always remove noise, but you cant remove motion blur.
If your camera has AI Servo/Predictive Focusing, use it. You may need to do continuous half-pressing of the shutter release to get it to lock on and stay locked on. If your camera does not have predictive focus you may have to re-half press the shutter release to re-establish focus lock as your subject moves. If your camera is capable of shooting bursts or continuously, make use of this feature. Combined with Predictive Auto Focus, shooting in bursts will capture some very nice sequences. Shooting bursts also gives predictive focus longer to lock on and images from the 2nd frame on may be in better focus. It is easiest to use a single focus point, at least to start with. The center focus point probably offers the best odds that all desired limbs will be within the frame and that you are focusing where intended. Multi point Auto Focus can be used, but chances of it locking on to the player you desire are greatly reduced If your camera allows you to shoot RAW images, you should take advantage of the post processing latitude the additional bits contained in a RAW file provide. You can increase the exposure and easily adjust white balance for starters. If your camera only allows you to shoot JPG, then getting the best exposure (and white balance) possible is even more critical. Even if this means using a slower speed. A precious image with some motion blur is better than no image what-so-ever.
Familiarize yourself with the rules and flow of the game. The better you understand the sport, the better your positioning will be and you will also be better able to anticipate action before it occurs. If allowed to roam freely, try shooting from different locations. Perspectives such as, from behind the backboard, behind the baseline, from the corners and sidelines. You can also get nice perspectives shooting from different elevations in the stands. Keep in mind that most players shoot right-handed and drive to the right. So if you want to capture their faces, you need to be shooting from the opposite side of the court. A cameras Auto Focus will usually lock on fastest and stay locked longest when focused on an area of high contrast. Combine this fact with the shallow depth of field using wide open apertures can produce, and it may be difficult to consistently and accurately focus on faces. This is especially true when shooting younger players, where facial contrast is lacking. You may get the better results by aiming your focus point at the chest around the numbers or team name area. Constantly track your subject(s) by continuing to half press the shutter release until lock is achieved. If you feel you have lost focus lock, half press again to reacquire. Doing lots of half pressing without fully depressing the release is quite normal. By doing this, when the decisive moment arrives you will have focus lock and be ready to fire away.
Framing is difficult, since you have no control over the distance to subject(s) and little control of focal length (unless you plan to change lenses). Try to frame your subject(s) tightly, without cutting off limbs. The tighter your framing the more detail will be captured. Also, tight framing will better isolate your subject(s) and help to blur the background. You can always crop tighter later, if you so desire. Shooting in portrait orientation will help make sure you capture the entire player(s). Busy backgrounds can ruin an otherwise decent shot. Watch your backgrounds and if shooing tight be aware of the shallow depth of field. So when do you fully depress the release? If you desire to capture the most interesting action shots, keep the following in mind. Capture faces, the ball, action and contact. The more of these elements you capture in one image, the more interesting it will be to view. Anticipation is key and everything weve discussed to this point was aimed at preparing you for this moment. All the settings are taken care of and you can concentrate 100% on tracking, focus lock and capturing the shot. This is a fast paced sport. The ball and/or players can come at you in a hurry. Be Aware of the action around you. Shooting with your other eye open can help you stay on top of things. Go for the shot but keep other peoples rights in mind. Dont be a pushy photographer who stands in others line-of-sight. Well thats about it. I hope the information you found here gets you through the game and home with some nice captures. Let the post processing begin. Stay tuned for Post-Processing Indoor Sports Shots. Discuss this tutorial on Digital Grin Forums.