13 Tips for Doing Action Photography in Bad Light

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13 Tips for Doing Action Photography in Bad Light

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Elizabeth-Bars

Sometimes I feel cursed. Like any parent I want to take pictures of my kids doing their activities. However, I have a daughter who is a gymnast. For a photographer, that is a toxic combination of very fast action with generally poor light. But then it gets worse. My other daughter is very involved with her school’s theatre program. That means I’m trying to take pictures of her acting, singing, and dancing in the worst light imaginable.

As a result, I spend a lot of my time trying to photograph action in bad lighting. Having done so for a while now, I have a few tips to pass along, so hopefully this will be easier for you next time you find yourself in a similar a situation – shooting action photography in bad or low light conditions.

#1. Use Manual Mode

Before you even think about shooting, make sure your camera is set up for success. Let’s start with the shooting mode. No matter what mode you normally use, in this context you are going to need a large degree of control over your camera’s settings. Manual mode gives you complete control, so it is generally a good choice. If you are not comfortable using Manual, or if you face changing light conditions, use Aperture Priority.

Hannah1

Shutter speed: 1/320; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO 3200.

You will be using very specific exposure settings that the camera probably wouldn’t choose on its own. We will get to those settings in a moment, but using Manual (or Aperture Priority) will allow you to use them.

#2. Use Fast Glass

Next, you’ll need to decide which lens to use. Use your longest and fastest lens (fast glass) here. The low light environment means that you will want a lens with a wide aperture, that lets in a lot of light. The fact that your subject is likely to be rather far away from you means that you will also need a longer focal length. I personally use a 70-200mm f/2.8 and it works great. I could see even using a longer lens than that.

You may be inclined to use a teleconverter to get some extra reach. If you aren’t familiar with teleconverters, they are extensions that fit between your camera and lens, which increase the magnification of the lens, usually by 1.4 or 2 times. In other contexts, they work great – in a low light environment, however, they don’t. A 1.4x teleconverter costs you 1 stop of light and a 2x teleconverter costs you 2 stops of light. If you start with an f/4 lens, it is now an f/8 lens. That won’t work here. There just isn’t enough light. If you need the extra reach, you are better off taking the picture without it and then cropping it later.

Pub-music

Sometimes a slower shutter speed adds a sense of movement. Shutter speed: 1/10; Aperture: f/4; ISO: 6400.

#3. Shoot Wide Open

Now it is time to prepare the shot. The first exposure setting to make is the aperture. Deciding which aperture to use in this context is easy. Put the aperture at its widest setting, which is the smallest f-number. Doing so lets in the most light. The downside is that you will have a very shallow depth of field. However, in this context that should not matter. You will only want your subject in focus and having some background blur is just fine (sometimes even preferable).

#4. Set a Fast Shutter Speed

Next you will set your shutter speed. The trick here is to make sure you are using a fast enough one. If your subject is not moving, then your minimum shutter speed will be a function of your focal length. The Reciprocal Rule states that your minimum shutter speed for a sharp picture should be the inverse of your focal length. So if you are shooting at 100mm your shutter speed should be 1/100 of a second or faster.

When your subject is moving, things change a bit and you will need to use an even faster shutter speed. I find that 1/200th of a second is a minimum for a moving subject if you want to avoid any blur. Start with that setting, and increase it if you have enough light. Try hard to avoid using a slower shutter speed unless you are trying to add a slight blur to your subject, to show a sense of movement. Otherwise, even if you don’t see any blur when you look at your pictures in the LCD, it might still be there and you will be disappointed when you get back to your computer to find you have a card full of blurry pictures.

Elizabeth-Floor

In this picture, I was able to get away with a shutter speed of only 1/160th of a second because my subject wasn’t moving. . . (Shutter speed: 1/160; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO: 2000)

#5. Set the ISO (High)

The final exposure setting to make is ISO. Since you have already set your aperture and shutter speed, the ISO just is what it is. Set the ISO to whatever level is necessary to achieve a proper exposure.

Don’t be alarmed if you need to use a very high ISO to get a proper exposure. I routinely use ISO 1600 or 3200, and sometimes I even need to put it to ISO 6400. These are ISOs I would never even think about using in most other situations, but they are often necessary here.

. . . but in this photo where my subject was moving, 1/160th of a second wasn't quite fast enough (Shutter speed: 1/160; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO 3200)

. . . but in this photo where my subject was moving, 1/160th of a second wasn’t quite fast enough. Arguably the blur in the legs implies movement, but it isn’t what I was trying to do (Shutter speed: 1/160; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO 3200).

#6 Test Your Exposure Settings Before the Action Begins

Test your exposure settings before the action starts. Since you are indoors, the light is often unchanging. In that case you can tweak the exposure settings and then more or less forget about them while you concentrate on the action. Where there is changing light, you will need to revisit the exposure settings often. In any case, start by making sure they are right, and do a test.

#7. Zoom In

Now let’s concentrate on the taking pictures part. In composing the picture, the first rule is to fill the frame. Zoom in on your subject. Don’t leave a lot of background. The important part of your picture is your subject, and they should dominate the picture.

#8. Wait for Peak Action

(Shutter speed 1/250th of a second; Aperture f/2.8; ISO 6400).

(Shutter speed 1/250th of a second; Aperture f/2.8; ISO 6400).

You may be inclined to machine gun your subject during the action. I know that there are many photographers who do that with great success, but I find it rarely works for me. Instead, anticipate moments of peak of action and prepare for them. When the peak action arrives take 2 – 4 shots very quickly (make sure your camera is in continuous shooting mode) and then recompose. When something else of interest happens, take 2 – 4 more shots, and so on.

Try to anticipate those moments of peak action. When you do so, and you shoot in a quick burst, you are more likely to get the best shots.

#9. Don’t Overlook Breaks in the Action

It may seem odd, but breaks in the action are often great times to shoot. By a break in the action, I mean two things.

The first is a momentary pause during the event. For example, in gymnastics after a difficult move there is typically a momentary pose. The same holds true in singing and dancing, as they hold a pose after finishing a part of a routine. The pose often makes a great shot, plus they aren’t moving so you won’t have as big of a problem with blur.

A break in the action will sometimes provide great shots while allowing you to use a slower shutter speed (Shutter speed: 1/50th of a second; Aperture f/2.8; ISO 3200).

A break in the action will sometimes provide great shots while allowing you to use a slower shutter speed (Shutter speed: 1/50th of a second; Aperture f/2.8; ISO 3200).

The second break in the action I am talking about is an actual break, like the end of a period in sports. There are often warm-up drills going on at that time that lend themselves to great shots. Plus you are typically allowed a bit more latitude in terms of your own movements, and you don’t have to worry about getting in anyone’s way. The best part is that no one will know whether you took the shot during a drill or the real game/match/meet. In fact, after a year or two, you probably won’t remember either!

#10. Nail the Focus

Because you are shooting with your aperture wide open, you will have a very shallow depth of field. That means the focus will be unforgiving and if you miss it there is no leeway.

So what should you focus on? Well, the subject, of course. If your subject is a person, then always focus on the eyes. If the eyes are on different planes, focus on the nearest eye.

This is an area where it pays to be comfortable with your camera’s autofocus modes. Your camera will have a mode designed to focus on stationary points (Canon calls this One-Shot and Nikon and Sony call it AF-S). Your camera will have another autofocus mode designed to track moving subjects, which Canon calls AI Servo and Nikon and Sony call AF-C. In the case of a moving subject, this mode will continuously track your initial focus point and readjust as it moves. Most photographers use this mode in the case of a subject that is moving. I personally almost always use the stationary autofocus, but use whichever one you are comfortable with.

Hannah2

Shutter speed: 1/640; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO 3200.

Another decision you should make to help with your focusing is whether to use back button focus. Normally, your camera focuses when you press your shutter button half way down. You can, however, set your camera to focus when you press a button on the back of the camera instead. I prefer this method because the focus will not automatically reset with each picture, Either way is fine, but back button focus gives you slightly more control over your camera’s focus so you might want to give it a try.

#11. Chimp!

That’s right, I want you to chimp. This refers to the act of looking at your photos on the camera’s LCD screen. Some photographers look down on this practice and referred to it as chimping (supposedly because the people looking at the LCD make “oo oo” noises while looking at their pictures, similar to chimpanzees). I actually think you should look at your LCD in any shooting context, but in this situation it is important to do so. There is just too much that can go wrong, and you need to make sure you are getting the shots. You might have the exposure wrong, your focus might be off, the action might be too fast for your shutter speed, and so on. You do not want to get home and discover you were doing something wrong, that could have been corrected while you were shooting.

#12. Additional Noise Reduction

You will have your own workflow for post-processing your pictures, so I will not dwell on that too much here. There are a few things, however, that are particularly important in this context, that I want to pass along. The first is that you will need to do some noise reduction since you will be using high ISOs for these shots, and you should probably do it in a manner that is a little different than you are used to doing.

Start off by using Lightroom’s noise reduction in the usual manner. Push the Luminance slider under Noise Reduction to the right. There is an equivalent slider in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), if you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Keep the increase moderate at this point, I find that is usually in the range of 10-15.

After that, reduce the noise in the background further. The background of your picture will usually be blurry because you used a large aperture, so the loss of detail from the additional noise reduction will not hurt anything. In Lightroom, use the Adjustment Brush and push the noise slider to the right, painting in where you want the noise reduction. Photoshop users can do the same thing in ACR or create a new layer with noise reduction, while masking off the subject.

Using Lightroom's Adjustment Brush to Sharpen and Add Noise Reduction

Using Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush to Sharpen and add Noise Reduction – you will need two adjustment brush points added, one for the subject and a second for the background.

Note: you will need to add two adjustment brush points to do this (because you’re making different adjustments to each), one for the subject (to increase Clarity and Sharpness, see below) and a second for the background (to increase Noise Reduction).

#13. Sharpen the Subject

Next, sharpen your photo but, similar to the noise reduction you did above, you should tailor it to this situation. To start off, apply a slight amount of sharpening to the whole image, but not as much as you would usually apply because it will likely also cause an increase in noise.

Then apply sharpening to the subject only. In Lightroom, use the Adjustment Brush again. This time increase the Clarity and Sharpening amounts. Apply the effect only to your subject, while leaving the background alone. In Photoshop you can do the same thing in ACR or create a new layer that you sharpen, and mask off everything but your subject. The extra sharpening will help make your subject stand out a little bit better.

Conclusion

Photographing action in low light is a severe test of your camera equipment and your photography skills. It pays to have fast glass and a camera that performs well in low light. Using the tips in this article, you should be able to set up your camera and make the proper exposure settings. It will take practice to consistently nail the focus. It will take even more practice, and a little bit of luck, to capture the moments of peak action. But when you do, it is priceless.

Do you have any other tips or tricks that you use when shooting action in bad or low light? Please share in the comments below.

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Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, beginning photographers should be sure to check out his new book Getting Started in Photography, now available in the Kindle store!

  • phshbone

    While I enjoy reading your tips in DFS, I wish you would incorporate more tips for people with “slow glass”. I follow your tips, adjust as best I can and never ever get photos resembling yours. My fastest lens is a 4.5 70-300 tamron. I can only get shots using shutter priority. And I still need to do post products on them.

    Any chance of getting more tutorials for people who don’t have/can’t afford “fast glass” and would like to get quality photos.

  • Excellent idea. Didn’t mean to be exclusionary. I’m going to mull that and come up with a good article or two on the subject.

  • phshbone

    Thanks, Jim. Didn’t mean to single you out. It’s more of a DPS issue. I’ve gained great knowledge and I’ve spent hours practicing. It’s a little frustrating reading tips and never seeming to replicate the the author’s results. You have all reached a level where you have access to top notch equipment. I would imagine a large portion of your audience hasn’t.
    Thanks again for the tips!

  • Great tutorial, nice that you included the post-processing bit!

  • Richard Taylor

    From personal experience when shooting classical music concerts if you havn’t got fast glass you may need to use very high ISO values (6400+ with f2.8 (zoom) lenses). Even with M4/3 bodies 12800 is usable for web publishing and smaller prints using the processing methods above.
    The other alternative, if you do a lot of it is to consider some fast (f2 or faster) consumer primes. When I was shooting with my older DSLRs I was using a 35mm f2, 50mm f1.5, 85mm f1.8 (these lenses are not super expensive) and a 135mm f2, (which was expensive), on multiple bodies

  • Calvin Guyer

    Thank you for the post. I have found that using auto-ISO and setting the aperture and shutter for the situation is another great alternative. I like to stop down my 70-200 to f4 or f3.5 and shoot at 1/500 or so when at my daughter’s volleyball matches. Back button focus is a must as is single point focus. The auto-ISO setting will adjust to best meet the other two settings. I limit the ISO to 6400 in the settings panel. Shooting Raw allows me to pull out a bit of detail in post even when it’s a bit underexposed.

  • Doug Sundseth

    Low light and high speed is a situation where you actually really want expensive equipment. But if you have to use slow glass:

    1. Push your ISO hard. You can probably go at least two stops farther than you normally would. Accept that you’ll have some digital noise in your photos. But make sure that you have an acceptable exposure and sharpness.
    2. Wait for momentary pauses in the action; these nearly always happen, btw. Conductors pause with their batons raised, athletes reach the peaks of their leaps or prepare themselves to take action, speakers pause for emphasis, whatever. Feel for the rhythm of the performance and shoot when the motion is slow.
    3. If you can’t shoot in the pauses, try to shoot when the performer’s motion is directly toward or away from the camera. Lateral motion causes much more blur.
    4. Practice panning with the performer. A blurred background isn’t the problem that a blurred subject is. And some blur can (as noted above) work to show motion.
    5. Shoot in burst mode in hopes that you catch at least one frame that is acceptably sharp.
    6. Dim your LCD. The default setting on most camera LCDs makes shots taken and reviewed in the darkness look too bright. This tends to make you underexpose.

  • Josh

    You not alone…the average equipment can’t duplicate this with what I would consider optimal results. I shoot a lot of action and have a 7D. While I do have a 50mm prime they typically can’t get close enough to the action to get decent shots for events like these. Take for example the shot of the girl doing the handstand on the bar. The photographers settings were f/2.8 1/160sec ISO 3200. Let’s say you’re using a kit lens (55-250mm). All the way zoomed out you’re forced to use f/5.6 as your widest option. That’s 2 full stops of light compared to 2.8. Which means your shutter speed and ISO will need to change to compare. At this point either your ISO just went to 128000, if it can, with shutter still at 1/160. Or you can split the settings to where now your shutter 1/80 sec and ISO 64000. When it comes to action and these realities it’s almost not worth the time for the quality of shots you’ll be coming home with. It’s pretty sad when you think about how much we pay for just the basics and can’t even shoot quality indoors for sports.

  • Reni

    Thank you! I am just starting to learn so I always try avoiding high ISO, because there is nothing I can do about it in post-processing. Now I see there is a pretty easy way to fix it! Time to learn some more Lightroom I guess 🙂

  • Great tips, thanks! Especially the ones about pauses and panning. It reminded me of something else. If you are in a situation where your LCD might be a bother to others, tape over it. You can use your viewfinder to set exposure and compose (assuming you have a viewfinder). You won’t be able to check your work on the LCD so don’t do it unless you have to.

  • Right, and good example (although I assume you mean ISO 12,800). That’s a higher ISO than I ever like to use. But if you aren’t using fast glass, what choice do you have? At least with noise reduction you have a shot of making ISO 12,800 work.

  • Filippo Giadrossi

    Yup, I think you forgot the white balance part. For me it’s important to use pre-misured white balance!!

  • Blake Lewis

    Pro tip for people with slow glass: get better glass.

  • Blake Lewis

    This is a cute list for what looks like largely easy shots to make. Try taking your camera down to your local dive bar and getting photos of a band with a single red dirty gel lamp for light.

  • android4

    A fast 50MM for most camera platforms is $100-200 f1.8 or better for most.

  • Hey Jim, can you expound a bit more on the single focus setting when shooting action? I make my living photographing horses (nearly always in action and many times in low light arenas). I am already doing everything you mentioned except not using servo mode (I always use that combined with high drive). Do you use that mode to lock onto the subject then pan with it? I use the Canon 7d mark ii and Canon 70-200 2.8.

  • Logan Pickup

    Another thing you can do if you have slow glass – underexpose a stop, and bring it back in post-production. It’s not ideal, but if you’re already pushing the ISO higher than you’d like it will have fewer undesirable artefacts than extreme ISOs.

  • Charlie Barker

    Hi Jim great tips. You are so lucky being able to photograph your children at such events, here in the UK my 5 year old grandson was in his school nativity play strictly no photography. Words fail me.

  • I was going to add that getting fast glass doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank and getting a 70-200 f/2.8 IS lens. An 85mm f/1.8 can be had for under $400. A 200mm f/2.8 for under $800. So choosing prime lenses over zooms can help in the budget area.

  • Re: #6 – or taking it a step further don’t trust the LCD for exposure, learn to read and use the histogram. http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-read-and-use-histograms/

  • Oh, I’ve run into that here as well. Let’s just say I’ve been known to ignore “no photography” rules if they go too far. And if you are telling me I cannot photograph my kid, then yeah, you’ve gone too far.

  • Sure. Let me say at the outset that you are probably going to want to ignore me on this subject. I just like using the One-Shot mode (as Canon calls it) and doing it quickly. Sometimes I even focus on a spot where I know my subject is about to be, and then take the picture. I just feel like I get better results that way. I think everybody in the world disagrees with me on this point though, so like I said you may just want to keep doing what you are doing.

  • Richard Phillips

    I always do spot metering. Helps especially with stage performances, where the camera tries to compensate for the dark foreground.

  • Charlie Barker

    I recon they would call the cops if I tried that.

  • Jim Ruse

    Great article, Jim. Especially helpful are the post-processing comments.

  • Brett Ossman

    Great tips. 🙂
    Use a tripod, if allowed. If not, they may still let you use a monopod. Every little bit of stability helps. Also, if not using a tripod, don’t forget image stabilization or vibrance reduction.
    Fast glass isn’t absolutely necessary for any of these tips except for #2, obviously. You can get decent shots with kit lenses. Adding on to #6, test exposures in a similar light environment, BEFORE you go. Then you can review and try some post on your tests before the event. That will give you a decent idea of settings to use, and possibly make manual much easier. I’ll second the suggestion of learning to read the histogram. It’s VERY simple, really.

  • Brett Ossman

    Oh and please don’t use flash. You are probably too far away for flash to even matter. Hate trying to watch an event and get blinded by flashes popping all around me. 🙂

  • Hey Jim, thanks. The reason I asked is because I am having trouble with “doing what I have been doing” . I have as much as 20% focus failures with the 7d’s I have. I haven’t had the Mark II very long and want to play with different techniques. So I will try your tip out and hopefully pull it off on my next shoot!

  • Jim, are you shooting full frame?

  • Doug Sundseth

    When you brighten an image in post, you’re doing essentially what you would be doing with a higher ISO: you’re amplifying limited data, which will amplify both signal and noise.

    The question then is whether your post-processing amplification will result in less visible noise than the algorithms built into your camera. On one hand, the computer has more power, but on the other hand whoever wrote those camera algorithms presumably knew the guts of the camera sensor better than Adobe does.

    Try it and see, but my inclination is to go with the camera manufacturer, push the ISO in camera, and trust to the noise reduction in post.

  • Bob Dumon

    Some good tips here. I shoot a lot of stage production dress rehearsals and obviously can’t use flash. I follow many of these same guidelines and it seems to work fine. I also like to shoot from the balcony to better capture what’s going on on the entire stage. Client likes the result. Sample attached….

  • Genevieve Laurin

    Wow, thank you! I often shoot in bad lighting conditions and have had to do a lot of trial and error (mostly error) before I could figure out what works for me – which is pretty much your steps 1-10 (I don’t have Lightroom or Photoshop, so any post-processing I do is pretty basic). The tip that stands out mostly for me is the use of the Manual mode. Most photographers will recommend a semi-automatic mode such as aperture-priority, but whenever I try it, my camera will always do something I don’t want, like exposing for way too long. The only satisfactory pictures I ever took in these conditions were in full Manual mode, so that I could control all the parameters. Of course, I’m a beginner with an average DSLR, so there probably are aspects or tricks I haven’t learned yet, but it’s gratifying to know that even professionals face the same problems and solve them in a similar way!

  • joelluth

    I have, and these tips still apply.

  • joelluth

    Yeah, you’re definitely against the grain on this one 🙂 I generally use AI (or maybe Servo, can never remember which is which) but I also use One-Shot in some situations because it gives better control. Sometimes “AI” is more “A” than “I”.

  • joelluth

    I do this too sometimes when light is variable. Manual+Auto-ISO can be really useful.

  • Yeah, I have thought a lot about it since I wrote this, and I agree with the comments about the usefulness of auto-ISO. I have always avoided it (I tend to avoid auto-anything), but where you need a minimum shutter speed and your aperture is set, then why not let the ISO float? You learn something every day.

  • It won’t be hard. Don’t worry. If you can drag a slider to the right, you an fix noise.

  • Yeah, the “better control” part is what I like. I agree that I’m definitely in the minority on this one, and I almost hesitate to bring it up because I know a lot of others get great results with the tracking focus.

  • Good deal., glad you liked it. I think there was once a tendency for advanced shooters and pros to say “you must shoot in manual.” After a while, there was a reaction to that dogma, so much so that now a lot of people are uncomfortable even recommending manual mode. But it is really useful in situations like this. Anyway, keep at the trial and error. That seems to be the way we all have to learn this stuff.

  • Yes, you definitely get a better view from up there.

  • Yes, most of the time. But these tips should apply no matter what size sensor you are using.

  • Good point. They are usually prohibited, and for good reason. They are distracting and can even be dangerous to the participants in certain sporting events.

  • Thank you, sir!

  • I do too because of the wide disparity in lighting. In many stage performances you have really bright lights and very dark portions in the same picture. The camera gets confused if you are using evaluative/matrix mode. Good point.

  • joelluth

    On the contrary, because it is a minority opinion makes it an even better reason to bring it up. You’ve got me thinking of ways to try One-shot at my next event in situations where I normally would use Servo.

  • joelluth

    Couple general thoughts –

    Always shoot in raw. I know this goes without saying for most of us, but in taking it for granted we sometimes forget to remind folks newer to the field. This article is “action in bad light” which is a tough combination; when you’re pushing the envelope like that you’ll need all the headroom you can get in post.

    If you follow all these tips and you still can’t fit within the shutter/aperture/ISO constraints of a good shot, consider a black and white conversion. Converting to b/w can get rid of a fair bit of noise, chroma definitely but even lumi somewhat. The remaining noise is usually less objectionable in b/w too, and can even give events like rock concerts a gritty, grainy look.

  • Richard A. Phillips

    Thank you Jim, and a Merry Christmas to all.

  • Chinky

    If you photograph a subject in front of a dark wall, the auto-ISO will overexpose and in front of a white wall the camera will underexpose.

    Spot metering may help, however it depends which lens is being used. Depending on the lens, the camera will expose well in spot metering or overcompensate, just like when using flash in TTL mode.

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