Friday Night Lights are not, it turns out, that bright.
September 13, 2011 12:13 PM   Subscribe

PhotographyFilter: Teach me how to shoot outside at night under stadium lighting.

Football season is upon us, and I'm making my rounds of night-time games. My photos are way, way, way too underexposed. I'm thinking I need either a new lens or a new camera body, or hopefully just a nice tricky new technique, but I don't really know much about photography. I am hoping the answer is "new lens" and that you can point me towards one.

My current gear is:
-Canon Rebel XT camera body. Max ISO is 1600, and the grain is unbearable at that rate.
-Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 (I think that's right? Will answer questions in comments) lens. My primary sports lens, awesome in the day, not so much at night.
-18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. I almost never use this one, but if it would help, I'm game. I have side-line access, so proximity isn't an issue.

Recommendations for specific lenses super-welcome!
posted by Snarl Furillo to Technology (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What mode are you shooting in? Full auto? Program? Aperture sensitivity? Shutter sensitivity?

Both of those lenses are pretty slow, even zoomed all the way out. A prime lens is the cheapest way to get fast glass (like this 85mm f/1.8) but you'll be screwed if you want to take an up-close picture without having time to change your lens, especially on a crop factor body. It depends on your normal range, and whether you want to give up the length.

The better (more expensive) option is for a faster zoom lens-- something that has a nice big aperture across the zoom range, like this guy. Not cheap.

A better body would give you better high-ISO performance, and if you go up to the 5D or better, it's a full-size sensor.
posted by supercres at 12:22 PM on September 13, 2011

Response by poster: Full auto.

I'm trying to get a shot like this (close-up of one or two players, easy to locate the football in shot), not so much like this (most of the line in shot, football doesn't exactly jump out at you right away).
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:32 PM on September 13, 2011

Best answer: What are you ultimately expecting to do with these pictures? Do you just want decent pics for yourself, or do you expect to eventually have these published somewhere? If it's just the former, you might not need any new gear if you're willing to give up on some aspects of image quality.

I still shoot sports photos with an ancient (2003 vintage) Panasonic FZ-1. Its maximum ISO is 400, and it looks absolutely awful at that sensitivity setting. So, to compensate, I do the following -

1) Set the camera to shoot in Black and White. A lot of the really noticeable noise is chroma noise - which disappears when you're shooting BW right there. Sure I could shoot in color and convert to BW in post, but this way I'm don't have to even think about it.
2) Do the digital equivalent of push processing the film. What this means is, after cranking my camera's ISO to 400 (or whatever the max is), I set the exposure compensation to underexpose by at least one stop (-1 EV), or even two stops (-2 EV). This will leave you with a very underexposed image, so you'll have to do some fiddling with the "Levels" tool in GIMP or Photoshop to bring the image into a more useful state. Or if you don't want to bother with a more complicated tool, the "Auto Contrast" adjustment in Picasa will often get you very close.
3) After you've got your levels/contrast adjusted, run the pic through a noise reduction program like Neat Image or Noise Ninja if you're still not happy with the amount of noise.

Note that the pictures you get out of this will have very little shadow detail, and the contrast will be high, or harsh looking. But this the digital equivalent to how a lot of sports photos were shot in the old days with black and white film, before those huge lenses were common.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 12:34 PM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Canon Rebel XT came out in 2005. It was nice enough back then (I had one and used it for years)--but it is way out of date as cameras go these days. The sensors on these bodies are overhauled every couple of years; I think the fifth version of Canon's DiGiC sensor is supposed to come out in the next few months; the XT had, I think, a DiGiC II. High ISO performance is really much better these days. If you have money for a new body, I'd go for a new body. You can get very clean 1600ISO images on the new bodies--I never went above 400 on the XT if I could help it.

Otherwise, I'd go with something like the 85 1.8 that supercres suggests. It's pretty cheap, and on your body it will "feel" like a 135, which is moderately long. Just pick a spot and wait for the action to come to you, or move up and down the sidelines--you don't need a zoom.

Also, if you're not shooting on full manual, you should--and use set the camera's metering to center spot. Variable lighting can really confuse the exposure calculations if you're on one of the auto modes.

Also, shooting in RAW (rather than JPG) will give you much more control of the exposure in post; I find I can squeeze up to two stops out of a RAW image.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:37 PM on September 13, 2011

Response by poster: Ugh, misspoke. I'm shooting in manual.

Calloused_Foot, I do a lot of post-processing, but it's still...meh. And kind of time-consuming. I'll try the exposure compensation trick and see what happens.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:22 PM on September 13, 2011

The upgrade from your slow lenses to something like the 85mm f/1.8 would probably be more significant than getting a newer crop sensor camera.

I also agree that shooting in RAW would make a big difference, as long as you have software that can handle it. What do you use to process the pictures? Mac or PC?
posted by The Lamplighter at 1:27 PM on September 13, 2011

I'm not saying it's impossible, but with your kit, I wouldn't waste my time..

You need both a faster lens and a better (low noise, higher ISO) sensor in your body. Unfortunately, it's one thing to shoot low light, but quite another to shoot moving objects in low light. Unless you like motion blur in your shots, you are limited to shooting with relatively short exposure times (< 1/250 sec). If you're willing to spend your way out of this, but want to avoid just buying the best setup money can buy (Nikon D3S+70-200mm f/2.8G = $7500 bliss or even bigger would be the 200mm f/2), I suggest two things: do some metering to get a sense of what combination of ISO/aperture works to get you decent exposure time images without unpleasant motion blur. Then get a sense of what focal length/zoom range you need (are you on the sideline or stands?). With those parameters you can play around with various combinations of lenses/bodies to get you the cheapest combo that will do what you need. Then buy it used, or if this isn't a regular thing, just rent it.
posted by drpynchon at 1:39 PM on September 13, 2011

Oh also. Invest in the latest noise reduction. Right now I personally actually like the built in tool within Lightroom 3, but there are lots of options.
posted by drpynchon at 1:40 PM on September 13, 2011

There's no substitute for big glass if you're trying to shoot sports at night. You have several things going against you:
1. You're shooting fast action from far away. You need a high shutter speed to get crisp shots. This means less light for your camera.
2. You're going to be working with your lenses zoomed in all or most of the way, which is where the effective aperture is smallest. This means less light for your camera.
3. It's night, so there's not much light for your camera to begin with.

The images you link to were shot with big lenses costing many thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, there's not really any other way to get those shots. That's the bad news.

The good news is you can rent just about any lens you want. This 100-300 f2.8 Sigma would do a fine job for you. You can find other lenses and other lens rental outfits if you search a bit. You'll want something that goes to 200mm at least, 300mm is better. You'll probably want a zoom so you have some flexibility. You'll want something with a constant aperture for predictability and general quality. Go with at least f/4, f/2.8 would be much better.

As far as the composition of the shot, you'll just have to practice. Try to anticipate the action - you need to have your camera aimed and focused already when something cool happens, so you have to be constantly thinking of what's going to happen a few seconds into the future. Take lots and lots of pictures - continuous drive is your friend. Expect one really good picture out of a hundred near misses.
posted by echo target at 1:43 PM on September 13, 2011

Seconding the Sigma. Also, Canon makes a great 200mm for sports.
Regardless, you need a better body. A 7D will turn that 200mm into a 280 (roughly) because of the crop sensor. Or get a 5D Mark 2 and shoot at full ress and then crop in. Either body will give you far, far, far better grain control at high isos. I shoot at 1600-3200 regularly for weddings on MK2 and it's look super.
posted by damiano99 at 1:57 PM on September 13, 2011

As everyone else is advising you, your problem is slow lenses and limited ISO. The 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens won't help you. Your 70-300 f/4-5.6 won't either.

People always say that you should invest in glass, not camera bodies. Having said that, if Admiral Haddock is right, then you may be due for an upgrade in body. I'm a Nikon person so I can't help you there, but DPReview seems to like the 60D. They also do lens reviews which you can compare against an alternative review site like Both sites go into third-party lenses.

Good Luck!
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 2:03 PM on September 13, 2011

Second the suggestion for renting a big lens. It gives you a great test run with that glass. If you're set on shooting Canon, it will help narrow your choices down on what will likely be a very big investment. I used to shoot football with a 300mm prime lens on a Nikon D2X. The lenses you have now are too slow for such a light-sensitive subject. I would rent a nice fixed telephoto lens at least f/2.8 or faster and play with my settings on the field. Are you metering your exposure? If you don't have a light meter, try using the rudimentary one in your camera to adjust the shutter speed until you have an acceptable image. For the shots you want to be capturing--are the ones you're getting now framed well, but just too dark? Or are you also have trouble following the action through the viewfinder? Do you have samples of the kind of shots you're getting?

I think you should be shooting around an 800 ISO and setting your exposure around that. If you get a chance to sit in on a few night practices or a JV game, for example (depending on what football you're shooting) that would be an ideal time to do some camera tests, shooting a range of ISOs and shutter speeds and seeing what the best combination of those shots + post-processing will give you. Learn how your camera sees.

I found that once my settings were all locked in (with last-minute shutter adjustments), the hardest part was keeping track of the ball with such a long lens. See the other guys lumbering around with their giants lenses on a monopod over their shoulders, stalking the sidelines? They're all trying to be in the right place for when the ball (and their team) will be perfectly framed. It's a tough job, and one in twenty shots will be usable if you're lucky. The easy part is getting the shots properly exposed; the part that's tough is being able to capture the perfect intercept. When I shot sports I loved looking at my big paper's (LATimes) sports pages to get inspired by how the pros framed up. What type of publication are you shooting for, or is this a hobby? If you anticipate a very big play going down, try turning around and finding the coach or the fans in your lens--reaction shots can be fantastic and uplifting (or saddening, depending on the outcome!).

In short, new lens.
posted by therewolf at 2:18 PM on September 13, 2011

Response by poster: For the shots you want to be capturing--are the ones you're getting now framed well, but just too dark? Or are you also have trouble following the action through the viewfinder?

I'm happy with the composition of the shots I'm getting, including tracking play and positioning. It's the exposure I'm concerned about.

I might see about renting a lens. I can swing either a new camera body or a new, quasi-expensive ($1000-1500) lens this season- it sounds like I should go with the lens first? Or is my Canon old enough that I can justify upgrading and be similarly happy with my new low-light performance?

The goal would be to meld my current, company-issued kit with some new stuff of my own, while saving up for all my own stuff so I can eventually freelance on the side.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:46 PM on September 13, 2011

I would say new lens. Good glass isn't tied to a specific generation of body, so it'll come with you as technology progresses. (It is, however, tied to camera brand. Do some research before investing heavily in either Canon or Nikon.)

Also try a monopod.
posted by supercres at 4:57 PM on September 13, 2011

I might see about renting a lens. I can swing either a new camera body or a new, quasi-expensive ($1000-1500) lens this season- it sounds like I should go with the lens first? Or is my Canon old enough that I can justify upgrading and be similarly happy with my new low-light performance?

If you go from an old Rebel XT to a 7D, you will gain probably 1.5-2 full stops of improved noise performance. With decent noise reduction in post, ISO 3200 (and possibly 6400) can be usable for most purposes. If you're not married to Canon based on your current lenses (and this is coming from a Canon guy), I'd go with a Nikon D7000, and see if you can scrape together enough cash for the aforementioned Sigma 100-300. That combo, would be great for this purpose, and can be had for about 22k. The D7000 has, in my opinion, the best low light performance among current crop-sensor cameras -- but the 7D would be the best bet from Canon.
posted by drpynchon at 5:50 PM on September 13, 2011

I mean $2k, not 22k.
posted by drpynchon at 5:51 PM on September 13, 2011

There's no substitute for big glass if you're trying to shoot sports at night.

Not quite true, echo target. More accurately:

There's no substitute for big glass and a big detector if you're trying to shoot sports at night.

Either one will gather more photons, and the end product (picture) doesn't know which way it happened.

In fact, if you're not using the full resolution in your final pictures, simply reducing res will help by summing together detector areas.

Ultimately, however, your camera has an "APS-C" size detector, and what you really need is both big glass (low-aperture zoom lens) and a big sensor ("full-frame" 35-mm sensor cameras are about as big as an amateur's budget can usually manage). A Canon 5D ("mark I") can be bought used for $900-1000 US, and some of its competitors are a bit cheaper.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:03 PM on September 13, 2011

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