Photographic Techniques

Shooting Indoor Sports

Published October 31, 2008

One of the things we enjoy about working here is helping less experienced photographers choose the equipment that will get them the shots that they want. This time of year one of the most common things people ask about is also one of the more difficult tasks in photography: shooting indoor sports. There are so many variables that go into choosing the right lens for basketball, hockey, volleyball, etc. that we thought it might be helpful to put a brief summary up. (OK, it ended up not being all that brief, but we’re putting it up anyway.)

The primary goal for indoor sports shooting is to get a shutter speed fast enough to “freeze” action. How fast the athletes are moving can affect how fast a shutter speed you need. Generally, 1/250 second is the slowest shutter speed acceptable for shooting action sports, but you’d prefer 1/500 and really like 1/1000. We have two ways to reduce the shutter speed: increase the ISO in the camera, or increase the aperture of the lens. We refer to a change that cuts the shutter speed in half as “one stop”. Doubling the ISO (from 400 to 800 or 800 to 1600 for example) will reduce the shutter speed by one-half. The maximum ISO your camera will handle depends on the model and how you’re going to use the photographs. Some newer cameras can get decent images at ISO 6400. Most are struggling at ISO 1600. Of course, a large print will show noise a lot more than a web graphic: if you’re only going to post your photos on the web you can tolerate a higher ISO than if you’re trying to make an 8×10 print.

Increasing the aperture of the lens by one stop also reduces the shutter speed in half. Aperture is a mathematical formula that is expressed as “f-stop”. The aperture numbers aren’t linear, so in case you aren’t familiar with them, here are the aperture numbers for each ‘f-stop’: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, etc. Increasing the aperture (reducing the ‘f’ number) one stop doubles the amount of light hitting the camera sensor and therefore reduces the shutter speed by on half. If your original shutter speed was 1/100 second and you changed the aperture from f/5.6 to f/2.8 you would reduce the shutter speed in half two times, resulting in a new shutter speed of 1/400 second.

Indoor sports lighting ranges from acceptable (major college basketball arenas) to barely adequate (better high school gyms) to awful (most high school gyms and most rinks). So in order to get a fast shutter speed, even with the ISO maximized, you’ll need a wide aperture lens to let in lots of light. An f/2.8 lens is the widest aperture available on most zoom lenses, and is often wide enough if the light is good. That’s why our most common recommendation is to shoot indoor sports with a 70-200 f/2.8 lens. In badly lit gyms though, f/2.8 may not be a wide enough aperture. When this is the case, the only option is to move to a “fast prime” lens—meaning a fixed focal length lens with very wide aperture.

Which ‘fast prime’ you’ll use depends largely on the focal length most appropriate for where you’re located. If you’ll sit courtside or on the first row, an 85mm f/1.8 lens is often a good choice. If you need a bit more length, most brands offer a 135mm f/2.0 lens that gives a little more magnification. The lens also needs to focus quickly, which is why we don’t recommend the Canon 85 f/1.2 or Zeiss ZF 85 f/1.4 for sports work: the first is slow to autofocus, the latter is manual focus only. Cost also becomes an issue: The Canon and Nikon 200 f/2.0 lenses are the gold standard for indoor sports work, but their price is out of the range of most non-professionals.

Fast Indoor Sports Lenses:

Canon 85mm f/1.8; 100mm f/2.0; 135 f/2.0

Nikon 85 f/1.8; 135 f/2.0 DC

Panasonic 35-100 f/2.8

Roger Cicala
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Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Photographic Techniques
  • Jess Dansereau

    Thanks for the article! I shoot on a Canon 7D. I prefer prime lenses. I have done research on the 85 1.8, 100 f/2 and 135 f/2 – all within my current budget. My daughter is on a swim team and indoor pool lighting is pretty horrible. I am trying to decide which lens would be the best choice on a crop sensor – price vs aperture vs focal length. The 135 is a great lens, but I am not sure if it would be too long. The 85 and 100 are close, but the 100 would give me just a bit more reach. The 85 would be a tad better in low light. Any suggestions? Thanks

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