The Addiction of Sports Photography: Light Management
Light Management is the manipulation of shutter speed, aperture and light sensitivity to produce a properly exposed image. There are lots of way to do that with many different affects.
The topic of light management may seem elementary. But how those elements come together is put to the test given the challenges of sport photography: high speed action in environments with less-than-ideal lighting.
The light sensitivity of the camera’s sensor, more commonly referred to as ISO, is the area that has changed the most within digital photography. Those changes are so important that we have summarized them into “Covatta’s Law.”
Those changes have leveled the playing field among sports photographers. However, not all photographers have kept up with the changes. For those photographers who have not, we offer recommendations on setting for wide variety of lighting environments and camera technology levels.
This approach is truly different. Many books prescriptively say: “do this.” Our approach is very descriptive, saying: “when encountering these environmental variables, consider taking these approaches.” We think you will really appreciate the approach.
The core elements of Light Management are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Shutter speed is the amount of time light is exposed to the sensor. Aperture is the size of the opening through which light travels to contact the sensor. And ISO is the sensitivity of sensor to light
Together shutter speed and aperture control the amount of light that enters the camera. ISO controls how the camera reacts to that light.
How you manage these variables is a balancing act. To a large extend the camera can select settings for these parameters. But you aren’t a robot. You don’t always obey what your camera tells you do. The outcome is an expression of your creativity and style. You control how you attain that outcome; there is small room for error in how you do in sports photography.
Shutter speed is the simplest component of the Light Management.
When the light enters a digital single lens reflect (DSLR) camera it travels through the aperture, hits a mirror and bounces up into the prism. Light entering the prism reflects what the camera can see through the viewfinder.
When the shutter release is depressed the mirror lifts up allowing light to travel through the camera. One shutter curtain opens allowing light to hit the sensor, a second shutter curtain closes after the prescribed time, and the mirror lowers to its original position. The click of the shutter is actually two clicks, one shutter curtain opening and another closing.
Think of a garage door when trying to understand the need for two shutter curtains. A garage door opens from the bottom to the top, and closes from the top to bottom. More light will pass through the bottom of the garage door, because it is open longer, and less though the top. If a shutter worked like a garage door, the bottom would be more exposed and the top less exposed. Having two shutter curtains operating in same direction allows for an even exposure of light to the sensor.
The primary difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera is the viewfinder. DSLR cameras have an optical viewfinder requiring the mirror to divert the light to the viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras have an independent electronic viewfinder, eliminating the need for the mirror. This allows the camera to be smaller and to have fewer moving parts.
Mirrorless cameras have two shutters: a mechanical shutter like the DSLR cameras and an electronic shutter. The benefit of the electronic shutter is the silent operation and the fast frame rate.
The faster the shutter speed the less time the object has to move, the less the image is blurred, and the more it is frozen in time. The faster the shutter speed the less light is allowed into the camera.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of how you can vary shutter speed to achieve different effects.
The goal of every sports photographer is to obtain a sharp-as-a-tack (tack-sharp) image. To do that you need proper focus and exposure. If that image is moving, you also need a fast shutter speed. This can be challenging in fast moving sports like motor racing where the cars and motorcycles can be moving 100 mph.
I remember my first motor sport race. My usual shutter speed for sports is 1/1000th sec. I reviewed my images after a full day of racing and discovered most were not tack-sharp, even though I was shooting in the bright light of day. I then realized the cars were moving so fast that a 1/1000th sec shutter couldn’t freeze the image. I later change my shutter speed to 1/4000th sec and the images were fine.
Let’s look at the math behind this. A car moving at 100 mph will travel 1747 inches / sec. A shutter speed of 1/1000th sec cannot produce a tack-sharp image of a car traveling 100 mph because will the car travel 1.76 inches while the picture is being taken.
A fast shutter speed makes fast objects look frozen in time. Conversely, slower shutter speeds can produce effects that implies movement.
A shutter speed from 1/250th to 1/500th can capture a tack-sharp image of the main subject while blurring ancillary objects like balls, bats, clubs, rackets or appendages.
We can also create the impression of motion using a technique called panning. Panning involves moving the camera in your hands at a steady pace that approximates that of the moving object. When done correctly, a shutter speed to 1/20th to 1/80th sec will produce a tack-sharp image of the subject while blurring the background.
Panning is a trail-and-error process of adjusting the shutter speed and / or the rate of the camera movement in your hands. Panning is easiest when the object is moving in a straight line that is parallel to your position and the object maintains an unchanged profile. Sports like bicycle racing, motorcycling racing, or auto racing lend themselves best to panning.
If shutter speed is the most straightforward element of Light Management, then aperture is the least.
Aperture is the size of the opening that allows light into the camera. A term used interchangeably with aperture is f/stop and is defined as:
f/Stop provides a common ground to describe aperture for difference size lenses. Lens size is expressed as focal length, which is the distance between the optical center of the lens and the camera’s sensor in millimeters (mm).
Its intuitive that the larger the opening the more light that will pass through the lens. What’s not intuitive is how quickly the amount of light decreases with increasing f/stop.
As shown in the table contained in Figure 6, a lens with an f/stop of 4.0 has only 49% of the opening (aperture area) than a lens with an f/stop of 2.8. And a lens with an f/stop of 5.6 only had 25% of the aperture area.
Figure 6 nicely summarizes the profound implications of f/stop on the amount of light entering the camera.
Lenses with a f/stop of 2.8 are preferred in sports photography because they have the largest aperture and a shallow depth of field.
Most of us recognize depth of field as the blurred background that appears in many photos. Depth of field is defined the nearest and farthest distance between which an object appears in sharp in focus.
A shallow depth of field is when the range of in-focus distances are narrow. This occurs when the aperture is the largest or when the f/stop is lowest. A shallow depth of field is important to sports photography because the blurring of the background call attention to what is in focus. Blurring also minimizes distraction of unsightly objects seen in the background.
A broader depth of field is when the range of in-focus distances are wide. This occurs when the aperture is the smaller or when the f/stop is higher.
A broader depth of field means more of the image’s background is in focus.
The first practical consideration to achieving a shallow depth of field is a low f/stop setting. A lower f/stop also comes allows more light to enter the camera, which permits a faster shutter speed. The faster shutter speed allows you to freeze the action.
The second practical consideration to achieving a shallow depth of field is focal length. Longer focal lengths provide a shallow depth of field and greater magnification. Shorter focal lengths provide a broader depth of field and less magnification.
For a given f/stop, as the focal length increases, the magnification increases and the aperture increases. This allows more light to enter the camera and produces a shallow depth of field. This is key benefit of photographing sports with long focal length lenses, also known as “big glass.”
There are practical considerations for shallow depth of field. Given the distances to the subject in sports, setting too low an f/stop will produce an image of the athlete that is partially out of focus. Lenses for sports photography use a maximum f/stop setting of 2.8 or 4.0.
Balancing Shutter Speed and Aperture
Shutter speed and aperture work together in a wide variety of combinations to produce a properly exposed image. This is best explained with the analogy of filling a glass of water from a faucet.
Suppose a full glass of water is a properly exposed image. The glass can be filled over a long period of time by opening the faucet a small amount. This is the equivalent to a long shutter speed and a small aperture. The same glass can be filled very quickly by completely opening the faucet. This is the equivalent to a short shutter speed and a large aperture. Either way you get a full glass of water or a properly exposed image.
Figure 9 depicts the combinations of shutter speeds and f/stops that will produce a properly exposed image. For example, reading across the top row of the table, a shutter speed of 1/250th sec at an f/stop of 1.4 will produce the same exposure as a shutter speed of 1 sec at an f/stop of 22.
There are no hard and fast rules as to which settings to use. It all depends upon what affect you desire. However, sport photography does have practical considerations that other photographic genres like architecture, landscapes, portrait or events don’t have. Because sports objects are moving, usually very fast, a shutter speed between 1/500th and 1/1200th sec is need to obtain an image that isn’t blurred. Those shutter speeds require an f/stop between f/2.8 and f/4.0.
The camera’s sensitivity to light is the area of digital photography that has changed the most, enabling more photographers to capture high quality sports images.
Light sensitivity is expressed as ISO. And like shutter speed, ISO is linear. Raising the ISO setting increases the sensor’s sensitivity to light, requiring less light to properly expose the image, allowing faster shutter speeds, to reduce blur caused by subject movement.
A higher ISO setting is achieved by increasing the voltage to the sensor. Increasing the voltage amplifies the electronic signal, which also amplifies the noise in the signal. As a result, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the more visible are the effects of noise in the images.
In the old days of digital photography, which were about ten years ago, a high ISO exposure was considered to be 6400. Since then, there has been a revolution in digital photography. Those changes have been summarized by Covatta’s Law.
Covatta’s Law is name after Chris Covatta, my friend, colleague and mentor. Chris started photographing sports 40 years ago, first using black and white 35mm film, moving to color film and then digital cameras. Covatta’s Law is depicted in Figure 11 and says the light sensitivity of digital camera doubles every three years.
Most cameras have two ISO ranges: normal and expanded. The normal range ISO is exactly that: the capabilities of the camera under regular, day-to-day operating conditions. The expanded ISO range pushes the limit of the camera, often producing grainy images. We are only concerned with the normal ISO range for the purposes of this discussion.
Both Nikon’s and Canon’s flagship professional caliber cameras are DSLR bodies with a maximum normal ISO range of 102,400, as of this writing. Sony’s caliber camera is mirrorless and has a maximum normal ISO range of 51,200 with a mechanical shutter and 25,600 with an electronic shutter.
It is important to discuss sensor size while on the topic of sensor light sensitivity. The terms most often heard with regards to sensors are full frame and cropped.
Digital sensor size equates back to the 35mm film frames. As shown in Figure 12, a full frame sensor is approximately the same size of a 35mm frame; a cropped sensor is smaller.
Full, or larger frame, sensors are more light-sensitive. For the same resolution, a larger frame sensor will have the same number of pixels spread over a larger area. This allows each pixel to absorb more light photons, which results in a stronger signal and less noise. All things being equal, a larger sensor will have less noise than a cropped sensor by a factor equal to the differences in sensor sizes.
Cropped sensors are less expensive and increase the lens’ apparent focal length by the factor of the crop. For example, a 70 - 200mm lens use with a 1.6x cropped sensor would look as if it were shot with a 112 – 320mm lens with a full frame sensor. A crop sensor does not actually magnify the image. It simply chops-off the sides, top, and bottom of the lens’s angle of view so less of the image is projected onto the sensor.
Many books, articles and YouTube videos on sports photography are prescriptive with regards to camera settings. Said another way, they tell you the shutter speed and f/stop that should be used when taking sports images. Unfortunately, there are too many variables by way of environments and equipment for this approach to work.
The approach used here is very different. We prefer to describe the environmental and equipment variables that you will be encountering, and suggest different options to getting the best possible image.
Before getting started, however, we must establish some definitions.
We consider two types of lighting quality:
o Outdoor Daytime Lighting
o Outdoor Nighttime Lighting, Indoor Lighting
Outdoor sports photography in daylight levels the playing field in terms of equipment. Nearly any camera and lens combination is capable of producing good quality images, within the limits of the lens magnification.
We’re also consider three types camera ISO sensitivities:
o Low Camera Light Sensitivity (Maximum Normal Range ISO <6.4K, e.g., Older cameras)
o Medium Camera Light Sensitivity (Maximum Normal Range ISO 6.4K to 12.8K, e.g., Mid-range cameras)
o High Camera Light Sensitivity (Maximum Normal Range ISO > 12.8, e.g., Higher-end cameras)
The normal ISO range of any camera purchased recently should be adequate to photograph sports indoors and at night under lighting. However, many photographers many not be able to upgrade their camera body. For those photographers we present picture taking scenarios.
And finally, we considering three camera modes:
o Shutter Priority – You select the shutter speed and ISO to achieve a desire freeze-frame effect. The camera selects the appropriate f/stop.
o Aperture Priority – You select the aperture and ISO to achieve a depth of field effect. The camera selects the appropriate shutter speed.
o Manual – You select the shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
To some extent the selection of camera mode is semantics: there is little difference in the three modes, with the exception of “room for error.” What is meant by “room for error?”
Let’s assume you are photographing a soccer match on a bright sunny day. You chose to photograph the game in manual mode, selecting the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. During the game a cloud passes in front of the sun. In the film-age photographers would take out their light meter to measure the available light, and then change film in their camera accordingly. In the digital-age, you would change the camera’s ISO setting, take a test image to determine if the exposure is proper, and resume photographing the soccer match.
But what if the cloud’s blocking the sun was very gradual and it went un-noticed? All of your images would have been under exposed until you noticed when examining the images in the LED display. This is where you can use the capabilities of the camera to remove the “room for error.”
You’re spending hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars on a camera. If the camera is worth the investment, then let it do some of the work. Pick the one effect of the image that’s most important to you (i.e., freeze-frame, depth of field) and let the camera’s light meter to determine the exposure. And if you are determined to set both the shutter speed and aperture, then use the camera’s auto-ISO capability. This remove the “room for error” in the exposure.
Scenario #1: Low Light Environment and Low Light Sensitive Equipment
Scenario #1 is probably the worse-case scenario for many photographers: low camera light sensitivity in a low light environment. Unfortunately, this is a likely scenario because many photographers have older camera bodies and most sports are played in the evening or indoors.
The objective here is to push as much light into the camera as possible. To do this we recommend shooting in Aperture Priority mode with the lowest f/stop possible for your lens (aperture is open). We also recommend using the highest possible ISO setting, just short of the point where graininess becomes a problem. The camera’s light meter will determine the shutter speed for proper exposure because we are in aperture priority mode.
If this setting works for you, then great! As money becomes available you can start to invest in lenses. However, if you don’t find the quality of the photos are unacceptable, then we suggest upgrading your camera (e.g., sensor) before considering new lenses.
Scenario #2: Low Light Environment and Medium Light Sensitive Equipment
Most serious amateur sports photographer’s find themselves facing Scenario #2: capturing tack-sharp, freeze-frame images with a mid-range light sensitive camera in a low light environment.
The overriding priority is setting the shutter speed to freeze the image in time. A shutter speed setting of 1/500th to 1/1000th sec is recommended.
Use an iterative approach to set the ISO. First, select an ISO setting, then take a test image, and then review the image in LCD display. Adjust the shutter speed and ISO, and repeat the iteration until a high-quality image is attained.
Some photographers may elect to shoot in full manual mode by setting the shutter speed, ISO and aperture. However, to minimize the room for error, I prefer only set the ISO and let the camera’s light meter determine the appropriate aperture. This approach automatically adjusts for variations in light intensity that may affect the image’s exposure.
Scenario #3: Low Light Environment and High Light Sensitive Equipment
Scenario #3 should be the sweet spot of anyone using a high-end camera: shooting in low light environments.
Again, because our interest is usually in getting frozen, tack-sharp images, I usually lead with a fast shutter speed from 1/800th to 1/1200th sec. These shutter speeds are faster than are those recommended in Scenario #2 because of the higher light sensitivity of the camera.
Again, there are two choices for setting the aperture. Either you set it manually, selecting the lowest f/stop for that lens, or let the camera’s light meter select the aperture.
And as in the previous scenario, I recommend that your manually zero-in on the ISO setting using an iterative approach, but Auto-ISO is also an option.
Scenario #4: High Light Environment
Scenario #4 is the “let’s have some fun” scenario. Shooting in good sunlight allows you do try many things, regardless of your equipment. One of the few challenges encounter is harsh shadows hiding the player’s face.
Figure 20 lists the combination of camera modes and settings for a variety of affects. Here you have the option of trying shallow or broad depth of field in aperture priority mode, or you can play with frozen or blurred images in shutter priority mode, or multiple affects in manual mode.
These same affects are possible in low light environments if your equipment is highly sensitive to light.
The most important take away from this chapter is “one size does not fit all.” Many authors advocate a prescriptive approach to camera settings: they tell you what to do regardless of the environment. We advocate a descriptive approach. We provide approaches to camera settings that takes into account the camera’s capabilities and environment in which you are shooting.
Push you ISO to the limit. You may be surprised what’s the camera’s capability. If your camera is not very light sensitive, then try using your editing software to reduce the noise. Consider upgrading the camera body if that doesn’t address the problem. The prices have come down considerably and you get much more value for the price.
And finally, always check your camera settings. The environmental conditions are always changing. You’ll need to change your ISO or shutter speed as the sun goes down. Otherwise, you have the wrong exposure.
There is also the occasion when you might adjust for a shot away from the field (e.g., a crowd shot in the darker arena) and forget to return to the action settings. And finally, your camera dials might get bumped in the course moving around and change the settings.
About the Author
Andy Nietupski founded TTL Sport Media in 2015 after a corporate career of business start-ups and turn-arounds. TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques. TTL Sports Media publishes thousands of pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items. On behalf of its client interests, TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes 1000’s of social media posts.
Copyright 2020 Andy Nietupski and TTL Sports Media