How can I get better photos of my daughters’ teams playing in a gym?

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September 30, 2011 at 8:58 am  •  Posted in Q&A by  •  0 Comments

How can I get better photos with my EOS T3i of my daughters’ teams playing basketball and volleyball in a gym? The photos are too dark when I use a very fast shutter speed to stop the action in Shutter Priority mode. When I don’t do that, the pictures are blurry. I’m setting the White Balance to Tungsten, however I’m getting a red cast in the pictures. I am spending a lot of time correcting photos with software after downloading them, instead of getting them right in the first place.
—Mary T.

Indoor sports are challenge, Mary, because of the type of lamps and the relatively dim illumination. Pro photographers set up many high-power flash units in key locations. That reduces the need for a very fast shutter speed and provides better white balance (WB) as well. Of course, that’s not possible for you.  Start by using Custom WB, calibrating the camera as per the instruction manual, to render whites accurately, considering the colour of the light in the gym. (Or shoot Raw instead of JPEG photos and adjust WB in software, as discussed in another Q&A.)

You don’t indicate what ISO level you’re using, but it’s probably too low. I’ll bet that you get blinking numerals in the viewfinder before taking a shot. That’s a warning that the camera simply cannot provide a good exposure at the fast shutter speed that you had set, at that ISO. You’re probably using Auto ISO; that’s fine outdoors, but it will not set an extremely high ISO in dark locations. Instead, set your camera to ISO 3200 and take some test shots at the next game. If you still get blinking numerals at the shutter speed you want to use, set ISO 6400 if that’s available with your camera.

Without "strobing" the gym as pro photographers do, it's difficult to get technically excellent photos of indoor sports. However, it is possible to get decent images, without motion blur or a strong colour cast, when using the camera's relevant features. (ISO 3200; Custom WB) © 2009 Peter K. Burian

Here’s an even better option after setting the ISO. Instead of using Shutter Priority mode, switch to Aperture Priority and set the widest available aperture—the smallest f/number such as f/3.5 or f/4.5. The camera will then set the fastest shutter speed possible (at the ISO that’s being used) that will provide a good exposure. If your photos are still a bit dark, set an Exposure Compensation of +1 with the [+/-] button and try again. However, that step will produce a longer shutter speed; that’s how the camera provides a brighter image. Hence you may need to set an even higher ISO to get an adequately fast shutter speed.

While Shutter Priority mode makes sense when the shutter speed is the most important consideration, you can get severe underexposure if you set an inappropriate shutter speed. That won't happen if you use Aperture Priority mode (AV or A depending on the camera). Simply set the widest aperture (smallest f/number) and the camera will always use the fastest shutter speed that will provide a good exposure.

I believe that 1/350 s should be fast enough with both types of sports.  If you still get motion blur, try again at a higher ISO that will let the camera set a 1/500 s shutter speed. Of course, parts of the court may be brighter than others. Take test shots of athletes at various locations to find a shutter speed that will freeze their motion everywhere in the gym. Then use the ISO that will achieve that. Better yet, plan to take most of your shots in the locations where the peak of action typically occurs, near the hoops in basketball, for example. That’s where you’ll get the most “keeper” photos.

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