How to Capture the Best Quality Low Light Sports Photos

Professional sports photographer Paul Rutherford shares valuable advice on how to tackle fast-paced sports shoots in low-light situations.

Sports photography is exciting yet challenging, even in the most favorable shooting conditions. Add to the mix low lighting conditions, and it can become a frustrating experience that leads to blurry or outright missed shots if not handled correctly.

Rutherford regularly shoots sports in this kind of environment, including night football games, indoor basketball, hockey, and other challenging situations. Earlier in the year, he also shared behind-the-scenes videos of what it’s like to photograph NHL and NBA games with the added COVID-19 restrictions.

The first thing Rutherford says is that during games at night or indoors, the playing surface will not be evenly lit. This makes it difficult for photographers to correctly expose because some players may have their faces in shadows while others may be overexposed.

Paul Rutherford's low light sports photography

To avoid this, Rutherford recommends using the warm-up period before the game starts to see where the best position is and what settings will ensure that parts of the image are not under or overexposed. When it comes to indoor basketball games, for example, the center of the court tends to be the most evenly lit area but it also doesn’t offer dramatic action shots compared to shooting from near the goal post or the hoop. All of this is helpful to remember when switching positions to follow the game and to not forget to adjust the settings because the lighting will differ.

Paul Rutherford's low light sports photography

To find a good balance of shutter speed that is not too low for the action and ISO that is not too high, Rutherford starts at 1/1,000 of a second and ISO 1,600. After taking a few test shots with these settings, he evaluates whether he needs to increase or decrease either. Depending on the sport, he sometimes increases the shutter speed to 1/2,000 of a second and balances it out with ISO 3,200.

For photographers who primarily post their work on a website or social media, Rutherford encourages them to lean on ISO and increase it if necessary. As the images will be viewed small on devices, modern cameras are capable of handling high ISO without too much noise.

Although indoor and night sports games can be challenging and unevenly lit, they both tend to have a constant light source that does not change. This means that Rutherford can keep shooting in manual mode, knowing that his results will be consistent from shot to shot.

Paul Rutherford's low light sports photography

Rutherford shoots his images as JPEGs unless the game is in very low or flickering light. In that situation, shooting in the RAW format gives more editing capabilities.

When it comes to using flash, Rutherford does not recommend the built-in camera flash as it can be distracting to the players and notes that some pro photographers are able to set up off-camera flash stands around the court. They produce powerful flashes that are fast and not disruptive.

Paul Rutherford's low light sports photography

Rutherford also dispels a misconception that a camera’s stabilization is beneficial for capturing crisp sports photos. It is designed to help avoid camera shake and would instead be useful for panning shots.

More of Rutherford’s sports photography tutorials and behind-the-scenes videos can be found on his YouTube channel, with his portfolio available on his website and Instagram.

Image credits: All images by Paul Rutherford and published with permission.