Indoor Sports Photography on a Budget - The Gear & the Settings

March 01, 2017  •  4 Comments

(Photo - Nikon D7200 / 24 to 70 mm / f2.8 @ 63 mm

1/250th Sec / f2.8 / ISO 360)


Indoor Sports Photography on a Budget

The Gear & the Settings

Unlike outdoor sports such as football or rugby, most (all?) indoor sports - such as basketball, badminton, ultimate, 5-a-side, etc - are played on courts which are much smaller than a football or rugby pitch.  So, you don't need humungously long (and expensive) lenses to get decent shots!  You can get very reasonable results with affordable lenses.

But in Indoor Sports photography, light levels are likely to be lower than outdoors. 

And you need to be aware of any White Balance issues.

So here are some pointers for starting out in the world of indoor sports photography.

(If you've read the Blogs on Outdoor Sports Photography, just skip over the bits that are pretty much a 'cut & paste' from those Blogs.)

1 - You are going to need a camera with a viewfinder!

Sorry, but just as for outdoor sports photography, you will need to use a camera with a viewfinder.

2 - You are NOT going to need a lens of at least 300 mm (in terms of 35 mm).

Good news!  Unlike photographing outdoor sports, you can take pretty decent snaps with much more modest gear.  Typically for indoor sports in a well-lit sports hall I would use a 24 to 70 mm zoom on one body and a 70 to 200 mm zoom on another.  (In crop sensor terms your standard kit lens of 18 to 55 mm is equivalent in 35 mm terms to 27 to 82.5 mm - which is pretty much the same as my full frame mounted 24 to 70 mm lens.)  So, if you are using a Nikon APS-C sensor camera, a 18 to 200 mm zoom gives you the 35 mm equivalent of 27 mm to 300 mm - so that is already good enough to start your indoor sports photography career. 

And if you have a prime lens lying around - say a 50 mm / f1.8 - you could put that on your DSLR crop body and it acts like a 35 mm equivalent of 75 mm / f2.7.  Use it and just zoom with you feet.  It is much lighter than your zoom lens and the 35 mm equivalent aperture of f2.7 instead - of a typical zoom aperture of say f3.5 to f5.6 - will let in tons more light than your zoom - helping you keep your shutter speed high.  So, do have a go with any prime lenses you have lying around.

3 - Shutter Speed - High Enough to Freeze the Action eg 1/1000th of a second or Faster

Just like outdoor sports photography, you will want to use a high enough shutter speed to freeze the action.  Typically I will start at 1/1000th of a second, but if lighting conditions allow (ie if it is bright enough) I will go to 1/2000th of a second or even higher.  I want to freeze the action so I can see the individual beads of sweat as they come off the players forehead! 

If you are photographing in a modern, well-lit sports hall, the lighting may well be excellent.  But if it's not, you may have to reduce the shutter speed or up your ISO to compensate for the lower level of lighting.

If you need to drop as low as 1/500th or 1/250th of a second then take lots of shots as most of them will be 'deleters' rather than 'keepers' as in many cases the players faces will be blurred - which means 'delete the picture'.

4 - Aperture - Keep it Simple - Let the camera choose

As for Outdoor Sports, you will want to let the camera choose your aperture, as you will be controlling the shutter speed.  So set your camera to Shutter Priority.  (Later you might want to shoot in manual keeping your aperture as wide open as possible to get those nice, gently blurred, backgrounds, but let's keep it simple for now.)

But in an indoor setting, if the light level is relatively low, in all probably the camera will keep your lens wide-open ie at its maximum aperture - to maximise the amount of light falling on the camera sensor.  Hence you might want to have a go with any prime lens you have lying around - especially if it has an aperture which opens wider than your zoom.

But remember that a wider aperture means more light let in - good news - but be aware that it also means a reduced depth of field - which can give a lovely effect - gently blurring the background & isolating the subject area - but the price you pay for this is you have to work doubly hard to focus correctly as your depth of field will be quite shallow.  But, if you get it right, the overall effect can really be quite stunning.

5 - ISO - Keep it Simple - Let the camera choose - But Set Your Maximum ISO!

Ideally, you always want a nice, low, ISO setting but it's shutter speed that rules the roost in sports photography and all else is secondary.  So this is where you find out what you camera is like at high ISOs.  The good news is that cameras are getting better at ISO performance all the time.  You will need to do some experimenting at your first few matches to see how high you are happy for your camera to go in terms of ISO.  And this can be a very personal preference. 

So, have a play with your camera, shoot 10 shots each at say ISO 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 8000, 12,800 (or whichever values your camera allows) and then gauge on your desktop screen how high an ISO you are happy to use.  And then either adjust it manually during the shoot.  Or, if your camera allows your ISO value to 'float', set the max value and then shoot away.

6 - Fast Focus

Just the same as for Outdoors Sports.  You know that by pressing halfway down on your shutter button your camera focuses.  And in sports photography you will spend a lot of you time with your shutter button half depressed - ready for the 'right moment'. 

Very importantly, for sports, you need to set your camera to 'continuous auto focus' (AF - C) as your subjects will be moving!  Often very quickly!  So your camera needs to know that whenever you have the shutter button pressed half-way down, that you want it to continuously adjust the focus as the player is moving.  (The other typical focus mode is 'single auto focus' (AF - S) which is fine if you are photographing a landscape, but not any use when a burley rugby player is racing towards you!)

I also suggest you set your focus point to 'single' - ie the camera concentrates on what you have under that typically black square focus symbol in the middle of your viewfinder screen.  So you will have to work hard to keep that black square symbol on the face of the player you are interested in - typically the player with the ball! - but if you get it right, the player's face will always be in sharp focus in your photo!

Some folk will use different focus modes eg d9 in Nikon uses 9 points, d21 uses - yes, you've guessed it - 21 points - but I like the single point focus system as I know exactly where the camera will be focussed.

(It's well beyond 'Keep It Simple' but eventually you should be using the back button focus technique - and a great video on this by Steve Perry - can be accessed via this link - Steve Perry on Back Button Focus)

7 - Weather Proof Gear - Not Required!

One of the joys of indoor sports is you won't get cold or wet!

8 - White Balance Problems - Shoot in RAW

As I explained in an earlier Blog on Concert & Theatre Photography, White Balance is 'tuning' your camera sensor to the dominant colour of light.  If you are outside, in daylight - it's daylight!  If you are inside a room which is lit by tungsten lights - it's tungsten.  The 'auto white balance' setting on most cameras works pretty well, most of the time.  And even when you set the white balance manually, on many cameras you can see the effect in live view on the rear LCD screen - which takes all the guessing out of setting your white balance.  So it is worth taking some test shots - or varying the WB while looking at Live View on the LCD - to get WB at the setting you want.  But 'auto WB' usually works pretty well.


The issue is with sports halls, community centres, that may not pay attention to lighting in the same way as professional halls.  Professional halls will go to a lot of trouble to make the lighting as like daylight as possible.  Sadly, in less grand settings you might have some tungsten lights, some incandescent lights and some daylight coming in through some skylights.  Not a great venue for even lighting.  Here you need to play around with your WB settings to get the effect you want.  But, in some cases, you will have to work very hard to get rid of any lighting induced colour cast.

So, that is the time to shoot in RAW, in fact one of the main advantages for me of shooting in RAW, is that I can set my WB in the edit phase - which gives me maximum flexibility.  Hence, for my indoor sports, I use RAW and sort out any White Balance issues in the editing phase. 

9 - Don't Splash the Cash - Well, Not Just Yet

As always, don't spend a fortune on new gear until you have tried your current kit, you might be surprised how well you can do with it.  And don't forget to give your prime lenses a go as well - and it may well turn out that you like using your prime lenses even more than your zoom.

Happy Indoor Sports Photography!

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Ayesha Ashraf(non-registered)
Indoor sports guide looks good! High shutter speeds (1/1000th) key, but for peak action (basketball jumpshot) consider pushing even higher (1/2000th+). Experiment with ISO for noise balance in low light.
Yuvraj Singh(non-registered)
Nice information. Thanks for sharing the article in the blog.
Sanjay Singh(non-registered)
Thanks a lot for sharing amazing Article
Gabriel Kiss(non-registered)
I find this article extremely helpful, with a lot of helpful specific infos. I am not a photographer, but i like to shoot. I can not afford expensive cameras. I love making photos with my boy while playing handball, but with my Nikon P500 i believe is very hard to make clear action photos in a game. I would even ask You... Can I?
It is a good camera but i feel it limited for this kind of photography. Once again, i am not a pro, i just started to learn about this passion.
Maybe in future i plan to buy a Nikon 3000 or 3400 to play with and capture some nice action pics.
I would appreciate any helpful comment or answer certainly.
I love reading the articles, keep it this way
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