What Settings Should I Use for Night Sports Photography?

To get good sports photography results at night, keep a wide aperture and up your ISO settings past the number you would typically use. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and many of the requirements depend on the lighting conditions at the venue.

My name is Caleb, and I have more than four years of sports photography experience. I know a thing or two about dealing with dark conditions, having shot several night games myself at both well and poorly-lit stadiums.

In this article, I’ll review the ideal settings for night sports photography. I’ll also explain what kind of gear you’ll have to bring to have the best shot at getting good pictures. Keep reading if you’re wondering how to get excellent, non-grainy shots at night.

What You Need for Night Sports Photography

Sports photography is more demanding at night compared to during the day. Older and cheaper cameras just don’t do as well with low-light conditions, and there’s no getting around that fact.

That’s not to say that you must come with thousands of dollars of the latest gear, but you will need a decently high ISO range camera. It’s a good idea to aim for at least 1600 as the maximum ISO, but higher is better.

For example, at one local field where I’ve shot soccer matches, I had to use an ISO of 3200 to avoid underexposure once the sun went down. 

Of course, you can get away with a lower ISO setting if you drop your shutter speed. But if you lower the shutter speed too much, any fast-moving action will come out blurry.

You’ll also need a lens with a wide maximum aperture. The usual standard for this kind of photography is f/2.8. This is arguably the most important part of your setup. 

A lower f-stop number means more light is allowed into the lens, which will help you make the most of your limited lighting without sacrificing shutter speed.

Flashes can help with night photography, but you should be aware of the conventions of your sport and venue before deciding to bring one. 

Flash photography usually isn’t allowed at indoor events. But even at outdoor events, sports photographers using flashes isn’t really something I’ve seen.

That said, I’ve only shot games in one region and definitely haven’t shot every sport. Before deciding, you should research whether you can use flash in your chosen sport or ask the event organizers or venue staff directly.

What Settings Are Good for Night Sports Photography?

Night sports photography is an exercise in managing the exposure triangle. You have to keep your shutter speed high enough to avoid blurry results while also keeping your ISO low enough to prevent grain from dominating the image.

The basic idea is pretty easy to understand. 

You should keep your aperture as wide as possible at all times, allowing you to make the most of the limited lighting. 

You should set your shutter speed as high as you can without getting underexposed images. Similarly, your ISO should remain as low as possible without your pictures appearing underexposed.

Depending on the circumstances, you might have to sacrifice something. If you’re faced with this choice, raising the ISO is usually better than lowering the shutter speed. You can still somewhat touch up a dark image with editing, but you can’t fix blurriness.

It’s worth pointing out that sometimes, you’ll have an impossible task no matter what settings you use.

Some venues are really well-lit at night, and you won’t have any problems shooting games at these. But there are also a lot of venues with abysmal lighting, usually hosting games below the professional level.

Fields like these are often home to high school or lower-level college games and aren’t cut out for getting quality results at night. 

If the venue or organizers allow it, you might be able to fix some of this by bringing your own flash. 

Otherwise, your best hope is to set your camera up in the way described above and hope you get lucky. Even at poorly lit fields, there are often certain spots where the lighting is a bit better, and you can get a few good shots if the action happens to travel there.

Editing Photos After Night Sports Photography

Editing is important for sports photography in general. The games play out fast, and it’s easy to make minor errors. Things like straightening pictures and adjusting crops in an editor like Adobe Lightroom can significantly improve quality.

For night sports photography, editing is even more critical. Using a program like Lightroom, you can adjust certain values such as the brightness and contrast and salvage photos that otherwise may not have looked as good due to the lighting conditions.

You aren’t going to turn a bad photo into a good one just by editing it after the fact. But you can turn a decent photo into a good one and bring out the better qualities in your photos.

FAQs

Here are some of the other frequently asked questions about night sports photography.

What Is The Best ISO Setting At Night?

The best night ISO setting depends on the venue. After all, some are better lit than others. If the lighting is poor, the ideal ISO is likely 3200 or 6400.

What Is The Best F-Stop to Use for Night Sports Photography?

Your aperture should be as wide as possible for night sports photography, meaning the lowest f-stop number that your lens will allow. This will ensure you use as much of the limited light as possible.

Conclusion

Night sports photography is challenging, but the basic rules are simple to remember. Keep your aperture as wide as possible, your ISO as low as you can afford, and your shutter speed as high as possible without underexposing your pictures.

Have you done night sports photography yourself? Have any tips of your own? Let us know in the comments.

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