In Parts I and II of this series, we discussed what makes sports photographs special in terms of content. We also discussed equipment from the standpoint of a reasonable budget. In this segment, I will go through some thoughts on some topics that will hopefully help you lock in and nail those images.
Before I begin, I want to re-emphasize that the following is simply my personal opinion. I'm simply sharing what I do and how I do it based upon over 8 years of shooting sports with digital equipment (an many more with film). I do not pretend to be the Master of Photography such that anything I say should be etched in a stone tablet for posterity. It's simply an effort to share with you what has worked for me through the years and just because I do things a certain way doesn't mean that it's the best way to do it or that it's right.
There's no doubt that these ISO levels will generate noise in your images and the higher the ISO the more noise you will see. First and foremost, resign yourself to the fact that there is nothing you can do to avoid noise altogether. Accept it and embrace it. Find peace with those images because noise is what it is.
Luckily, the only people who find a certain amount of noise abhorrent are photographers. We're obsessed with it (at least I must confess I am). We photographers are so conscious of it that it can drive us crazy. Here's some good news. Non-photographers don't even see it. They look at a great sports image and are in awe at the depiction of a frozen player flying through the air with outstretched arms while reaching for the ball. They don't see those globs we call noise, especially if it's not over the top. Having said that, there are ways to minimize noise and as with any kind of photography, we should strive to generate the highest quality images possible.
First and foremost is exposure. If you don't underexpose an image, you won't have to adjust it in Photoshop to make the shadows lighter. By bringing the shadows out of darkness, you necessarily add noise to those areas, more so than if the image had been properly exposed. A properly exposed image shot at ISO 6400 will have less objectionable noise than one that is underexposed at ISO 1600. If you don't believe me, take an underexposed test shot at ISO 1600 and then a properly exposed test shot at ISO 6400 and decide for yourself.
The other thing you can do to minimize noise is to resist the temptation to crop the image so as to drastically enlarge a subject in the final image. If you're cropping because you didn't shoot tight enough, it only means you weren't in position to get the shot or it was a shot beyond your equipment's capability. If you're on the 30 yard line shooting with a 200mm lens next to someone with a 600mm lens and the play is on the opposite 20 yard line, your subject is going to be very, very small in your frame. His subject will be large enough where he will not have to crop, or at worst, crop a little bit. You, on the other hand, will have to drastically crop. At ISO 1600, 3200 or 6400, when you crop and enlarge the subject, you will likewise be enlarging the inherent noise by whatever factor you have cropped - 100%, 200%, 300% or more.
Had you been positioned on the opposite 30 yard line, you might have been able to properly shoot that play with your 200mm lens and capture the subject large enough to avoid meaningful cropping. So, if you don't have the means to have a 600mm lens on your camera, do what you can to avoid cropping high ISO images, i.e. positioning. You'll get noticeably less noise.
Flash - If you ever see or read anything by a well meaning photographer advocating the use of flash during sporting events to compensate for low light levels, stop watching or stop reading and run, do not walk, away from said source. Generally speaking, I can't imagine anyone who knows anything about sports photography advocating the use of a strobe to capture action (unless we're talking about arena strobes mounted in the rafters). There isn't a sporting event that I have attended where photographers were allowed to use camera mounted strobes to photograph a game and no one would dare do so. Anyone even thinking about using a strobe would be quickly escorted off the field or the court.
That doesn't mean strobes do not have a use. Pre-game and post game shots are often times photographed with strobes, using them as fill light or as the primary light source to better illuminate a scene (such as coaches' pre-game handshake, etc.). I always have a strobe in my case or in a pouch on my waist belt for just such occasions, but once the action begins and until it's over, it doesn't see the light of day.
RAW Versus JPEG - A lot of photographers will tell you to shoot in Jpeg. The reason is simple - Jpeg files aren't as large as a RAW file and you can fit more of them on a card before having to change cards. Another reason is that because Jpeg files are smaller, when shooting a burst of images, you can shoot more images continuously before the buffer will fill up (once the buffer fills up your shutter won't continue to operate until the card has recorded the images shot).
Shoot in RAW. Here's my reasons.
First, cards are cheap. I carry plenty of spares. To me, having to swap a card seems to be a lazy, poor excuse for not trying to record an optimal image and there's no denying that a RAW image is superior to a compressed Jpeg.
As for filling the buffer, In over 8 years of shooting sports digitally, I think I have filled my buffer once, maybe twice, and only because I was screwing around. Now, I am not one of those guys who presses the shutter as the receiver starts his route and keeps firing until he's getting back up, and maybe as a result, I've missed some special moments. But, by firing in 5-10 image bursts, and more often than not in 3-5 image bursts, my RAW images of the peak action will be of a much better quality, and much more conducive to post-processing adjustments, than the other guy's Jpeg images.
There's a reason why any photographer who shoots for quality (landscape, macro, portrait come to mind) shoots in RAW. I see no difference between other genres and sports and I choose not to sacrifice recording the best, most versatile image possible so I don't have to swap out a card once in a while or so I can shoot 40 bazillion frames of a player getting up off the turf.
There's lots more to cover - autofocus, manual versus aperture priority, shooting vertical versus horizontal, etc. etc. We're getting there so stay tuned.