Shooting Basketball

Shooting basketball...from the title, this post could go two different ways.  But, since I'm not (and never have been) a basketball player, I'm not talking about actually shooting baskets.  I'm referring to taking photographs of players dribbling, shooting, jumping, and defending during a basketball game.  However, I think the act of actually shooting a basketball through the hoop would be easier than taking pictures of someone doing it.  Taking pictures of basketball action, at least pictures that are sharp, somewhat clean, and presentable is no easy task.  Over the past several weeks, I've been photographing a lot of high school and junior high basketball games.  I do this because I enjoy photography, but also because I want to document my sons playing.  Additionally, if the photos I take can be enjoyed by others, that is just icing on the cake. 


So why is photographing basketball, or any indoor sport for that matter, so difficult?  It's all about the light (primarily).  Pretty much every photograph is about the light.  OK, shadows play a role too, but light is the most important ingredient.  The subject is of course important as well, but without good light, getting a good photograph becomes increasingly difficult.  Basketball is a fast-moving sport.  Gymnasiums are for the most part, poorly lit.  This is especially true of high school and junior high school gyms.  To our eyes, the lighting may seem fine.  We have no problem seeing and tracking all the action.  But our eyes are much more optically advanced than any camera.  


Without going into a detailed discussion of the exposure triangle, this is basically what needs to happen:  We've already established that the lighting is relatively poor, so we have to get as much of that light to the camera's sensor.  However, even with the lens open as wide as possible (aperture), the shutter speed is still too slow to freeze the action.  Generally speaking, you would want a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, or better yet, 1/500th of a second to prevent the players and ball from being a blur.  Other than using strobes or flashes to light the gym, which I haven't done, and likely wouldn't be allowed in most situations, there is only one variable left to change.  The sensitivity (ISO) of the camera's sensor must be increased in order to get an acceptable shutter speed and to get a photo that is not too dark.  I'm often shooting with the lens wide open (f/2.8 or f/4), at a shutter speed of roughly 1/500, and ISO of anywhere from 3200 to 6400.  This generally gets the job done.  


There are other things to consider when shooting in these conditions, such as white balance, composition, peak of action, high speed burst shooting, raw vs. jpeg, etc, but I won't go into each of those in this article.  There is a lot to think about when taking photos of a basketball game and it definitely helps to know the camera well and to practice.  I do think it gets easier the more you do it and it is certainly satisfying when you get a few "keepers" of the game.