My recent shooting at the IFL MMA Event reminded me that there are a lot of things one has to get right when shooting indoor action sports, so I thought I’d write a rare article for this blog outlining some tips for those embarking on this exciting type of photography.

These tips are good for shooting sports like MMA or Boxing, basketball , gymnastics , or theater events like bhangra dancing.

Whenever you’re shooting fast-moving targets, shutter-speed is of the essence. If your main subject is blurry, the photo is typically viewed as a reject no matter how well composed, exposed, or processed. When shooting outdoor sports like auto racing or baseball , controlling shutter speed is generally pretty easy, as there’s plenty of light to work with. In some cases, like those outlined in my panning primer , you actually fight to get less light through the lens. But indoors, it’s nearly always a battle for more light, faster shutter speeds, and rapid-fire action shooting.

So on with the tips. Most of these are directly aimed at allowing you to achieve shutter speeds in the neighborhood of 1/500s - 1/2000s, a great range for stopping motion to capture those critical action moments.

  1. Fast Lenses Only - Anything worse than a f /2.8 maximum aperture need not apply for most indoor action shooting. Experiment a little in your own house or apartment. Go into a well-lit room during the day, turn on all the lights. Now see what it takes to shoot in those ideal conditions at 1/500s, or even better 1/2000s, and you’ll see how little light there really is indoors. It’s even worse in a spottily lit arena, theater, or stadium.
  2. Aperture-Priority - Shoot in aperture-priority mode, and lock that aperture at it’s maximum size. You can also shoot manual to get this effect, but I find unless you are quite comfortable shooting fully-manual in a fast-paced atmosphere, you’re better off letting the camera take some of the exposure work, so you can worry about pressing that trigger at the crucial moments.
  3. High ISO - Just save yourself the headache and max out your ISO right from the start, you’ll want it. 1600 is great, go 3200 if you’ve got it. Today’s modern SLRs do a spectacular job of managing noise at high ISO settings, and taking advantage of it for indoor action is a big step towards getting those shutter speeds under control.
  4. No Flash - Don’t even think about using a flash for serious indoor sports shooting. A few reasons to avoid flash include a) Your flash is very unlikely to have the range to properly light the action in front of you, unless you are photographing cockroach races or some such micro-sport, b) Unless you have an extremely fancy camera, your flash-sync speed will necessarily limit your shutter speed to something too slow to adequately capture the action (my camera has a respectable but insufficient 1/200s flash sync speed, and many DSLRs are limited to 1/125s or even 1/60s), and c) It might be disallowed in the venue, as it’s likely to distract the athletes or performers
  5. Expose Dark - There is an important rule in digital photography that you should always “expose right” , and I definitely recommend you follow it….usually. In the case of eeking out the most light you can and effectively stopping the action, you may consider setting your camera to expose “left”, putting the exposure compensation down at -1/3, -1.0, or even lower, thus lowering the shutter-speed that your camera selects
  6. Maximize Burst Mode - A great technique for action photography is to use your camera’s burst mode. When the action heats up, just hold down your shutter button and let the camera capture as fast as it’ll allow. A few sub-tips to help maximize your success in this mode:
    • Shoot JPG - It pains me to not shoot RAW. But again unless you have a very high-end camera, you’ll be limited in your ability to shoot rapid-fire burst shots in RAW, as the file sizes are large and will quickly fill-up your in-camera buffer.
    • Big, Fast Storage Media - Another way you can be nice to your in-camera buffer is to provide a fast hungry media card to move photos quickly to permanent storage while bursting. And don’t forget, burst mode eats through memory like nothing else, so don’t get stuck with too small a card. For many of you shooting with Compact Flash cards, I use and recommend something like the SanDisk 4GB Extreme III , or if your camera supports the newest UDMA standard (most, including mine, don’t at the time of this writing), check out the impressive Lexar 8GB Professional UDMA
    • Disable In-Camera Noise Reduction - Some cameras have custom-functions for reducing noise directly within the camera’s image processing chipset. These typically reduce dramatically the burst-mode capacity, so it’s good to check your manual on that before you go out shooting rapid-fire.
  7. Servo-Mode Autofocusing - Be aware that shooting rapidly in low-light is a real challenge for your autofocus system. (That’s another reason to obey tip #1 and stick with fast lenses, they are better at AF) If your camera as an “AI Servo Autofocus” mode (like Canon’s), or equivalent, it’s probably worth using in an environment like this.

Finally, a note about workflow: You’ll shoot a lot more photos when doing this type of work than any other events or art photography, even model-shoots. As always, you’re doing well if ~10% of your shots meet your personal standards for “usable” captures. And if the setup allows for a laptop or dedicated unit to offload your storage media as you go, take advantage of it. Practice your workflow ahead of time, so you don’t miss any of the action, but also have the peace-of-mind of knowing that you can take as many shots as you want (bits are cheap!), and that you are protected against any tragedy that might befall your media cards during the event or in transport. No one ever regretted having backups of their shots!

Enjoy! If you use any of these tips, leave a comment and point us at examples of your exciting indoor action photography!