March Madness, Basketball Photography, and ISO Wars

Low light capture technology has changed in the last four years


March Madness basketball photography

I shot the above image at ISO 1600, and like Rachel, the young player reaching for the ball (now a rising star on her high school's JV team), I was really stretching. Rachel's gotten taller, and the latest crop of cameras have gotten better at capturing action on the hardwood.


It's been four years since I first wrote an article on shooting peewee basketball photography for the Adorama Learning Center. In it I showed how to make the best action shots possible in lousy lighting. I spoke about how the upper ISO limits of current (at the time) forced users to compromise between image quality and catching the action.

Times have changed.

In 2008, the top ISO you could hope for in an enthusiast-level (read: under $2000) DSLR was around 1600-3200, and the noise was the size of golf balls. These days, enthusiast-level DSLRs offer anywhere from a top ISO of 6400 to 51200! Even better: At the formerly ridiculous top speeds of 1600 to 3200, these same cameras deliver the same kind of quality you could get at ISO 800 (the previously recommended highest ISO setting) or even lower. High-end cameras can go upwards of ISO 200,000, but the results look pretty noisy.

For sports shooters, the race to produce the most low-light-friendly sensors has been a boon. Look at Sports Illustrated, the sports page of any newspaper or web site and you'll see the glorious results: Tack-sharp shots of indoor and night sports that used to require banks of studio lights hanging from the rafters—or that did't show quite as much action.


Pentax K-5

Built for (high) speed: The Pentax K5 leads the "enthusiast" DSLR pack with a top ISO of 51,200.


And the cameras that can deliver these kinds of results are surprisingly affordable: The Canon 7D (top ISO: 6400), Nikon D5100 (top ISO: 6400), Pentax K5 (top ISO: 51200) and Sony Alpha A580 (top ISO: 12500) all deliver a range of high ISOs with reasonablly low levels of noise, making them ideal indoor sports cameras and especially well-suited for basketball, hockey and other sports in places where the lighting might fall short of ideal.


Sports Illustrated college basketball photography

Sports Illustrated continues to be the top source for inspiring basketball photography. Check out their March Madness coverage!

With March Madness upon us, you might be tempted to shoot hoop action with your digital camera, and if you have a recent one with high ISO capabilities, you have a good chance to get better results than I could with my old Canon 20D. Of course buy the fastest lens you can afford, but the welcome improvements in high ISO performance are very welcome.

Remember the following rules of thumb:
1. Use the fastest lens and largest aperture you can.
2. Don't use a flash!
3. Get as close to courtside as possible without being called for interference.
4. Crank up the ISO. In a typical high school gym, ISO 3200-6400 should work; if you have a modern DSLR, you should be fine.


Learn the basics! While the technology may have changed, much of the advice in these two articles abut basketball photography still applies:


College womens' basketball

Ready to shoot some hoops? Let's go!


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