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Beyond March Madness
When shooting indoor sports photography such as basketball, hockey, boxing, water sports and so forth, there are two possible approaches to getting sharp images at the peak of the action.
Indoor sports photography approach number 1: Use the existing light. The good news: You can travel light. The bad news: You are at the mercy of whatever sodium vapor or other light source lighting the court, pool, ring or rink. If you're shooting a local game at a high school, lighting could be uneven or barely sufficient. In college hoops and pro arenas, lighting should be better since the courts are lit for TV, but your access to the action will be more limited if you are not there in an official capacity.
Indoor sports photography approach number 2. Bring your own light. (That's what Sports Illustrated photographers do!) Set up units in advance, off camera, preferably shooting down from a high angle so you won't blind the players, and trigger them via radio slaves. The good news: You will be in control of ample light for your shots. The bad news: Unless you are a professional sports shooter, the cost can be high, and you'll need access and permission to set up.
Photo © WebSubstance/iStockphoto.com
Realistically, unless you're a pro, you're probably going to go with approach number one to get well-exposed indoor shots like the one above, in which case you need a digital camera with a good sensor and a fast lens.
The latest digital SLRs—including most APS sensor models—will deliver outstanding (or, at least, acceptable) image quality even when you pump up the ISO above 1000. If you are buying a new camera with indoor sports capabilities in mind, look for one that will deliver images no noise (pro level) or very little noise (enthusiast-level) at ISO 1600. Most likely, you'll be shooting at around ISO 3200 or even higher in order to get both reasonable depth of field and a shutter speed of at least 1/250 second while shooting action in non-professional sports venues.
You will also want your camera to have a fairly rapid burst rate—at least 5fps—and enough transfer bandwith so it will keep shooting for dozens of images at a time without pausing, and many focus points for faster autofocus acquisition. Since you'll be shooting indoors, the doesn't have to be weather-sealed, although it would be nice to have that option.
This leaves you with many good options that are affordable. Here are models we recommend based on action-friendly specs and image quality test results published by DxOMark labs (Note: DxOMark lab test results are used by permission; all prices are body only):
The Canon EOS 70D, at the Adorama price of $1,199.00, may be the best APS sensor choice for Canon users, with continuous shooting up to 7fps and very little noise at ISO 1600.
You'll get higher image quality with the full-frame Canon EOS 6D ($2,499) but its burst rate is a bit slow, at 4.5fps. If you need the higher burst rate and can afford it, the Canon EOS-5D Mark III ($3,399) provides 6fps and similar stellar image quality. Going pro? The tool of choice is the big, pricey but low-light and built-for-speed Canon EOS-1Dx ($6,799)
Nikon DSLRs consistently scores high on DxOMark image quality tests for both APS and full-frame sensor cameras, and the more expensive models have faster burst rates. The best value would be the Nikon D5300 ($796.95, with a 24MP APS sensor that is rated tops in its class by DxOMark and a 5fps burst rate, which should do the job. The Nikon D7100, at $1,146.95, shares the same sensor but offers a slightly faster 6fps burst.
Nikon's full-frame cameras all offer clean image quality at ISO 1600 and very little noise above that, but the most sports-friendly models are the top-line 11fps Nikon D4s ($6,496.95), while the more moderately priced Nikon D610 ($1,896.95) will help you get the shot with 6fps.
For price/performance, the Sony A65 ($498.00), with its highly-rated 24MP APS Sony sensor, sports-friendly 10fps burst rate, and sub-$500 body-only pricetag, may be the best value despite modest grain by ISO 1600.
If you are willing to sacrifice burst rate for near-perfect image quality, and can afford it, the full-frame Sony A7 ($1,698; a MILC, not a DSLR) boasts one of the highest image quality scores of all digital cameras, with clean images through ISO 3200, according to DxOMark's tests, and has a 5fps burst rate in Speed Priority Continuous Shooting. It costs $1,698.
For lenses, keep it simple: one or two lenses, and the fastest aperture you can afford.
You will get the most focal flexibility by using a zoom lens—although they tend to be heavier and pricier.
A 24-105mm lens for full-frame cameras (or an 18-70mm for APS) is a good basic lens that covers everything from a good wide view (great for courtside and rinkside action when play is up close), while a 70-200mm is a good idea for catching the action when farther away but if you can only choose one, the 24-105 range is your best option to start with.
For Canon, recommended zooms are:
- Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM ($449.00)
- Tamron SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR DI-II VC ($649.00)
- Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S ($1,886.95)
- Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II ($2,396.95)
- Sony 16-105mm f/3.5-5.6 DT ($698)
- Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD-AF ($510.55)
- Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS ($1,249.01)
What about primes?
Lighter, cheaper and faster, a good prime lens could be your ticket to professional-looking indoor action shots...as long as you're willing to work within its limited focal length.
Other Important Accessories
Choose the fastest memory card you can get to maximize the camera's file writing capabilities. This will let you shoot more photos in rapid sequence without pauses or hesitation. You may also want to invest in a monopod to provide greater stability while still allowing you to keep things light and mobile.