How To Get Rid Of Motion Blur When Shooting Sports Indoors :: Digital Photo Secrets
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How To Get Rid Of Motion Blur When Shooting Sports Indoors

by David Peterson 9 comments

I’m just going to say this outright. Taking indoor photos of sporting events is hard. I’m not saying it’s impossibly hard, but it is most certainly a challenge to any photographer. If you can come away from a shoot with a photo that’s both properly lit and sharp, you’ve probably outdone everyone else at the event. Here are a few things you can do to get rid of that pesky motion blur.


First of all, I want to compare and contrast the following two indoor sports photos. You may recognize one of them from a previous tutorial.

Have a look at this one:


Thanks to Traci Scoggins for the image

Okay now this one:

I think we can all agree that we like the second a lot more than the first. Why?

  1. It’s much more dramatic. The players are frozen mid-air, and because of it, you can feel the suspense.
  2. There’s more color contrast, making the figures stand out more from the background.

Always keep the shutter speed high

Both of the above are caused by the same thing, a faster shutter speed. Most sports photographers aim for shutter speeds in the 1/500s to 1/1000s range. This is what allows you to freeze the motion. In the second image, the photographer appears to have had enough light to get away with using a fast shutter speed. Everything in the image is illuminated quite well.

And this brings me to another point. You can’t always tell what sort of indoor venue you’re going to be shooting at. Some of them are very well illuminated, like the one in the second photo. Some of them could definitely use more light (like the first one). When you don’t have enough light, it’s hard to shoot at a fast shutter speed. You often have to make other concessions. Let’s talk a bit about some of those.

1.) Using flash to add more light to the scene. Some venues will allow you to use your flash. Many of them will not. I’m going to guess that the photographer of the second photo used no flash at all. You can tell because there is no distinct flash reflection on the shiny floor or anywhere near the athletes. I’m also going to guess that on-camera flash is strictly forbidden in a professional event like this one.

As a matter of fact, many professional sports venues have strobe lights installed up in the rafters. If your camera uses some kind of master/slave flash system, you can trigger the upper lights without distracting the athletes. Because the light is so far away, it looks much more natural than the light you get from using a flash head on. There is a chance this is how the photographer got the shot.

Most of the time, you should avoid flash at big games and indoor sporting events. It’s just the respectful thing to do.

2.) Bumping up your camera’s ISO speed settings. There is no doubt in my mind that the photographer of the second image used one of the higher (if not the highest) ISO speed settings on his/her camera. By increasing the ISO speed, you are effectively making your camera process the light faster. This means you get double the light for the same shutter speed. So, to get the same amount of light, you can increase the shutter speed and also get the motion freezing effect.

Changing the ISO speed is one of the first things I do whenever I shoot indoors without a flash. There’s only one problem with it. At very high ISO speeds, your images end up becoming a bit grainy. This is the tradeoff you have to make. You have to ask yourself which is worse, the grain or the motion blur? In this case, I’d say it’s the motion blur, which is why I’d advise increasing your ISO speed as much as possible so you can get rid of the blur.

3.) Increase the aperture and get up close. If you have a zoom lens with an aperture that’s on the wider end of things, you can use it to keep your shutter speed high. This technique can work really well when you’re going for a more portrait style image. The only issue is that as you increase the aperture, you also decrease the depth of field. It will be harder to get everyone in the scene without blurring out some of the other players in the background.

There are times when the blurring is a very good thing, as it can be used for artistic effect. There are other times when it just makes your viewer wonder what’s going on. The second photograph was not taken using a wide aperture. You can tell because you can easily see everything in the background. My guess is that the photographer chose something “safe” like F8.


If you can get up close and take an action-portrait,
you can get shutter speeds fast enough to freeze the action.

Here’s the irony of this whole thing. It’s actually easier to take those super professional photos of pro athletes. Why? Because their facilities are designed to be accommodating to photographers. It’s probably not so with your kids’ local gym. Those are designed to minimize cost while maximizing play time. The lights don’t need to be bright because it’s not as if there are going to be a lot of T.V. cameras in there all the time. It’s a challenging photographic environment, and you’re just going to do what you can with it.

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Comments

  1. Jo says:

    Fantastically helpful!

  2. Shelley says:

    Hi David
    I just now found your site. I was asked to shoot an event last night. I am quite amateur. I have a Canon G11. It was an indoor venue, not much light, and a bunch of kids marched in carrying sparklers. I set my camera to 1600. The pictures came out quite dark, and the kids' eyes came out white..sort of spooky looking! Any ideas what happened, and how to improve this? I've had this before, and it's very frustrating.
    Many thanks
    Shelley

  3. Claudette says:

    Thank you very much for the many articles. My potographic skills have improved tremendously.

  4. colin says:

    Thanks for the explanation, I had heared of using manual, 1/800sec, f2.8, iso set to auto. As the light varies from end to end, indoor or outdoor the iso will vary to match the manual settings

    Colin

  5. Tammy says:

    Thank you so much about the article on blur. I do Rodeo pictures outside and I do get some blur this will really help me a lot, thank you so much again, Tammy

  6. Terri says:

    Thanks so much for sharing so many good tips. I'm a retired nurse, redoing my life again due to injury, and I've decided to return to photography after a long absence. The information that you share is informative, helpful, and very easy to understand. Thanks so much.

  7. Eddie says:

    Thanks for sharing

  8. Khalid says:

    Thanks David.

    Khalid
    Qatar

  9. Scott Bagg says:

    David,

    Thank you for a good article on indoor sports photography. I used to be a semi-profession (and I use the term loosely) photographer of gymnastics in Vermont. But, I discovered that I was not recovering the costs of shooting an event and the amount of work that followed.

    I used every trick that you listed in your article, and then some. Rapid fire of capturing about 6-12 shots a second was also necessary. You didn't need it for beam work, but it was absolutely necessary for vault, bars, and movement on floor. The downfall was that by the end of the event, you had THOUSANDS of shots to go through. It reminded me of looking for the multiple needles in one large haystack.

    One thing I would be interested in a follow up article...

    May high school and community gymasiums/arenas use various different lighting sources. Getting a good color balance was always a challenge. I ended up tinkering and setting the warmth upon arrival. But, I found more often than not, the the lighting / warmth would drastically change in different parts of a building. And even by changing my focus to a different event, I would drastically need to reset my warmth. Ultimately, I would just choose to work on the color and warmth of the good shots after the event.

    Any suggestions on warmth and color balance for indoor, local sports photography would be a great follow up article.

    Lastly, I want to say thank you for all your articles. My photography, now as a ametuer again, is better because of you.

    Scott Bagg
    Northfield, VT

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