I had been looking for opportunities to try out my new Nikon D850 Digital SLR camera in different situations, to see how I could make best use of its capabilities. So Friday night, January 12, 2018, having just returned from spending a few vacation days in Florida, Patty and I attended the Annandale High School boys varsity basketball game, at home against Mt. Vernon High School. It was great to see the local team out there working hard, and I learned a few things about my camera, and photographing basketball, in the process.
But another reason why I take photos of high school sports is give these young people evidence of what they can achieve when they work hard. And obviously, I’m not just talking about sports. So, since I had a brief pause in my government travel schedule, I looked for opportunities to shoot a few more Annandale games, so that I might offer some nice photos to more of the players.
Equipment & Setup
At the first game, since I had never shot basketball before, and in order to avoid interfering with any other photographers that might be working the game, I spent the first half with Patty up in the stands, where at some point I started taking a few test shots to find the sweet spot in the camera settings for the ambient lighting. But for the second half, I went down on the floor, so I could get some close-ups of the action.
The basic camera setup that I used consisted of the following.
- Nikon D850 Full Frame Digital SLR Camera
- NIKKOR AF-S 105 mm f/1.4E ED Prime Lens
- Sony 128 GB XQD G Series Memory Card
- Sony 128 GB SD UHS-II SF-M Series Memory Card
Due to its wide aperture, the 105 mm f/1.4 prime is my go-to lens for low-light action shots.
Due to the diffuse lighting in the gymnasium, and after reviewing other high school basketball shots online, I was anticipating that I would need a flash to get the dramatic action photos that I was looking for. So, when I was driving home from work earlier that day, I started musing about how I could mount a flash in the AHS gymnasium so that it would illuminate some key positions on the court, without becoming a distraction for the players, coaches, or fans. Although I have light stands that could do the job, I was looking for something a little more discrete and less likely to be damaged by an errant basketball. I figured the easiest solution would be to clamp the flash to a handrail up in the stands, or on some other structure, and trigger it wirelessly from the camera. But from that distance to the court, I would also need to focus the flash at distance. I came up with a kit using things I had laying around to create this capability. It consisted of the following items, and it is shown assembled below.
- MagMod MagBeam Fresnel Flash Extender Wildlife Kit
- Nikon SB-5000 AF Speedlight
- Cold Shoe Mount
- Dinkum Systems ActionPod Pro Clamp Mount
- Nikon WR-R10/WR-T10/WR-A10 Wireless Remote Adapter Set (camera mounted, not shown)
In addition to this kit, I also brought my NIKKOR AF-S 70-200 mm f/2.8 telephoto lens with me since, if the flash kit worked out, it might give me enough light to use this smaller aperture lens, which would then give me more reach due to the longer maximum focal length, in addition to the ability to adjust the focal length for each shot.
As it turns out, I decided not to use the flash or the zoom lens, since I was trying to keep a low profile, and also because my photos seemed to be coming out reasonably well exposed anyway. I was operating the camera and lens at 1/1000 seconds, which I expected to be the slowest shutter speed that would freeze the action, the widest lens aperture, and ISO 100. It’s a shame that I didn’t try out the flash after the game, but at least I confirmed that the 2″ spring clamp should fit on the available handrails in the bleachers.
For post processing, I first ingested the camera’s RAW files, using Camerabits Photo Mechanic 5, into a “Nikon D850 RAW” folder that I created in a game-specific folder, which was in a season-specific folder (“2017 AHS Boys Varsity Basketball”), on my HobbyPhotos hard drive. The great thing about Photo Mechanic is that it allows me to review and delete some photos while others are still uploading.
Then I opened Adobe Lightroom Classic CC, and I created a new “Lightroom Catalog” folder within the “2017 AHS Boys Varsity Basketball” folder. Then I “imported” the remaining RAW files into that Lightroom Catalog (All this really does is tell Lightroom where it can find the files.). With this setup, I would be using the same Lightroom Catalog for all photos from the same 2017-18 AHS boys varsity basketball season, so that I could use the Adobe Lightroom Classic CC software to create slideshows, etc. covering the entire season. Creating a separate Lightroom Catalog for each season/sport, and keeping it together with the associated photos is definitely the way to go, because it allows for the portability of those files, for backups, transfers, etc.
In editing the photos, there were a couple of unique things that I had to deal with. The first was that the camera appeared to have had trouble picking the right white balance settings (I had the camera set on Auto WB.). This was evident by the slight green tint to some of the photos, where the camera, obviously didn’t recognize the lighting in the gym was from fluorescent light fixtures. Luckily, since the RAW files looked pretty good, I was able to use Lightroom to adjust the overall color temperature, which is not an option if I only had the JPEG files available.
The other issue is a little more concerning, but there may be a simple fix. I had the camera set to produce slightly underexposed photos, with the intention of boosting the gain in post processing, in order to avoid the same color noise issues that I had seen with my D500 camera. With these photos, I was consistently seeing luminance noise, which was especially objectionable in the shadows. Luckily, the Lightroom noise reduction features seemed to do a pretty good job in reducing this noise to an acceptable level, and since the sensor gain in the D850 can be set down as low as ISO 64, I may be able to reduce it further in-camera.
Links to the galleries of photos that I shot for each game are provided below:
- January 12, 2018 – Annandale HS vs. Mt. Vernon HS (52 photos)
- January 19, 2018 – Annandale HS vs. West Potomac HS (62 photos)
- February 2, 2018 – Annandale HS vs. T.C. Williams HS (62 photos)
Some of the better photos, with their camera settings, are shown below:
Photos at Annandale High School, Annandale, Virginia
Photos at West Potomac High School, Alexandria, Virginia
Photos at T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria, Virginia
Near halftime of the third game, a parent from T.C. Williams approached me and asked if I would take some photos of the seniors on their varsity team, so that she could use them as part of their Senior Night ceremony. So, during part of the third quarter I focused more on the T.C. players. I ended up sending this parent 29 edited photos of their players. I hope they work out.
1. I’m going to stick with my NIKKOR AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED prime lens for basketball action shots
As the players were warming up for the third game that I shot this season, I mounted my NIKKOR 70-200 mm f/2.8 zoom lens on my Nikon D850 and took some test shots. With the nice lighting at the T.C. Williams High School gym, and some careful camera settings, I was able to achieve some reasonable exposures. But when I looked at the photos, what struck me was not the new found ability to zoom in on action at the other end of the court, but the fact that with the smaller f/2.8 aperture (versus my NIKKOR AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED prime lens, which I try to operate wide open), the background behind my subject was much more in focus (greater depth of field).
For photos taken from the floor of a high school gym, the background is generally complex and distracting. To me, the best way to deal with this is to put the background out of focus, so that the subject stands out more. For this reason, and despite the fact that most every professional photographer I see shooting these games is using a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, in the future I think I’m going to leave mine at home. The impact of the smaller f/2.8 aperture on dynamic range, sensor noise, and depth of field are just too great. Even though I will miss a lot of usable shots due to the lack of zoom capability, my objective is not to create lots of ‘usable’ photographs. It is to make some really great photographs. And with the smoother gradients, less noise, and out-of-focus backgrounds that I get using a f/1.4 lens, I like my photos a lot more.
2. Always check your settings
At the beginning of the third game, some of my camera settings were left over from a previous shoot,. One of those settings was Center-weighted Metering. Although Center-weighted Metering works well for shooting static scenes, for these basketball shots, I didn’t want the camera to set the exposure by whatever was at the center of the image. I wanted the exposure to be set at the point in the image where I wanted it to focus, which was not at the center of the image.
What tipped me off to this problem was that in reviewing my images as they were shot, it seemed like in a number of them my subjects were coming out dark. This is because at the center of the image there was a bright feature (like a wall), and that is what the camera was using to set the exposure. So, I fixed this by switching the camera to Point Metering.
3. I should probably use nine-point autofocus (d-9) to shoot basketball
During the first two boys games that I shot, I had the camera set to single-point autofocus. This worked ok, but during the third game I switched to nine-point autofocus (d-9). I could have switched it up to 25-point autofocus (d-25), but from the distance I was shooting, I could pretty reliably keep the 9 focus points on the subject, but I wasn’t sure that I could do that with the larger 25-focus-point pattern. This is important, because I don’t want to confuse the camera’s autofocus system by making it have to process focus points that are looking at objects at vastly different distances. Nine-point autofocus should be better than single-point autofocus, because there is a better chance that some of the points will fall on high contrast features that will be easier for the system to use to determine the proper focus distance. Hopefully, seeing this pattern of nine points in the viewfinder will also remind me that I really don’t want to focus on faces in these action shots (unlike for portraits), because the lettering on the front of the uniform will provide much better contrast.
4. For basketball, I can reduce the shutter speed to 1/640 seconds to get more dynamic range
During the third game, I tried shooting with shutter speeds as low as 1/640 seconds, in the hope that it would still be fast enough to freeze the action, but improve the overall photo quality. The longer time the shutter is open, the more photons can be captured by the sensor, thus allowing me to reduce the sensor gain (ISO), so as to maximize the number of discrete intensity levels available at each pixel (maximum dynamic range), and thereby create smoother transitions in intensity gradients.
During the first game that I shot, I used a shutter speed of 1/1000 seconds, based on my experience in trying to freeze the action in photographing lacrosse games. But if you look at the sample photos from the first game (above), I think (although these photos have been post-processed) that there seems to be sharper transitions between light and dark. In post-processing I definitely spread these out, but if the photo had less dynamic range to begin with, due to the higher sensor gain (ISO) needed to achieve proper exposure with the 1/1000 seconds shutter speed, then my adjustments themselves would effectively be more coarse.
In lacrosse, I was trying to freeze the motion of the tip of a whipping lacrosse stick, or worse yet, the ball itself. So, for the second game, I reduced the shutter speed to 1/800 seconds. From the samples above, I think I can still see the effects of the limited dynamic range. So, for the third game, I reduced the shutter speed further to 1/640 seconds. These photos also benefited from what seemed to be much better lighting in the gym, but I think I also see improved photo quality that resulted from the fact that the camera was able to expose properly with the sensor gain set to as little as ISO 360, as compared with the first game, where the ISO hit as high as 4000. For the third game, I set the ISO to a target of 64 (the camera’s minimum), and a maximum limit of ISO 1000. Note that in the bottom right photo above, the fact that player #1’s right foot is slightly out of focus is probably not due to motion blur, but more likely, since his leg is outstretched as compared with his torso, which is in focus, the lack of focus is due to the limited depth of field when operating the f/1.4 lens wide open. In other words, a shutter speed of 1/500 seconds might be able to freeze most action in high school basketball.
One of the other effects of the lower sensor gain that I used during the last game, was that in post-processing I noticed that I had to apply less noise reduction for luminance noise.
Based on this experience, in the future when I take shots of free throws or other fairly static scenes, I should lower the shutter speed even more to drive the ISO setting down even further. I’ll just have to make sure that I remember to turn it back up when the action resumes.
5. The lighting in these high school gyms makes a big difference
I wish I had a portable light meter/analyzer, so that I could have a clear understanding of the light sources and background characteristics at each venue. There are distinct and photography-impacting differences between the conditions across Fairfax County high school basketball gyms. In some gyms, the light sources are surprisingly directional, leaving hot spots. Several have old diffuser panels that cast a yellowish tint on everything.
When I shot the first of these games at Annandale High School, the photos turned out having an orange tint to them. Because I was working with the RAW files, I was able to correct the color temperature in post processing. It seems like in the future, when I shoot in the Annandale gym, I should set the camera’s white balance to fluorescent, instead of Auto.
By contrast, when I shot the third game at T.C. Williams, the lights appeared to be Mercury vapor. They were definitely brighter than the lights at the first two games. And also, because the walls of the gym were white, and the court was rather neutral, there wasn’t much reflecting surface to color cast the players. As a result, it was pretty easy for me to achieve pure white backgrounds with minor adjustments in post processing.
6. It may be worthwhile to use a monopod to stabilize the camera
The photos I took at the first game did not turn out as crisply focused as I would have liked. In some cases, it was clear that the camera just missed the focus, either because I didn’t have the focus point positioned properly on the subject, I didn’t use enough focus points, or because I was pointing it/them at a low-contrast feature on the subject.
But basketball is a fast-moving game. And being down on the floor, close to the action, forces me to pan quickly as the ball moves around the floor, sometimes through awkward positions. In the process, I know that I wasn’t moving the camera completely smoothly (especially relative to the D850’s 45.7 Mpixel resolution).
So for the second game, I tried using a monopod to stabilize the camera. I don’t think I lost many shots due to the minor physical constraint that it imposed, and I know that got more in-focus shots than I did at the first game. I need to continue to evaluate this to get a better idea of how that tradeoff works.
7. I’ve got what I need to shoot long-distance flash photography using minimal equipment
Even though I didn’t end up using the flash setup that I came up with for mounting a long distance flash, now I know that I could create that capability if I had to. It may not be as powerful as a studio flash, but it doesn’t cost nearly as much either.
8. I don’t think I need to buy Photo Ninja
Before I switched to using Adobe Lightroom Classic CC recently, I had been looking at buying Photo Ninja, because its noise reduction features seemed to be well regarded. As I’ve gotten used to using Lightroom, I’ve found that its built-in noise reduction features seem to be adequate, at least for correcting luminance noise. I’ll have to see how it does in correcting the type of color noise that I’ve been getting with the Nikon D500 DSLR, which uses different sensor technology.