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Settings for shooting basketball and football at night

edited October 2014 Posted in » Nikon D5100 Forum
I have been taking pictures for years but I have always kept the settings on the auto setting. Well, now I want better pictures, but everywhere I go they have different settings and I get lost in it all. I have the kit lens 18-55mm VR and I have a Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens which is what I keep on the camera about 95% of the time.

I am especially concerned about shooting basketball and football at night. I'm looking for tips on settings. I took some the other day of basketball in shutter priority at 1/250, and they were a little dark but not blurry which seems to be my biggest issue - always a blur.

Football at night I have always left on sports, but 90% of my pictures come out blurry and I don't like that. If I take 300 pictures I'm usually only happy with about 20-30 of them. Thank you for any help. I would love to buy the cheat sheets but will they benefit me with the different lens?


  • edited October 2014
    I think since most of the cheat card info is applied to the camera, and since your longer zoom overlaps the shorter one, most of the info will probably still be worth knowing. In any case, I see that the whole batch is only something like ten bucks, which is probably not much of a risk.

    For sports, you may have to experiment with higher ISO speeds if you haven't already. High ISO will be noisier especially in dark and underexposed areas, but a sharp grainy shot is way better than a grainless one that's blurry.

    If you're using shutter priority (likely the best choice here since you know you can get sharp results at 1/250), make sure your ISO is high enough that it does not run out of aperture settings. If your meter thinks you need 1/250 at f/2, and your lens only goes to f/4.5 the camera will work anyway, but the shot will be dark. Also, remember if your camera is set to auto ISO, to set the upper limit high enough. I don't know for sure about the 5100, but an undocumented feature on the D3200 is that the high limit for auto ISO is also the high limit for manual. If, for example, your auto ISO setting (that is, the upper limit) is set to 800, and you manually set it to 3200, the display will read 3200 but the actual photograph will never be taken above 800. If you need high ISO, set the auto limit high or turn auto off. If you want true control over ISO, set auto off and select it yourself every time. I recommend the latter at least temporarily while you determine what noise level you can live with.

    If dark areas are too black, make sure "active D-lighting" is on, and that will open up shadows a bit. If you want those black areas, turn it off, or they will tend to be muddy.

    Shoot in RAW mode if you can, and this will allow you to adjust exposures and white balance after the fact without loss.

    Practice panning. It's a skill you can polish, and if you get good at following a moving person you will get more good results.

    If you are in some doubt about what actually happened when you pushed the button, set your camera's playback display to include the EXIF information, and this will reveal anything (such as ISO adjustments) that may not have been obvious. If you are taking many shots and some are better than others, check the EXIF to see if there are any differences you can pin down. Remember that with difficult stuff like sports you may just always have a large percentage of throwouts relative to the ones you get right.
  • edited October 2014
    It occurred to me to add something more regarding auto focus, but I'll make it separate rather than editing the long post above.

    If you're shooting moving basketball players, you may have to experiment with AF settings. If you're far from the action and shooting a group, make sure you focus on some object or person more or less central to the action. If you're shooting an individual, make sure you start with single point, not auto-area. Auto area focus will often choose something that is outside the area of action. As a default, I usually use AF-A and dynamic-area mode, which will follow an object to some degree. If you're specifically doing a sporting event, you should probably switch to AF-C so the camera will always expect things to move, and try 3-D mode. Some things that move erratically will confuse 3D mode, but it can work well on things that move.

    Make sure too that you do not accidentally move the focus point. On the D3200 it's easy to move the point off center with a stray finger when holding the camera. If you don't notice while you're shooting, you'll get a lot of blurs!
  • Hi @Nicki8875 - For basketball in a gym and football at night, you'll need to shoot with a 70-200mm f/2.8 or an equally bright telephoto lens. Unfortunately, when it comes to fast action in low light it doesn't matter what settings you use if there simply isn't enough light entering the camera. To let more light into the camera, you need a "brighter" lens.

    A "bright" lens is one that has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider (smaller f/numbers - f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4). Brighter lenses produce faster shutter speeds at lower ISO's which gives you sharper images with less image noise and better color.

    With your 18-200mm, fully zoomed to 200mm, the lowest aperture you can use is f/5.6 which is much too dark for low light sports. If you attempt to shoot with this lens, you'll end up with dark, grainy images...regardless of the settings.

    My advice is to rent a 70-200mm ( for a couple games so that you end up with some nice shots. Happy shooting!
  • Thank you @bruto for all the insight you provided...great stuff my friend!
  • I know it has been awhile but I have finally saved up and I am getting a new lens. I am going with the tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD AF IF Macro. I hope this helps! Thanks for all the great info.
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