Perfecting the dreaded indoor photography

Winter is coming. That means indoor sporting events and horse shows are going to be more prominent. Indoor shooting is like taking photos on hard mode, but it is possible to get some good shots. Here’s some tips if you want to try getting some pics inside this winter.

Lighting

The massive problem with indoor photography is the lack of lighting. Some indoor arenas have great lighting – but this is very rare as I’ve discovered. It’s not like you can bring your own lighting setup with you and using your camera’s flash is generally frowned upon. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to work with the lighting that is available.

Take a look at the lighting set up of the arena. Where are the brightest lights? If you’re at a indoor horse show, are there any large windows or doors letting in natural light? Try to stand as close to the best light source as possible. If it’s an indoor sporting event, that won’t really matter because the lighting up top will probably be uniform. But if you’re at a horse show, there may be some windows/doors that are letting in more light where you can get a better shot.

Practice Shots & Settings

Aperture

Once you find a good place for lighting, take some practice shots. I know a lot of people say with photography “gear doesn’t matter” but with indoor photography, gear absolutely DOES matter. If you don’t have a f2.8 or wider on your lens, then you’re generally going to have a bad time. But fear not, it is possible to get some good shots with a f4/5 which is probably what the majority of people have on hand.

Whatever lens you have, open the aperture as wide as possible. The wider it is, the less grainy and disgusting the photo will be.

Shutter Speed

This one is a bit tricky because if you have a slow shutter speed you’ll have plenty of light but a blurry image. But if you have a high shutter speed, you’ll have a dark yet crisp image. So it really depends on your personal preference. I would personally go as low as you possibly can to where the image is crisp yet not too dark that you can’t see anything. You’ll have to test your own camera and lens to see what that threshold is for you. I think with my gear it was 1/600 shutter speed, but it might be different for your setup. Just play around with your shutter speed. Keep going slower and slower until you find the slowest one where your image is still crisp. It might still be dark, but that’s okay because we’re going to fix that with the ISO.

ISO

Before you touch the ISO – do you have a solid editing software on your computer? I’m not talking like Instagram editor or some phone app – I mean like solid Adobe Creative Suite type editing apps or similar. If you’re able to edit the photos afterwards, this will determine what ISO you need. The higher the ISO, the more grainy the photo will be. Thankfully you can edit out that noise in post production. But if you can’t edit it to remove that noise, then you might want to go easy on the ISO. I find it’s easier to brighten an image in post than it is to de-noise one. So if you don’t have a good editing app, taking a crisp dark photo will be easier to edit than a bright noisy one (and the dark crisp ones also look better – see example below).

Take some practice shots with a higher ISO. I can’t say exactly what ISO you should use because it will vary greatly depending on your camera and how dark the arena is. How do your photos look? Are they too dark? Are they too grainy? Play around and find what looks acceptable to you. Don’t forget that you can edit them once you get home, so don’t worry if they’re not perfect straight from the camera. Photos rarely are.

White balance

Look at the lights in the arena and choose the best white balance in your camera. I would be very hesitant to use auto white balance unless you know for sure there is only one light source in the arena (i.e. all the light bulbs, lights are the same color temperature). If, for example, there are 2 different types of light bulbs, on auto white balance, your camera will pick and choose which color to balance with. This means your photos will be half warm and half white or a mix of both depending on the lighting situation.

Choose the white balance that matches the lights best and stick with it in order to get a more consistent color. Some arenas have a mix of color temperatures, which means there’s different types of bulbs scattered throughout or there’s natural sunlight coming in the windows – so you may have 3 light sources while you’re shooting and zero way to get rid of it. Honestly, just do your best. If the sun is coming in, either shoot away from it or use it as your primary light source (if possible). Some photos are just going to have a glow in the background from the different color temps, and the only way to fix that is to either gel the lights in the arena (which you probably aren’t authorized/physically able to do) or fix it as best you can in post. Color correction is a pain in post though.

I should say that a color temperature mix is only a problem in smaller less professional arenas. Once you get to the professional level like major league stadium arenas, the light sources are all uniform, so you don’t have to deal with this atrocity generally speaking. It’s also not every small arena that you’ll have this color temp problem, but it’s worth to be aware that it does happen.

Sometimes you don’t even notice the color temperature problem until after. You’ll see in a hockey photo below a yellow glow in the background. It’s a different light in another room that doesn’t match the rink. It’s in the busy background and not really distracting, so I left it be. But it is infuriating knowing that they don’t match!

Things to Consider

Double Check

Once everything looks good, zoom in on your photos from your camera. Sometimes if you don’t really look, you’ll find your photos are blurry or more grainy once you upload them to your computer. You can fix mild blurriness in your editing app, but it’s annoying to do extra editing when it’s easily fixed while you’re taking the photo.

Check to make sure the lines in your image are clear. If they aren’t, adjust your shutter speed to make it a tad faster. Also check the graininess of your photo. If it looks fine to you, then leave it be. But if it looks a little too noisy and distracting (and you don’t have an app to edit it with), then take the ISO down a bit. This might darken your image a little, but you don’t need a editing app to brighten the image. Instagram or your phone apps can do that for you.

Colors & Backdrops

Subjects aren’t always going to operate under the same settings. If you’re shooting a black or dark colored horse in an indoor arena for example, that subject is going to need a higher ISO than say a white or grey horse. The dark colored horse is going to be more noisy as well. Same goes for sports jerseys that are dark colored. Some are going to need a change in camera settings or more editing in post. It’s just something to consider. If you’re not staying on top of it, you’ll have more editing to do afterwards – which is fine if it’s what you want to do. I’m super heavy on the editing because I love Photoshop, so I usually shoot as best I can and fix whatever in post. Some people don’t have this option though, so if that pertains to you – definitely pay attention to your subject.

Another thing to consider is the backdrop. If you are shooting a dark subject against a dark wall, that’s not going to work out so well. If you have a white subject against a light background, that might look better because you can up the contrast to fix that. Since white is easier to see with bad lighting, it won’t be nearly as problematic as a dark subject/dark backdrop. However, if you want a solid photo, try to put your dark subjects against a light backdrop or light subjects against a dark backdrop for best results. Sometimes this isn’t possible, so work with what you have. But definitely if possible avoid the dark/dark combination at all costs. It’s nearly impossible to improve those types of photos in post.

In Conclusion

Indoor shooting isn’t hard, it’s just knowing the arena you’re shooting and what settings work best with your gear. Once you start shooting at different arenas, you’ll be able to figure out faster what settings you need. If you’re still stumped and can’t get a good photo to come out while you’re shooting inside, change the mode from manual to sports. Your camera knows best. Let him be your guide and see what he thinks the settings should be. Then you can use those settings as a starting place and tweak them accordingly.

As always, if you need help figuring out the settings or have any questions about editing your photos, my DMs are always open.