Under the lights sports photography for me meant shooting my daughter’s soccer game in the dark.  Hmmm…  Sounds like a nice challenge, but I’m not sure if I’m up to shooting at night-time or not.

I packed my camera bag and my soccer star, hopped in the car, and headed off to our first night-time soccer game of the season.  I was determined to try and get some photos of her playing, basically in the dark, this time.

Usually, I can get some really great shots during the day, when the sun is high in the sky, acting as my excellent flash, but when it’s cloudy AND dark, capturing a good photo of a fast-moving target is pretty difficult.  At least for me.  But, I’m determined to get it down, so I’ll keep trying until it’s just as easy as day-time shooting.

In the photos above, the picture on the left was shot at a day-time game.  The darkness around the edges was done in post-production. I  just added some vignetting.  The picture on the right did not need any vignetting added.  It was so dark outside, that it had its own natural vignetting!

For the past few months, I have been shooting in Manual Mode only.  For those of you who aren’t very familiar with camera terms, that means that I choose all the settings on my camera.

No Auto Mode for me anymore.  I use what I’ve learned over the last few years of taking pictures, and prepare the camera for each photo adventure myself.

By the way, I got started really learning how to use my camera taking an easy, simple free email course from an amazing guy named Kyle Schultz (available here). Check it out if you want to take better pictures with your camera (no matter what model or brand).

The settings for this particular adventure were going to be difficult because there was not any sunlight!  She was playing “under the lights,” so I thought I’d have quite a bit of light on the field where she was playing from the bright spotlights they have to light up the fields, but I didn’t take into account that half of the field lights would be out!  Ugh…

I noticed that it seemed especially dark on her particular field, more so than some of the others.  I’m not sure how much this had to do with my mediocre pictures I got during this game, but I’m sure that having half of the field lights off, did not help me!

My determination kept me going!  I just had to get some pictures of my favorite Supergirl while she was tending goal, so I plopped down on the sidelines and began shooting.  I checked settings and reviewed pictures every few minutes to see if I was getting anything, and it looked like I would at least come away with a few pictures I could use.

What I really loved about shooting at this time, is that the background is really dark on most of the pictures that I shot during this night game.  Just naturally, without adding any vignetting around the edges.  It was already dark around the edges, because, well…it was very dark outside.  It really made my daughter, the subject of my photos, pop out!

See how she pops? I even lightened up the sky a bit. Before, it was completely black!

So…that part I loved.  However, figuring out what shutter speed to use to get a clear picture, but also let in enough light to see what I was looking at was difficult.  I struggled for the first few pics, but then I thought I was figuring stuff out.  At least on the back of my camera, it appeared that I just might know what I’m doing.

I was pretty excited, and a tiny bit impressed with myself for figuring this night-time shooting thing out all by myself.  I didn’t Google or YouTube anything before I set out on this adventure.  Probably my biggest mistake…

When I got home, I uploaded all the pictures to Lightroom, and began to browse through the files.  Oh boy…why do they always looks so good on the back of the camera, but then terrible when you pull them into Lightroom?  Well…they weren’t terrible, but they weren’t good.  They all seemed pretty noisy to me.

At the beginning of the game, there was still a bit of sunlight left, and most of the pictures were being shot with a shutter speed of 1/2000, f/2.8 and the Auto ISO was selecting about 2000-2500 for most of the pics.  Not bad.  Shutter speeds were fast enough to freeze motion, and the ISO was low enough so the pictures would not be noisy.

As the evening got darker and darker, I shot most of the pictures with a shutter speed of 1/320, f/2.8, and now the Auto ISO was selecting ISO numbers between 5,000 – 10,000!  I knew these pictures would be noisy with an ISO that high, but I was hoping that I would be able to use the Noise Reduction tool in Lightroom to try and smooth the pictures out.

In these particular photos, I wanted you to see how much the lighting changed from the beginning of the game to the end of the game.  When we started, the sky was cloudy, but still a bit of light.  By the end, it was pitch dark!  I do think it looks neat, though!

I was able to reduce the noise quite a bit in Lightroom, and the pictures looked pretty good.  Most people probably wouldn’t even think twice about what these photos looked like, but I’m pretty particular about my photos, so the noise bothered me.  I also don’t like to have to use the Noise Reduction tool, unless I absolutely have to.  I feel like you can usually tell when someone has used this tool too much on a photo.

Things I Learned from a Night-Time Sporting Event:

  • Don’t plan your shoot around the lights that are supposed to be there – I learned the hard way that just because it’s an “under the lights” game, that doesn’t mean that the city will have all the lights working.
  • Do not use Auto ISO – because it is so dark for most night-time games, the Auto ISO will go up way to high and create a “noisy” image.  Shoot a few pictures and choose ISO settings based on what you are seeing.
  • Do practice some night-time shots before your event.  Or check out a YouTube video.  Or read a book on shooting at night…
  • Don’t give up if your first shot doesn’t work out – just keep adjusting the settings until you get something that is close.
  • If you want to make sure you have some sort of documentation, you might try videoing the game with your iPhone.  Or at least parts of it.  That’s what I did, so all was not lost on my noisy pictures!
  • Have fun!  And let me know what works for you!

Overall, I was pleased with what I learned, and the shots that I got that night on the soccer field.  But, I do realize that there is still a lot to learn before any sporting magazines are calling me and asking me to take “under the lights” sports photos for them!  Maybe one day…

Let me know what you’ve learned from your experiences with “under the lights” photography.  I’m sure this is the first of many soccer games that will be played under the lights, so I really need to figure this out.

And guess what…my son has an “under the lights” baseball game this week.  Guess I’ll get even more practice trying to photograph sports in the dark.  Maybe, just maybe, all the lights on his field will be working.  Until next time…