Lighter and Brighter for Indoor Sports

This image, made in Stonewall, Oklahoma last week, was shot from the baseline. The play, which happened about mid-court, was at just about the far reach of the 85mm.
This image, made in Stonewall, Oklahoma last week, was shot from the baseline. The play, which happened about mid-court, was at just about the far reach of the 85mm.
Between my 20mm (top, on camera) and my 85mm, I've got the court covered pretty well.
Between my 20mm (top, on camera) and my 85mm, I’ve got the court covered pretty well.

With football season on the way out, the schools around my coverage area are a gearing up for basketball. Thus, so am I.

I’ve already shot a couple of games, and with some success. It is not, after all, my first rodeo.

I chose for my first few games one of my favorite lenses for action in low light, the AF-Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. With the so-called “DX” size sensor (approximately 24mm x 15mm), the 85mm class of lenses (from 85mm to 135mm or so) is just about the shortest focal length I’m willing to use for basketball. Even then, in order to fill up the frame, I need to work from the baseline right under the basket, or from the corners. From there, the far half of the court is out of reach, but from the mid court line and closer, I can fill up the frame with the action.

As I started to write this, I saw a thread on Photo.net of similar nature, and read it. I found a lot of odd and bad advice, as well as some unsatisfying images. People were recommending shorter focal lengths than I would consider for this sport, like the 18-35mm Sigma. I do carry a 20mm on my second camera when in the gym, but not as an action lens; it is almost always meant for features: crowds, teams, and coaches.

I made this image in Tupelo, Oklahoma last week. Shot from the baseline, the 85mm was just right to get this play near the top of the key.
I made this image in Tupelo, Oklahoma last week. Shot from the baseline, the 85mm was just right to get this play near the top of the key.

The sample images on the Photo.net thread were embarrassing examples of how the thirst for technology can overshadow the real purpose of photography: to record the moment. The posters were so proud of their sharp, low-noise images that they forgot the very most important thing about action photography: the moment of conflict. The images they posted, kids shooting or passing or dribbling, without anyone else in the frame, might as well have been posed studio shots.

The other indispensable thing about the 85mm is that sweet f/1.8. I shoot at a lot of small schools. The lights are often less than ideal. In fact, all the basketball I’ve shot so far this year has been at f/2 and ISO 3200, which in those small gyms usually gives me nearly 1/500th of a second, just fast enough to freeze the action.

Finally, the combo of the 85mm and the 20mm is small and light. Compared to my usual combo of a wide zoom and an 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom, the weight is very noticeably less stressful on my shoulders.

I’ve recommended the 85mm to several people looking to shoot basketball. In the right hands, it’s an excellent choice.

In some ways the successful 1-2 punch of the 85mm and the 20mm simplifies and clarifies the mission of sport photography: get the moment and keep it simple.
In some ways the successful 1-2 punch of the 85mm and the 20mm simplifies and clarifies the mission of sport photography: get the moment and keep it simple.
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1 Comment

  1. Certainly, the 85mm f/1.8 is superb for basketball. For any of your Canon students, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is what I used for several years (though I kept trying other lenses as well).

    It’s obviously too tight when the players are right in front of you — especially on a crop sensor. But there’s no equivalent wide angle lens, at least not in term of price and focus speed/accuracy.

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