My Lame College Basketball Shoot

Wednesday night I got photo credentials (thanks to my buddy, sports photographer Andy Gregory) to shoot the USF Bulls vs. Pitt college basketball game and I absolutely stunk. So much so, I wasn’t even going to show any photos from the shoot, but there was one teaching moment in all of this mess, so I thought I’d show just enough to keep from totally humiliating myself.

First, a lovely iPhone photo of my gear
Here’s what I took to the shoot. Two bodies: A Nikon D3s and a D3. Two lenses: my beloved 300mm f/2.8 and 24-70mm f/2.8 on my second body. It got there in my Think Tank Airport International rolling camera bag, and I remembered the all important basketball shoot collapsible seat. A lean, mean set-up. So far, all is well.

It Started Off With Such Promise
When you shoot basketball, in many cases the spots where you’re allowed to shoot from are pre-assigned before you get to the arena, and when you get to the photographers work room, you look at the seating chart to find out where you’ll be sitting. They only had 8 spots filled (and there’s usually around 16 or more), so I was pretty happy to see lots of open spots (my name wasn’t listed, but I figured somebody wouldn’t show up, so I’d take their spot).

About two minutes prior to game time, there were a total of only four photographers in their spots, so I just took a seat to the right of the basket, with the Bulls heading my direction. So far, I’m thinking “This is going to be sweet. I can shoot for just about any corner, or right up under the basket. Lots of room to move, stretch out. This is going to be a great night.”

(Above: He’s got a funky look on his face, but I like the frantic coach in the background. Not a good shot, but then, none of these are. Brad says it looks like the coach is slapping him in the head).

Then I Picked up my Camera
It seemed pretty bright in USF’s Sun Dome arena, but when I picked up my camera and pressed the shutter button half way down to get a reading at my usual starting aperture of f/2.8 at 1,250 ISO, I was stunned to see it read a shutter speed of only 1/200 of a second. I need at least 1/1000. Uh oh.

I cranked it up to 1,600. Oh oh. 2,000 ISO. Rats. 3,200. Still between 1/500 and 1/640. I wound up at 4,000 ISO and still couldn’t get much above 1/800 most of the night. This was the first time I had ever shot at f.2/8 and had to shoot above 1,600 ISO. I want to apologize in advance to every one reading this who is thinking, “I have to deal with lighting like that all the time.” If it’s any consolation—I truly feel your pain.

It wasn’t just the lighting
If there’s anything worse than bad lighting for sports photography, it’s probably empty seats, and on this particular night, there were plenty of them. The arena wasn’t full, and everybody that was there sat on the sides, which left the sections behind the basket nearly empty. So were all the top sections, so if I went wide, you saw lots of empty seats. If I shot down court you saw lots of empty seats. So, I tried to compose so you wouldn’t see a bunch of empty green seats. Bad idea.

It wasn’t just the lighting and the empty seats
It was me. I just had a lame night of shooting. I couldn’t get anything going. I was stinking—I knew I was stinking, and I still stunk it up. It was stink-fest 2011. My timing was off. I didn’t like the color of the images. I was missing stuff left and right, and absolutely had no excuse. Uggh.

Assigning Blame
Although I am totally to blame for this lame shoot, I think it’s fun to assign blame to others anyway. Let’s start with the refs. They were clearly out to get me. I saw this view more than any other all night. If I moved to a different shooting location, I swear I could hear one of the refs call out to the other refs—he’s over there now. Stand right in front of him.

Death From Above: Flash grenades
There was another photographer I recognized there, and he was shooting for the Bulls themselves. Nice guy, and we’ve talked several times at different events. He had some flashes mounted in the arena, and he used them against me, setting them off any time I might get a decent shot (as seen above). I’d look over and instead of shooting, he was watching me shoot, with one hand on the trigger of his Pocket Wizard. This was all part of a master plan to make sure I wouldn’t get anything decent. Their plan was working.

A Teaching Moment
Besides learning that I can really stink it up, there is something that might potentially help someone new to shooting sports, so here goes. For most sports shoots, I shoot in JPEG mode (don’t freak out—read this post first, then freak out). On my 2nd body (with my 24-70mm) I notice that the shots are looking really flat. I check all my standard settings, and take a few more test shots, and they’re just looking incredibly flat, so I go to my Shooting Menu to see what my Picture Style settings are. For some reason (Brad!) they had been changed from Standard to Neutral. Normally, if you shoot in Raw, Lightroom and Camera Raw completely ignore these settings, but in JPEG it applies them, and that Neutral setting is really flat.

During a time-out in the first period, I took the test shot you see above with the Picture Style still set on Neutral (I was shooting the floor, not the cheerleaders), and sure enough—the brightly painted wood floor looked pretty flat.

Then I switched back to Standard, and I could immediately see the image look much more contrasty and the colors look more vibrant. Of course, I could have switched to Vivid Light as well for even more vibrant colors (and I considered it), but I thought I’d stick with Standard, and from there on, the color looked much better. Of course, improved color can’t override bad photography, so while it didn’t help my case, at least this Picture Style thing is something you can keep in mind when you’re shooting in JPEG.

All in All, It Stunk
Getting bad shots is bad enough, but it gets worse. The USF Bulls are my home team (The University of South Florida is in Tampa. It’s where Matt graduated from), and although they were leading at the half, in the 2nd period Pitt just caught fire and we wound up losing by like 19 points. Yeech!

A Bad Shoot is Still Good Practice
It was still worth going, and I learned to make sure I check Picture Styles when things look flat. Most importantly, I got to practice some real world blame assignment, in which I was able to liberally assign the root causes of my lame shoot to everything from the arena lighting, the guy with mounted strobes, the refs, to even the JPEG camera settings themselves. All and all, I feel pretty good about spreading it around like I did, which is an art unto itself, and an important step in my growth as a blame-assignment photographer. ;-)

      1. Ken, Sean beat me to the punch, because of my long-winded reply below. Next time, I’ll just type something shorter. ;)


  1. Be he ever so humble, there’s no one like Scott.

    It’s comforting for the rest of us to see you have the same problems we face shooting sports, especially indoors, and (almost) admit to it. Thanks for sharing your problems, and solutions, too.

    On a related note, I always find that when I go into a store to look at or buy something, 9 times out of 10, someone will be standing in front of the thing I came in to get! Evidently, they must all work as referees at sporting events.

    BTW, a very CAKB episode of PSU TV this week! Good to see you back behind the desk, Scott! Hope we see D-Town Friday. :)


  2. ISO 4000 and 1/800, huh? I don’t think you truly feel our pain. I would love to have light that good at the high school gyms I’ve shot at. And having empty seats in the background is my specialty – anything from gyms about 1/3rd full to a semi-pro football game with almost zero people in the stands. At least our pain is probably equal when it comes to having the refs’ butts in our view. From youth sports all the way to the pros, the refs must all have an unwritten rule to stand in front of photographers (even when I’m the only photographer there). Don’t feel bad about having what you consider to be an “off-night” though. It just makes the rest of us identify with you even more. I learn valuable new lessons from my mistakes almost every time I shoot, and I enjoy learning lessons from other people’s mistakes as well.

    1. Those werent really empty seats remember what the great Tim Mccarver said one time while broadcasting a NY Mets game. he said ” look at all the fans who came dressed as blue seats”…

  3. haha! This was such a good read … and made me feel better about my stinky days. At the end we are all playing, having great luck on some days and other times none! I personally think it all comes down to grace. Grace to do what we love to do. And grace to keep doing what we love doing.
    Thanks Mr Stink it up Scott – good STANDARD stuff!

  4. Thanks for this post, Scott. I think this is a very valuable one since failing is part of photography as well. And boy, it seems like those refs really failed! ;-) On the plus side, we wouldn’t know what constitutes a good shot if we hadn’t seen the bad ones as well.

  5. I had to use iso 12800 to get 1/500 shutter at f2.8 in one high school gym. Have you thought about getting some strobes of your own to fight back with?

  6. Tell us how you *really* felt about the shoot, Scott. :-)

    I’ve had experiences that rival your own, but sadly I never had the option to push my ISO anywhere close to your levels. Like you pointed out, I discovered empty seats (or no seats at all in some gyms and arenas), are total shot killers. Doesn’t matter how good the action is below the net; if you have empty seats or a big bare wall in the background, that shot is ready for embalming and a quick burial.

    Have a great weekend.

    Trev J.

  7. Hi Scott!
    I read your blog often from Sweden and read your books about photoshop, they have helped me a lot and developed, including “Digital Photography” that I learned a lot from, Thanks! :-)
    My question is now that I thought a lot about, how to get your images as “low-noise / grain-free” at high ISO so that you view especially at these pictures.
    I belong While the Canon ‘Stable’ with 5d mark II, but how do you treat these images to reduce noise / grain?
    Thanks again Scott for your generosity to teach, even to us on the other side of the world.
    Henrik Bergstedt

    1. Hi Scott!
      I read your blog often from Sweden and read your books about photoshop, they have helped me a lot and developed, including “Digital Photography” that I learned a lot from, Thanks! :-)
      My question is now that I thought a lot about, how to get your images as “low-noise / grain-free” at high ISO so that you view especially at these pictures.
      I belong While the Canon ‘Stable’ with 5d mark II, but how do you treat these images to reduce noise / grain?
      Thanks again Scott for your generosity to teach, even to us on the other side of the world.
      Henrik Bergstedt

  8. Scott,

    I know how you feel! I was shooting a horse show at the Verizon Center in DC, F2.8, and 4000 ISO! I needed to get the 1000/sec for the jumping! The show photographer, actually shooting for the show had been using flashes mounted in the overhang. Every time the horse was in the jump, POP the flash goes off! I pretty much at that point gave up! Until I ran into the second show photographer where I began to follow him. He was shooting a single shot at a time, I sat right behind him with the D3 shooting 9 fps haha he was getting very annoyed of hearing the shutter in his ear that whole night, maybe heard it in his sleep! I was able to get a shot or two out of the night but like you , totally dissatisfied.

    If your ever in the Maryland area come out and and shoot the Preakness with me!

  9. Therein lies the difference between shooting at pro events, collegiate events, and even worse – high school events: the lighting!

    I had a pretty sweet lens, the Sigma 50-500 f2.8 IS at a junior hockey league and was at f2.8 and ISO 1600 all morning long – still had camera blur due to the low light. At pro events, I woulda been tack sharp!

    Welcome to the trenches! :-)

  10. Scott,

    I got to shoot a couple Notre Dame basketball games this year for my first college bball experience. It was way better than the high school stuff I normally shoot (from a lighting standpoint). Although I did get flash grenaded several times, the refs get in the way a lot more…it was still awesome.

    For high school games, I typically shoot ISO3200 or higher at f/2.8 and 1/1000. I got a Canon 1D Mark IV a couple of months ago and really don’t mind shooting at those ISO levels any more.

    BTW, I think there is a website somewhere just for Ref Butt shots….

  11. Thanks Scott,
    I must say this is refreshing to read. I shoot a lot of my daughters’ sporting events and without question, the basketball games are by far the most challenging and frustrating. Even within a nice, modern high-school gym the light level is miserably low. I’ve learned to accept the unfortunate fact that my best shot opportunities are the still shots…. at the free-throw line, etc.. These can make for some nice photos, but it would sure be great to get some sharp action shots. Thanks for the inspiring post!

    Tim Wyler

  12. Hey Scott,
    I was lucky enough to shoot the Mountain West Swimming & Diving Championship at Oklahoma City Community College’s pool (My Employer). I shot at ISO 2000 the entire time with a new Canon 7D. I was at 2.8 using a 70-200. I had an absolute blast and just to get my name out there a bit I gave 160 of my best images to the Mountain West conference. The link on my name here shows just a few of the shots. The one thing I was impressed with was the lack of noise at ISO 2000 on this camera.
    I learned a lot too. I someday hope to get the credentials to shoot even half of the cool events you do.
    Have a great weekend ;)
    PS Where’s Ken?

  13. Been there. Back in the film days and trying to push Tri-X to ASA 2000+. Recipe for lousy photos. Thas’s were all of those 50mm f1.8 and 1.4 lenses get used.
    Or get a big handheld flash and blind the players every time they get close.

  14. Scott,
    Those shots are disgusting…….just kidding. I have never shot a basketball team but I have noticed that about half of our high school football fields around here are 2 stops or so darker than the others. I think the bulbs get old and need replacing.

    It looks like in that auditorium there are dead spots where th light is poor. (trying to sound nice, the lighting generally sucks) I’m sure for most of us those would be great shots! I have noticed many other members and Twitter friends shooting high school sports. This is a great place to start shooting sports and learning. The lighting is not as good as Pro sports so if one can get that dialed in then all that’s left for the Pros is gaining access!

    I’m glad you posted this, it shows that any of us can have a so-so day, even the King himself! 8-)


  15. Im not sure we can still be friends after this Scott…. ;)

    Seriously though, you nailed it when you said there is nothing worse than empty seats. Ill take bad lighting in a full stadium over the opposite any day.

    I do kind of like the very last one even though there are no faces. I think its because of the Under Armour logo on the bottom of the shoes

  16. That’s funny…you know, I think you’re right about referees, they seem to like standing in front of photographers! It’s happened to me last Friday at a high school game, and …I was the only photographer, either!! The perimeter of the court was packed with kids sitting around it, so I couldn’t move anywhere else! They should use cheerleaders as referees, it would make the overall experience more bearable! About the exposure, I cannot work less then 6400 ISO at f.2.8 and I only get to use a shutter speed of 800. Likely the D700 does a great job in keeping the grain down…not much else I can do I guess!
    I was wondering where about in the view finder, you preset your focus spot when you shoot verticals? The game is so fast, it doesn’t give you time to move it around much.
    Take it easy and enjoy the weekend.

  17. That’s a great blame storming session. What about the weather though? Haven’t even touched on that? Or Windows! Has to be some blame there too. C’mon Scott. You’re really not digging deep enough!

    1. Dave: did I mention how hard the floor was? Oh, and I could hardly concentrate with the pep band playing right in my ear. And the locust. Don’t get me started on the locust. ;-)


      1. good, good… now really work it… what about your memory card?It ate all the really good images you remember seeing on the back of the camera, right? yeah, that’s the ticket!

  18. When are you publishing the book, “Photo Recipes Live, Behind the Referees”? Maybe I don’t feel so bad now. Butt in all honesty, how could the shoot been saved knowing what you know now? Its not just post processing…..

  19. Scott, this was a great read, it made me realize i’m not nuts. I recently shot my first basketball game inside a pro venue and I was amazed at how high I still had to push my ISO. I was at ISO 5000 and getting shutters speeds as low as 1/640 in some areas of the court still. I thought I was missing something but this makes me realize it isn’t just me. I’m shooting pro lacrosse there tomorrow and I m praying for better light to help me capture the faster action.

    As for the ref shots, you should have a contest for the best ref ass shot people have, those guys conspire against us, I’m sure of it.

    Your strobe story makes me share this, I was talking with another photographer recently and he was shooting a youth sports game his kid was in and got chased away by a pro who was covering the tournament (and I’m assuming had negotiated rights with the venue). Anyway, the pro was an ass to this other photographer, so the Dad sat in the stands and kept deliberately setting off the pro’s strobes with his own rf trigger. Never be an ass to people, it doesn’t help you ever.

  20. Scott, I have invested heavily in your books and courses. I have also been shooting in really crappy light and experimenting. I found two ideas on the WWW and some dude named Spina suggested using floating ISO. I also realized thet my 300 could be a 450 in the DX mode and my 24-70 becomes a 35-105 when I need it. So here goes. Turn off almost everything that Nikon puts in the data path, shoot RAW, let ISO float up to maybe 3200. NIK Define 2 if needed. Set your function button and Main Rear dial to switch between FX and DX modes when needed. This worked fine for capturing Roller Derby at 1/320 and 1/500 at a dark Hockey Arena. Push the button, rotate the dial, frame, snap. It gives you two lenses mounted on each body. There are still plenty of pixels at DX (remember the D1 and D2?). FX is just so much more to work with. Charlie

  21. I have to say THANK YOU for posting this. Its rare to see some semi failures (if you call them that) by well respected pro’s and it helps us little guys realize that the struggles we face daily, are experienced by even the best pros.

  22. You think this is bad, try to photograph fencing. Everyone is in white and people stand all over the place. There is no designated place for photogs, either, you just have to be out of the way or they can kick you out, and out of the way usually ends up meaning behind one of the fencers.

  23. Scott, you are hilarious, and a very humble man. Thanks for the laugh today (sorry, at your expense, I’m afraid. But just in your telling of the story…)

  24. It serves you right for not having taken me up on my standing offer for you to come to Tallahassee and shoot an FSU game with me. You’re spolied by shooting all those NBA games with their hoity toity lighting :) I could have walked you through shooting a college game and you would have come up with your usual Kelby-esque images.

  25. Scott … great post. It’s always good to learn from mistakes or difficult situations… even if they are someone else’s. You could always strategically place a couple of VALS and strobe it remotely with a couple of pocket wizards, and at lower ISOs . There is a great post at your bud’s blog… Mr. Hobby aka “Strobist” about shooting basketball in a “cave” with speedlites… Keep up the great work!

  26. Just love your commentary…. you are a riot. My first an only experience to shoot NCAA was at Rupp Arena, UK vs UT… on the floor right behind beside the cheerleaders. Mr. Bill Fortney ( a man barely alive ) graciously let me borrow his F2.8 70-200 VR and I shoot at ISO 1250 or so and 1/1000th all night. Rupp is so bright….. I stunk it up 90 percent of the time… I am going to stick with HDR….. Here are a few. Good luck in Fort Worth and tell Bill Hi for me.

  27. You know referee’s can be photographers too. As a matter of fact this one reads your blog Just not at the same time in the same game. To be honest I/we don’t really pay too much attention to the photographers, unless they’re in our way, then we notice them…in a bad way.

    We have mechanics that we’re taught and part of this is where we should be in relation to where the ball is. If we miss a call the first thing that gets brought up is usually “You were out of position, and that’s why you missed the call.”

    Thank you for pointing out that Picture Style setting again. I did not remember to check that when I’m shooting other sports.

  28. Scott, sounds like it was an off night. Regarding the light, at first I thought you were going to say that you’d done something really dumb like leave an ND filter on the lens!

  29. I shot my wife’s 40th birthday three weeks ago and had a but time doing it. I left the bracketing on 3 shots. I found out right on the last photograph.
    Just before I found the problem my wife came up to me and said is something wrong with the camera and I said no just me.

  30. Scott, great post, can completely relate as I shoot a lot of basketball. Fortunately mostly high school and I can often strobe the court.

    My big question is….where did you get that seat?!?!?!? If I could get my 47 year old butt off the floor I’m sure the games would be much more enjoyable….

  31. One tip I’ve learned, shooting a school that never fills fans is, move into the seats. If it’s empty they won’t care usually of you move to the stands. I’ve done it at LSU and LA Tech. Get and angle about 12-15ft up, in the corner, and shoot down. Makes for some pretty cool shots.

    You can also try getting your camera on the floor and shooting at an upward angle. They make eye piece adapters for that. You can shoot over the stands that way.

    And when in doubt, shoot tight from the waist up!

    Hope this helps. Thank Louisiana Tech’s always low attendance for this ;-).

  32. Refs always seem to get in the way, no matter what. I think it’s secretly their goal!

    Sitting furthest away from the goal…the very end spot for me has proven to be the best…best angle to the hoop and more chance to get a ref free image!

    Better luck next time…we all have a shitty game! Rock on Scott!

  33. Basketball was the 1st sport i photographed.
    My images were really bad but i was only 10.
    27 yrs later they bring back good feelings of a not so great childhood.
    yes you are Scott Kelby Photoshop Master,but your allowed to mess up 1 time a year.

    1. Scott, could you put everything Kelby on an App, especially! That would be awesome. How cool would it be to watch DTowntv while at work on my IPad. I would pay for that $$!

  34. I’m super glad to see that you’re having problem with this too. My son plays basketball year round. I do photography, but don’t have the funds to get the higher iso cameras yet. I’m using my D80 with 24-70mm f2.8 lens. I get decent shots every now and then. I have my iso cranked way up and I adjust my shutter to where the picture is just bright enough to see. Then I have to brighten them back up in CS5. I’m about to upgrade to the d700 hoping that will help and I’m sure it will. I’m just glad to see your blog about that you had problems with the D3. Basketball is just so disappointing as far as photography goes. Here my son plays basketball and I can’t get a decent shot of him without having alot of noise or blur in the picture.

  35. Scott great story, yes we have been there, dark gymnasiums, refs with extra large butts right up in your face, and yes the rouge overheads got to love all these variables.
    I like your reference that everyone is out to destroy you, really they are, if I had a chance I would jump in as well, you really do get to shoot a lot of fun assignments.
    Thanks again for sharing.

  36. Hi, Sott

    Not related to the present basketball, great shots, by the way. Wanted to let you know I am reading your book “the digital camera” or something like that. I have been into photography for many years, got this book the other day on amizon I gotta say your advice has help me alot. Thank you. Great shots in the book. You can find me on TimothyJames100 if you ever want to see my work lol. peace timothy James.

  37. Ha! Ya, I shoot for a small NAIA school and I’m rock’n ISO 4000, Fluorescent WB (works best in our gym), 1/400 at f/2.8 and I often get dark fill directly under the basket still! Volleyball in that gym is a nightmare. Arm swings are virtually impossible to stop. I mostly post to the web and run a few prints so I’d probably be willing to push 6400 if I had a D3S. My D700 isn’t quite as efficient.

  38. I find the backgrounds distracting. Photos from our local college Big East team sometimes show my dentist sitting at his seat in the stands! Perhaps the focal plane shutter camera isn’t the best choice for basketball photos. If one were using a leaf shutter camera with X sync and strobe, one could control the background level using a higher shutter speed than what is available for digital focal plane shutters. Oh, for a 4×5 with a digital back, shooting at high shutter speed at f/11 with sufficient strobe power say ISO 400 one has great depth of field. Using the wire sight allows both eyes to watch for the shot. I won’t have to see my dentist again!

  39. Hey Scott,

    I feel your pain. I just started shooting Baseball games for Stetson University here in DeLand. I shoot with a 5DMarkII but the only faster lens that I have is a 70-200 f2.8. My long lens is a 200-500 f5. Thank God for Topaz Denoize and LR3. Just shot three games so far and trying to get my timing down. You never know what’s going to happen until that bat makes contact with the ball.

  40. Thanks for this post Scott! Its good to hear that other photographers have off nights and will tell the story. I’ve walked into places all psyched for a shoot and then thought “What am I going to do with this lot?” so its good to hear its not just me! Its a bummer you had a bad night but as you said, you learned a few things from it so it was not a total loss.

    Keep up the great posts! All the best, Vincent

  41. I am actually glad you posted this as it gives me hope. Sometimes when i only see the pretty stuff I feel like I will never get there. And when I have a suck shoot like this I can get totally discouraged. So seeing someone as talented as you struggle with a shoot and then turn around and do a brilliant one makes me realize the same can happen for me and I shouldn’t get discouraged by one bad shoot. So thanks for sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly! Also checking my picture settings now…good tip!

  42. I shoot with 70-200 and 300 2.8 most of the time. Pretty much give up when players coming past the free throw line. Recently I picked up 24-105 F4 and it’s working out great for me. AT&T center, I can shoot ISO 3200 @640. With D3 you can shoot at ISO 4000 no problem right? I heard many photog now using D3S at ISO 8000. Hope you have better seat assignment next time. Can’t really do anything when Ref is in front of you all the time. Scott, could you please share some photoshop tips on how to process your sports photographs in deadline situations (WB, Sharpen etc)?

  43. I have this problem all the time, high ISOs and a 5.6 apertures and refs that llooove to get in the way of things you know? you know, if I had enough time I would totally just have a harness and a long rope tied to roof and shoot from there

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