Shooting Pro Soccer (futbol) at 6,400 ISO

On Thursday night I got a chance to shoot FC Tampa Bay Rowdies (a pro team in the North American Soccer League), vs. the Austin Aztex and although I didn’t shoot worth a darn (and the score ended in a 1 to 1 tie. Ugh!), I did try out a few new things, and learned some things along the way.

Shooting at 6,400 ISO
The uninspiring shot you see directly above is only remarkable in that it’s the first time I’ve really shot at 6,400 ISO (click on it for a larger view—-no noise reduction applied. The one at the top of this post was shot at 3,200 ISO. More on that in a moment).

Normally, for night games I would be shooting in the 2,500 to 4,000 ISO range (2,500 at ISO f/2.8 or 4000 at f/4) but the game was held in a Minor League Baseball stadium, and I figured the lighting would be kind of bad (and I was right). Luckily I was able to borrow a Nikon D3s from my buddy RC Concepcion, which reportedly has even less noise than the D3, so if I had to shoot at 6,400 or higher, I’d probably be OK, and it performed like a champ! (see above).

(Above: another 6,400 ISO shot).

My Lens Lesson
I only brought my new 300mm f/2.8 lens, which I now know is a little too short for shooting soccer on a full frame camera. So short in fact, that I could only shoot when the play was near my end of the field, because at the other end, it was just about useless (they looked like ants). Last year, when I shot the U.S. Men’s team, I took my 200-400mm f/4 (which was out on loan to Matt that night—he was shooting soccer down in Ft. Myers), and that extra 100mm made a big difference (and beside my buddy Dave Cross, who shot the game with me, every other photographer working the game was shooting a 400mm f/2.8 lens).

(Above: Back to 6,400 ISO—click on it for a much larger view).

Why it works for NFL but not Soccer (Futbol)
The difference between shooting at 300mm when shooting Soccer (futbol), and when shooting American Style NFL Football, is that shooting NFL football you move your position a lot during the game, based on which team has the ball, and where they are on the field, so you can always be pretty close to the action with a 300mm. You can easily spend five to 10 minutes on one end of the Football field while a team is on a drive, so you’re right on top of the action with a 300mm on a full frame.

However, with Soccer most shooters set up near the corners of the field and stay there for long periods of time (a lot of them are sitting the whole game, either on the ground, or using portable fold-up seats). In Soccer, the possession of the ball can change every 15 seconds (which really makes it exciting), and they’ll be running right toward you—the ball gets stolen—and suddenly they’re running away from you. So, you need longer glass or you’re only going to shoot 1/2 the time at best.

(Above: Another 3,200 ISO shot).

How about trying a Tele-extender?
I actually did, (a 1.4 tele) and it got me in much closer but you lose a stop of light as a trade-off, so I dropped from f/2.8 to f/4.  While that might not sound like a lot, it dropped my shutter speed from 1/750 to 1/1000 of a second, down to just 1/350 of a second (way too slow—guaranteed blurry shots), so I had to raise my ISO to at least 6,400 with that combo, and I was afraid of the noise it might generate.

As it turned out, 6,400 ISO on a Nikon D3s is like 4,000 ISO or lower on a regular D3, so I would have been fine, but without seeing the results on a larger screen, I was a bit hesitant to try, so I took it off, and shot a lot at around 3200 ISO with the 300mm set at f/2.8.

(Above: 3,200 ISO for comparison)

You don’t know unless you try
So, I did learn that the D3s lives up to it’s low-noise legend, and I learned that next time I’ll be sure to borrow it and a 400mm lens (or I’ll rent one from Even though I was disappointed in what I got (in fact, I wouldn’t have displayed these shots if not needed to support this article), it was still a lot of fun—I got some good practice in, and it was all made even more fun shooting with Dave. He’s a serious soccer fanatic (he used to play for this College team), and Dave got some great shots as a result (knowing the game, and where the next play is likely to happen is the key to timing the shots, and Dave knows the game inside and out). OK, back to something I’m more comfortable with—American Style football! Already got some NFL and College games lined up in the coming weeks. Can’t wait!!! :-)

  1. Scott,
    I agree, with my D3s for web at 6400, no noise reduction needed most of the time. For prints I do have to use one of my noise softwares (Define 2.0, noise ninja or Topaz, in that order). My teleconverter is just collecting dust, don’t like it! I’ll be shooting my old (real old) high school this week, been waiting in them to play on a better lit field. I have shot in our area enough to know which are a stop or two brighter.
    Grat shots as usual!
    Ken (fan #1)

    1. Hi Peter:
      It’s held in a baseball stadium, so they close the entire section behind home plate and both sides of it, so depending on where you stand, it looks worse than it really is. However, it had been raining every night, so the attendance was off a bit from normal that night (and although it looked like a huge storm was about to engulf us, luckily it never did, and we stayed dry).


  2. Scott,

    The thing that amazes me is the low noise at high ISO’s. When I first started photography I didn’t know what noise was, I just bought a camera for fun and started taking pictures. One day I had the bright idea of shooting at my highest ISO on my Olympus E500 (or was it 550?), anyway on their tiny little LCD it looked great. But when I got it home and put it on my monitor I liked to have freaked out (I no longer use the words that I said that day). There’s not a noise filter made that could have cleaned that mess up.

    That’s when I started buying your books, BTW.

  3. Hey, great shots at that iso…makes you want to shell out the $5100, hey? Anytime you guys run into that lens problem,let me know…I would gladly loan you my 200-400…of course, if you break it, you buy it. :)

  4. If you don’t have deep pockets for a D3s, how would a less expen$ive camera have done with noise software. As McNally would say, I guess we’ll have to try it next time.

    ps. So I guess the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs wouldn’t go to the end of the field quickly?

    1. A somewhat less expensive solution is the D700. Same sensor as the D3 and maybe one-half to one-stop noisier than the D3S but with a good noise reduction program like Dfine 2.0 the results can be amazing. I took a shot at my daughter’s wedding at ISO 5000 under conditions where I could barely see, shooting at f/1.4 on a 50mm. Colors were amazing vibrant and noise entirely acceptable.

  5. Great post! Very informative, you’re to be applauded for posting those shots. If we start with a 400/2.8/D3s for a pro sized soccer field, we could probably develop a chart for equipment to use down to a U6 match (and end all those “whadda I use” posts on the forums).

  6. Hi Scott,

    I don’t know … these photos look pretty good to me! I could tell that you were having problems zooming in on the players because of your location, but I’m assuming you will crop them. I’m still amazed at the really low noise at 6400 ISO! I have a canon 40D and at 1250 ISO the noise is really bad. Oh, as a side note. Did you stick with Raw or go back to Jpeg for this outing?

    Thanks for sharing your photos and info with us!


  7. Hey Scott and Brad,

    FYI, I was able to send a comment! Last night I couldn’t send, but got a screen that said “Cheater!” on it. Weird! Looks like it’s fix now.


  8. Actually, I love the “rack focus” look of the one shot with the 3200 ISO. I wish I could get that vantage point for tennis.

    (Then again, a friend got some lovely shots at a European claycourt tournament just using her DiMAGE Z10 … *sigh* )

  9. I just want to say thanks for including the word (futbol) in your title. Being a hardcore football raised Spaniard (Hala Madrid), Its nice to see someone from the US at least acknowledging the sports true/original name :D

    (Also I’d kill to shoot professional First League football from a spot like that xD)

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