Should you get a dedicated flash for shooting inside a gymnasium / auditorium?

Last week, an SPS student asked the following:

Q: Hi Kyle,
I have what I hope is a quick question.  I haven’t completed your lessons so you’ve probably already answered this.  I have a Canon Rebel with no extra flash.  I want to be able to take pictures inside a gym, ie basketball games, music programs, etc, and the regular flash does not give enough light with the auto settings.  Soooo, my question is, WHEN I finally learn to use the manual settings, will I still need an extra flash?  I’m assuming the answer is yes but wanted to check before we spend money on one.  
Thanks for your time,

This is a great question, and I thought I’d share what I sent her below.  Odds are, there’s a handful out there wondering the same thing.

A: Hey Jillene, 

Thanks so much for your question!
Your best bet to getting better pictures inside very large venues like gyms and auditoriums is to actually to get a camera body that shoots well at very high ISO’s and then add a very “fast” lens.  If that sentence sounds more like greek than english, then allow me to try and translate 🙂
  1. First and foremost, gymnasiums and auditoriums are notoriously dark spaces.  Most people think that gyms are well lit.  After all, a sporting event is going on in there.  But keep in mind that our eyes are so very efficient at adapting to low light levels.  You’ll likely see very quickly from blurry pictures that gymnasiums are dark.  The lesson linked goes through this in detail, but the bottom line is that when you’re shooting in automatic in a dark space, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up with some motion blur and/or camera shake.
  2. While you could invest in a speedlight  you still might not find this to be a good solution.  For one, it will still likely not be powerful enough shooting from the bleachers.  And in the case of dark auditoriums for music programs, flash will often be strictly prohibited. Indeed, you’ll likely find better results from marrying a great camera body to a “fast lens.”
  3. Let’s start with the camera body.  When we’re shooting in dark spaces, the single biggest thing we need is a camera that can give great results at high ISO’s.  Remember, shooting at ISO 800 will soak up 8 times more light than shooting at ISO 100.  That said, by “high ISO, I mean at least ISO 1600, and preferably 3200.  If you bought a new DSLR within the past 2-3 years, you’re more than likely good to go, as this has been a large focus of the main players (Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc) in the past few years.  Just also know that just because your camera goes up to ISO 3200 doesn’t mean that 3200 will give “usable” results.  Remember that the higher the ISO, the more “noise” the final image file may exhibit.  But in general, the absolute highest ISO your camera goes to is probably pretty noisy.  So if you’re camera goes up to ISO 6400, 6400 will be pretty noisy, but 3200 will look a lot better, and 1600 will look great.  Also, know that all of the fundamentals of this paragraph is explained in step-by-step detail in the exposure module.  Specifically, I talk about ISO here.
  4. Remember that by “fast” lens, I don’t mean fast focusing, although that helps.  I mean a lens that let’s in a LOT of light all at once.  I mention this concept more in this post (which is open to non-members).  In short, fast lenses are those with large maximum apertures.  Remember, your lens primarily functions to  focus light into your camera.  If one lens let’s in twice as much light as another lens, you’d rather have that one, right?  Well, that’s what happens when you go from f5.6 (your standard kit lens) to f2.8.  That 2.8 aperture is letting in 200% more light in the same given amount of time.  f1.4 let’s in twice as much as even the 2.8 lens!!  
  5. Combine HIGH ISO’s of 1600 and 3200 along with FAST lenses, and you can start capturing moments in these dark spaces without the use of sometimes cumbersome, slow, flashes.  
  6. Not to mention, just about every other pic you take will look better with that fast lens.  The bigger aperture not only means faster shutter speeds, but it also means better background blur (“bokeh”).  I talk more about fast lenses here and here.
Okay, I’m not sure if that helps or not.  Hopefully so!  One thing is for sure, it should def help to get through that understanding exposure module.  If you understand exposure, you’ll have a foundation on which to solve all the challenges photography throws your way!

One other thing I thought of after I sent this reply is that most of the entry level dslr’s have an “action” mode.  This attempts to keep shutter speeds above a predetermined threshold, and can thus help avoid some motion blur.  That said, I still wholeheartedly recommend learning the basics of exposure.  When you can control it, it’s always better.

Have a question?  Submit it in the comments.  Perhaps it’d be a great next blog post!

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