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I often take pictures of hockey players but they have a lot of noise and look very bad. I guess my lens doesn't have a big enough aperture, but I'd like to know what I could do to take better shots. I tried using low ISO values and maximum aperture, but shutter speed has to be very quick for this sport so it doesn't work very well.

I have a Canon 70D and an EF-S 55-250mm IS STM lens (f/4-5.6). Do you think I should use a different lens? How could I improve my pictures?

Here is an example taken in auto "SCN Sports" mode (ISO 4000 - 79mm - f/5.0 - 1/800s)

Download the CR2 file

Full picture

What details look like Noise when zooming in

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    Possible duplicate of Should I upgrade my camera or lens to shoot pro hockey games? – scottbb Feb 27 '17 at 17:47
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    It might come off as non-answer, but this amount of noise is OKish for ISO4000 on modern-ish cameras. There are many things you can change, but all of those will be aimed to bring ISO down. Or you can invest in mode advanced camera that can process noise better. – aaaaaa Feb 27 '17 at 20:47
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    This... looks normal for ISO 4000. In fact, the camera is actually doing a very good job at noise reduction. I routinely deal with far more noise than this in my line of work as a sports photographer. The image looks underexposed, though; have you tried exposure compensation? – bwDraco Feb 27 '17 at 21:00
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    @aaaaaa I wouldn't suggest a more advanced (i.e., more expensive) camera to somebody who's using the automatic scene modes on a mid-range DSLR. – David Richerby Feb 28 '17 at 1:59
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    I see the problem: you're shooting at a non-televised rink :-) . (Seriously - have you seen how incredibly bright the lighting is for NHL games? ) – Carl Witthoft Feb 28 '17 at 12:48
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A few things you can do to improve your results.

  • Use ISO 5000 or 6400. The way Canon DSLRs handle the ISO settings between the full-stop settings (100, 200, 400, 800, etc.) means ISO 5000 is cleaner than ISO 4000 and even ISO 2000 on most Canon cameras. The +1/3 stop settings (ISO 125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, 4000, etc.) should be avoided if noise is a concern.
  • Set exposure (ISO, Tv, and Ev) manually. Select an exposure value that is about halfway between the lights at their lowest point in the cycle and the highest. At a flicker rate of 120Hz (in places with 60Hz AC electricity) or 100Hz (in places with 50Hz AC mains frequency) your meter will not measure the lights at the same level they will be during the time the slit in the shutter curtain transits across the screen. With a lot of ice and other white background in the scene you need to dial in at least +1 stop of EC or set exposure so the histogram is well to the right of center. That is, unless you want the white ice and boards to appear medium gray.
  • Use a noise reduction tool that has independent control of luminance noise and chrominance noise. Luminance noise is what we often refer to as "grain." Reducing luminance noise has a greater effect on details than reducing chrominance noise. Chrominance noise, or color noise, is what is most noticeable in the example photos.
  • If the reduced buffer capacity (in terms of the number of frames you can take before the memory buffer fills waiting to write to the memory card) doesn't bother you, save your files in raw format. You'll have more latitude to brighten them up and correct color casts in post processing. Sometimes removing a color cast can go a long way to making a dingy looking picture taken under crappy gym/stadium/rink lights look brighter.
  • Use a faster lens. For sports under lights there's no substitute for wide aperture. A 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom or an even faster prime like the EF 135mm f/2 L are staples of the indoor sports photographer. If the pro grade "L" lenses are beyond your budget, the 85mm f/1.8 or it's cousin the EF 100mm f/2 do pretty well. I like the 100mm a bit better than the 85mm, but I'm usually using either one on a FF body. With the prime lenses you have to kind of pick a spot to shoot and wait for the action to come to that zone. Even with zooms that is often the best strategy to get good sports photos. Use your knowledge of the sport and particular players' tendencies to predict where key action will develop.
  • Use a newer Canon body with the "flicker reduction" feature. Not only will it help make the flickering lights often found in such venues look more uniform in brightness and color in your photos from shot-to-shot, but it will also time the shutter's release when the light are at their peak in the flicker cycle created by the alternating current powering the lights. For more about how this can make a qualitative difference, please see the case study I included at the end of this answer to When should I upgrade my camera body?

Just very roughly correcting the color/WB and adding a little selective color "punch" in the yellow/orange channels while removing some of the pink in the ice from the magenta channel as well as pushing the brightness in post can do a lot for the example JPEG image:

enter image description here

Particularly the contrast and color/WB could have been adjusted much better from a raw file than from the jpeg. Some of the attempt at NR was frustrated by the jpeg compression artifacts present in the image as well.

The editing power of raw files is demonstrated here:

raw edit

DPP 4 raw DPP4 HSL
DPP4 NR & sharpening Recipe

If I would have noticed Auto Lighting Optimizer was enabled I would have unchecked it before continuing with the edit. That's something I never have enabled so I'm not in the habit of checking it when beginning a raw edit.

  • Thanks for your answer. The ISO speeds I use the most for hockey are 3200 and 6400. I tried reducing noise with Lightroom (I think it has independent control of luminance noise and chrominance) but it was bas as well... I also shoot only RAW. Maybe my post-processing techniques are bad. – mimipc Feb 27 '17 at 18:06
  • I've added a bit more to the answer regarding lenses and camera features. You really need a much faster lens in that light. – Michael C Feb 27 '17 at 18:07
  • I've found Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4 can sometimes do a better job of NR than LR. I also find the color temp/WB easier to correct with DPP. Maybe it is just because I use it more than Lr. – Michael C Feb 27 '17 at 18:08
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    The flicker reduction would be such a great thing, I didn't know this existed. I have this big problem where the lights aren't the same in the metering and shooting phases. Ruins halfs the pictures. – mimipc Feb 27 '17 at 18:14
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    Wow, that anti-flicker feature would have been great when I was a roller derby photographer. Back then, my usual solution was to set Tv=120 to exactly match the 120 Hz flicker frequency of the rink lights, shoot with my fast prime lens, and develop game knowledge to predict shots. It also helps to develop good panning skills. – Bradd Szonye Feb 28 '17 at 2:19
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On my computer screen the noise in the full size picture does not detract from the subject matter, by which I mean that it makes no difference to me in terms of image quality because I have no interest in pixel peeping down to the Baer sensor level.

On my screen, I notice the compositional noise of the stick blade at the edge of the frame and the people at the tables behind the glass and the reflections of the off frame players on the glass. On my screen those do have an impact on how I would characterize the image quality because they don't support the subject and probably are not what the photographer saw.

My point is that image quality happens at different levels and along different axes. It should be judged based on the intended audience and the intended display format. On the web at normal viewing sizes the noise just is not apparent.

Some suggestions:

  1. Shoot the subject when it is closer to allow the variable aperture lens to operate at a wider aperture.
  2. Time shots for when motion relative to the camera's field of view is less to accommodate slower shutter speeds.
  3. Time shots for the moment when players have minimum velocity, such as when a player is changing direction by deeking an opponent to accommodate slower shutter speeds.
  4. Take lots of pictures and experiment while doing so.
  5. Experiment while post-processing all those pictures to find images that swamp the limitations imposed by the equipment.

That's not to say that different glass won't produce different pictures. But it won't improve a photographer's sense of timing or sense of composition or willingness and curiousity to experiment and determine what works better and what doesn't.

enter image description here

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For sports you need fast shutter speeds. To achieve proper exposition you have two variables available: Apperture and ISO.

You are right on the lens' apperture limit already so you need to compensate it using high ISO and sacrifice the noise.

Look for fast lens. Maybe you would need to sacrifice the wide range of focal lengths though.

Without upgrade try to shoot using as slow shutter, apperture as wide open and as low ISO as possible, but i doubt it can improve the quality significantly.

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I'd be inclined to say your picture looks fine, but you're looking too closely at it.

What I'm saying is that you're zooming in on small parts of the image and worrying about them instead of the image as whole, and I don't think it's as big an issue for people looking at your images as you may.

If noise bothers you you can try some post processing noise reduction with the many software tools out there for that task (NeatImage is one I've used myself). I'd selectively reduce noise on the plain areas, rather than doing an overall noise reduction which will reduce detail.

Noise at such a high ISO is a given. You need the high ISO because you need to trade it for shutter speed in relatively low light, so you need to accept the noise.

I'm not sure I'd aim for 1/800th myself. A little motion blur is actually useful in giving the viewer a sense of movement sometimes. Freezing all movement doesn't necessarily give a sense of action.

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    Unfortunately, this is quite a soft example. Sometimes faces are nearly blury because there is really too much noise. 1/800s is maybe too fast, I'll try lower speeds but I often shoot with auto speed settings. – mimipc Feb 27 '17 at 18:12
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    I don't think the OP would bother asking if the noise level weren't a problem, and it's hard to really appreciate noise level given an image that's small enough to fit on a computer screen. Therefore, "you're looking too closely at it" doesn't seem like a helpful response. – Caleb Feb 27 '17 at 18:15
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    How closely do you normally look at other people's images ? I can only speak from my own experience and I just don't get people looking at images at more than typically 7" tablet size these days - even less phone size. YMMV. In sports it often is a trade between motion blur loosing detail and noise loosing detail. It often isn't possible to get everything you want. – StephenG Feb 27 '17 at 18:37
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You might improve the technical aspects. But there's more to photography than just technical stuff - assuming you want to create art and not just fire away blindly without thinking what you want to achieve with your photograph. In other words, there's a difference between art and the average vacation selfie.

If you cannot work around the noise, use it as an integral part of your work. Anyone remembering the amazingly bad photography of Ernesto "Che" Guevara? After some "analogue photoshopping", it became the iconic "Che picture". Well, don't get carried away now and expect that your hockey photos will automatically achieve the same level of fame, but still try to think a bit more of the meaning and the emotions you want to convey with your image.

One important point, apart from level/color adjustments, is cropping. Cut away everything which is not needed (while still maintaining a reasonable aspect ratio). I did an ugly example where the player appears to enter the picture from the right, moving to the vacant space on the left (which could be even larger, to convey the determination of the player to occupy this space, carelessly left unoccupied by the opponent's defense team, just split-seconds before he nails a decisive goal past the helpless goalie...well, I guess I'm getting carried away).

And, honestly, like all the others here, I don't think neither you nor your camera did a bad job!

Some *quick* editing done...but still not the next famous "Guerrilla Heroism" image yet...

Edit: Regarding the difference between the noise shown in typical reviews and the noise an actual user might perceive when shooting under imperfect, real-life conditions: there is always noise, regardless of the ISO setting. It is more noticeable in some pictures and may be totally invisible in others. Or it might be covered by the JPEG compression artifacts, or smoothed out by some anti-noise algorithm (which can also remove fine detail, so such algorithms are typically more often found in cheap consumer cameras). A photograph with very bright sunlight and deep shadows will, even at ISO 100, will begin to show noise in the shadows when you start playing around with the exposure curves during RAW processing.

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