With youth sports images, does quality make a difference?

Almost all of the modern digital SLR cameras available today will make reasonably good photos even in the worst of conditions, so does the quality of an image really a determining factor in your purchasing decisions?

With today’s digital cameras almost anyone can stand on the sidelines of a high school football game and come away with some reasonably good photos and for many high school football games there are several moms, dads or students on the sidelines with decent digital cameras. Many of the people taking pictures from the sidelines have no training in either photography or specifically capturing good sports images, but does that really make a difference?

These days it seems most of the photographers on the sidelines of a high school football game are either a parent of one of the players on the team or a student attending one of the schools so I’m going to have to assume that is their reason for being on the sidelines.

When I was in high school and just learning photography we would photograph our high school football games either for the yearbook or for the school newspaper, things were much more complex back then when we shot film. First not everyone had a camera and everybody shot everything in black and white film. The reasons we shot black and white film were three-fold, we could develop the film at the schools photo lab, printing color images in the yearbook or school newspaper was very expensive, and lastly we could “push” the film speed to deal with the poor lighting conditions on the fields. Those days are long gone, with easy access to low-cost highly capable digital cameras that don’t require any background or instruction in photography almost anyone can take pictures at a high school football game, and they do.

Shooting high school football at night can be very challenging due to the poor lighting conditions so the first thing most mildly experience photographers do is increase their ISO, and for the photographer that doesn’t understand things like ISO and shutter speed the camera will take care of most of those settings for you. One of the problems with shooting high, or very high ISO night football is the grainy images – back in the film days we would call images grainy, today we call them noisy – higher ISO images tend to be noisy and have a lot of deep shadows inside the helmets making it almost impossible to see the player’s face or eyes. One way to deal with the poor lighting conditions, deep shadows and lack of face/eye detail is to shoot with a flash, not the built-in flash that pops up on top of your camera, but a dedicated hot-shoe flash, sometimes referred to as a speed-lite or strobe.

Shooting flashed football with strobes or a speed-lite requires an entirely different skills set from shooting your typical ambient light night football game. The complexities of shooting flashed football are extensive and range from where you mount your flash to how you trigger it so let’s not go into the details of that and focus the discussion on the quality differences and if they are a determining factor in your purchasing decisions.

Some examples of the quality and “look” of flashed football.

With flashed football you can clearly see the player’s face and eyes, the colors are brighter and the grain or noise is very low.

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Because this image is just my flash not firing or recycling fast enough you can see the shadows in the player’s face and eyes as well as the color cast from the stadium lights cycling, it’s not a bad image, but there is a clear difference. The question is, does the difference between the two images determine which one you purchase?

It’s important to note that the flashed images will take enlargement much better than the non-flashed images, the colors are truer to what your eye sees, there is less noise and the image can be printed at a much larger size, say for a poster or printed really big in the schools yearbook.

Here is a 100% crop view of the image above, you can clearly see the player’s eyes and the fact that he is using the proper tongue-out technique as he scrambles out of the pocket.

For many the clear bright colors of these flash football images are not important and the quality of the image is determined by the cost, if the image is free on the internet or given away on social media it is good enough, whereas this image must be purchased, and has a cost associated with its use.

The dark shadows and dull colors are easily overlooked if the images has no cost associated with its use, in that if it is free on the internet than it is “good enough.”

So the question becomes, “what level of quality is good enough for your use?” If you wanted to use an image in your school’s yearbook would you rather use a high-quality image that you must pay for or do darker images with lots of noise and shadows become acceptable as long as they are free?

This image taken without the aid of my flash is still reasonably clear and color-cast free, and even if my flash did fire you still wouldn’t see much of the player’s faces so maybe that is the difference. Only some images benefit from the use of flash and for everything else it just doesn’t make a difference. I wouldn’t want to make an enlargement or poster from this image because of the noise and overall dull colors, but maybe that is just me.

The clear and bright images taken with a flash would easily hold-up to enlargement for poster size printing or full-page printing in a school yearbook, but for many those are not important factors in their purchasing decisions.

I see a big difference in the flashed, vs non-flashed quality levels of these images, but of course I would, after all I shot and edited the images and have seen what these images look like when printed at the 12 x 18 inch size, and at that size the differences are dramatic.

If the largest size image you are viewing is 4 x 6 inch prints I can see how there isn’t much of a quality difference, but to really appreciate the details you really owe it to yourself to get at least one oversize print of one of these images, the impact of the larger images can really give it a “wow” factor.

Tell me what are your thoughts on the difference in quality and how it changes your purchasing decisions?

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One thought on “With youth sports images, does quality make a difference?

  1. I shoot high school football and I don’t use flash. I can typically shoot around ISO 6400 at f2.8 and maintain a shutter speed of 1/500 Bringing the images into Lightroom, I have gotten good prints at the 16 x 20 size with no major issues. Granted, I’d rather not push the ISO past 1600 (I have a Canon 7D) but I also tend to shy away from flash due to distraction.

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