A Guide to Lighting Indoor Sports
Newspapers may be circling the drain at this point, but for 150 years they were king of the hill. And the 20 years I spent there proved to be a great ride as well as a non-stop idea lab.
Today we'll take a look back at how we developed our multi-budget solutions for lighting winter indoor sports—specifically in high school gymnasiums. Lighting indoor sports opens up a whole new world as compared to trying to shoot available light. You can both freeze action and define the quality of the light in a much better way than the spotty existing overheads.
And for the sake of argument, let's assume only one rule: no on-camera direct flash. Because that looks horrible. Other than that, any lighting scheme is fair game for exploitation. Also, I don't have access to all of my sports archives at the papers so we'll be sticking to cookbook-type lighting diagrams to visualize placement and coverage.
As a typical studio photographer you're probably used to lighting one or two people in a, say, five-by-five foot zone of cool light. Twenty five square feet, and they probably aren't moving very much. That's adorable.
By comparison, let's talk basketball. It's over 4,000 square feet of space, with eleven people running around often as fast as they can. That's a completely different animal. And if you can solve problems like this, you can pretty easily design lighting for any large space. So lighting for sports is a great incubator for developing an intuitive approach to lighting other large areas.
First, let's not dismiss the obvious and/or low-rent: it's possible to do this with even a single speedlight. But you'll quickly run into restrictions that will put frustrating limits on your abilities.
For instance, you can actually bounce your on-camera speedlight off of the gym ceiling at full power and get pretty sweet quarter-court light. You'll get a pretty reliable f/2.8 at ISO 1600, which is enough, and decent quality. But it's not great for your flash to drive it at full-power (not to mention slow recycles) and you'll still have an area of unlit space falling off in the back of the frame. Which means you'll need to stick with shooting B&W or the ambient color shift will drive you nuts.
My go-to, small light bag for run-and-gun lighting throughout the 90s was based on two speedlights. I have described it here, but it is essentially shooting two direct speedligghts from the top middle of the bleachers back at the far court. This allows you half-court strobe coverage, which is often enough.
But you'll still be working at the edge of the power envelope (shooting at half power at the minimum with speedlights). Doable, but it's like using an economy car to haul a trailered yacht. Probably not the best long-term solution.
No, if you are going to light large indoor areas with any regularity, you'll want to look at monoblocs. Which is what we are doing today.
An good monobloc candidate for lighting action indoors is something with decent power, can be battery-powered (you can't always rely on the presence of AC) and has fast, action-stopping t.1 times at decent power levels. Don't get fooled by any similar, great-sounding t.5 times. They are much more flattering and much less meaningful. If a flash company won't publish even t.1 pulse times, it just may be because those times suck.
Many mystery-meat pop-up brand flashes (especially in the 400ws battery range) can have full t.1 times that will not come close to stopping action. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?)
We'll be creating a modular approach (one light, two lights, etc.) so we can start off at reasonable cost and add to our capabilities as we go. Going all-in with cheap-but-questionable lights is a common mistake committed by many newbs. It's cheaper to pay for each light just once, and build as you go.
For me, the flash that meets all of these criteria at a reasonable cost is the Einstein e640 ($500) with a long-throw reflector ($30). But I know this flash is not readily available outside of the US, so you may have to do a little research and make your own choices based on geography. But the e640 is close to ideal for lighting indoor venues on a budget.
For those tempted to save money by going with a cheaper AlienBee unit, I'd advise waiting and saving. Same external form factor. But the guts are so, so different between the two flashes. Be patient, save and choose well.
But Einstein or not, we'll be looking for something around 500ws (very useful if ceiling bouncing) that gives good t.1 times and a recycle time you can live with.
You'll need to power it, of course. This will either be via AC cord or battery pack. Again, the e640 shines here, as the Vagabond Mini Lithium ($240) is both inexpensive and has a great duty cycle. But for many people, an AC cord will make sense to start.
Just know that you'll have to spring for a ~100-foot extension cord (~$40 for a good one) to ensure you can stand a good chance of reaching power outlets. And even then, you can never be sure. They might be in use or inaccessible. That's why battery packs are of great value—they'll make you self sufficient. And make sure you bone up on choosing a good AC cord if you go that route. It matters to your strobe.
light stand ($40) might seem the obvious choice for mounting, but a Manfrotto Magic Arm ($113) and a Super Clamp ($28) can be far more useful in a gym setting. This is especially true if you'll be mounting the lights up in the bleachers (what we call the raised spectator seating areas in the US). Ideally, you'll have each option at the ready.
As for sync, you get get by with a cheap, reliable cord if just using one flash. But you'll need to tape it down well, which introduces an ongoing consumable expense. Ultimately, you'll go with radios. And since you cannot be sure Dad With A Camera (and flash!) won't be trying to shoot from the cheap seats, you'll need to radio every light. Because if you slave, his camera will set off one of your lights—follow about one microsecond later by the rest of your lights.
And think about it: Since you need every light to fire every time and every one is radio-dependent, your misfire rate will worsen exponentially with your number of light sources. If your cheap-but-decent remotes fire 90% of the time at an across-gym distance (not bad!) and you are using four lights, your new all-in reliability rate is (.9∧4) or about 65%. (Bad!)
So if you are shooting multi-light sports you do what most other multi-light sports shooters do and go with PocketWizards. The Plus X units are $100 each and rock-solid reliable. So they would be my choice even tough there is another PW unit (called the MC2) that allows the potential of remote power level control for e640s and costs the same.
Why? First, remote power control is not that big a thing to me as we are talking static distances here. Second, the MC2s mount up top which is great (perpendicular antenna) if the flashes are pointed out. But I'll also be bouncing, which will orient the fixed antenna in the least-reliable direction. Finally, the MC2s are e640-specific. If I am spending $100 each I want to use them with my other flashes, too.
Think in Cost per Module
You'll need a radio remote to mount as a transmitter on your camera—$100. But beyond that, each light source you add becomes a fixed-cost module. For an e640, reflector, extension cord or battery, stand, Magic Arm, clamp and receiver remote, you are at $950 for an extension-corded unit, $1150 for a battery-powered version. And your costs will vary based on the flash system you choose, of course. This is just my setup.
You may well have much of this in-hand already. And obviously, this gear is useful outside of the gym. So whether you are adapting previously existing gear or getting additional external use out of newly purchased sports lighting gear, in many cases your value/utility proposition just gets better.
So figure $100 once plus $1000, give or take, for each light/module. You can shoot with one light, but two is a more versatile and practical minimum. Three gets you entry-level full-court coverage and four gets you to nirvana.
Alright, then. Let's walk through how to do that for basketball and some other sports.
Good news: cheapest. Bad news: most limiting.
But if you are shooting wrestling, for instance, you're cool with one light. Ditto volleyball. Let's look at those.
[Ed. Note: Click any diagram for 1200-pixel versions.]
This is simple stuff, and something in which you could easily save a couple hundred bucks by nixing the remotes. Heck, I'd also lose the Magic Arm and the battery, meaning you are now all-in for about $600. (e640, stand, tele-reflector and extension cord.)
Not bad, huh?
The secret is that your action and your shooting positions are pretty well-defined. And you are using your flash like an off-camera, ceiling-bounced speedlight. Just with much more power.
In general, you are going for broad, even light by pushing that light up to the ceiling from a low level. Nice, big hot spot (you may want to swap to a normal reflector) that is far away from the players due to the high ceiling height. Not exciting light, but can be beautiful depending on where you place the splash on the ceiling.
For volleyball, it is important that no player be able to see the direct flash, (i.e., no internal part of the reflector exposed to their line of sight.) So you have to get it up a little bit. Maybe up into the bleachers and pointed up.
For wrestling, that is not as important. And I would even consider a little strip of manila folder on the back side of the pointed-up reflector to bounce some warmed-up direct fill from the flash. Not much—just fill the shadows rather than call attention to itself.
Note that the shooting positions alter the quality of the light by changing its relative position to the players. Adjust to taste.
For basketball, you'll be left with a background problem. It'll descend into ambient-only, which if shooting in color will be an issue. Resist the urge to treat basketball like the volleyball example below because shooting from the sidelines (or worse, half-court or even worse from up in the stands) will give you a crap shooting angle. All of the best action will be going away from you. And what is the point of lighting that?
Nope, for shooting hoops you want to be under the basket on the baseline. You know where they are all headed. May as well have them coming to you when it matters.
Now we're talking. With two lights you can do volleyball and wrestling in style, and get solid half-court coverage on basketball with a good shooting angle.
With volleyball, the theory remains the same but two lights are just better. For each team you get a top light and a frontal (to them) fill by bounding a light over each side of the court. Shoot from wherever you want along the lit-side sideline. It'll look great.
For wrestling, two lights gives you great light and a separation light which is sweet.
You'll need to shoot on the angle just to either side off of your front light (or back light, as they are reversible) to keep your back light stand out of the photo. But this cross-bounce stuff can look really good. Put the lights a little behind you to get a good mix of top/front light angle. Think of your ceiling as a big creamy umbrella and position you and your light accordingly.
Two-Light Basketball, Half-Court Direct
For two-light hoops you will be able to light half of the court very well in one of two different ways. Your choice will be speed vs. quality.
With a light up in the center top of each bleacher section, you have the choice to light direct or to bounce. Bouncing takes more energy, but could look better. Shooting direct takes far less power and thus will mean faster recycle times.
If going direct, skim the lights high across the court and aim for about the top of the key. This will give you fewer hotspots up close and more even lighting across the half court area when combined with the opposing light. You'll want to shoot from the other end (baseline) with a long lens and look for steals, scrambles and defense. It's a limited set of choices, but such is life with the compromise of partial-court lighting.
Or, you can shoot full-court with two lights if you are willing to deal with a little exposure unevenness:
Two-Light Basketball, Full-Court Bounce
This is an extension of the one-light method that leaves you with a dark background. You just light the background in a similar way with the second light.
You can shoot front court and other end this way, but you give up the other side of the near court. Which is no big deal as that action is often blocked by other players anyway.
The good news is, because of the position (depth) of the far court light, you'll get less exposure drift on that end. It's a pretty cool way to two-light basketball.
Okay, you can probably see this one coming:
It's only a slight compromise in that you'll be able to shoot whole court except for the opposite side of the near court will be off a stop or two. But practically speaking, this works great. And even more so if you can back your front court bounce light up a little. Remember, distance gives evenness.
With four lights you can cover any gymnasium-based sport like a boss. Lots of options. In fact with many sports you won't even use all of your lights.
But for basketball, you'll want to:
This will approximate many permanent arena strobe lighting systems. A rock-solid, battery-operated system will still clock in at under $5000. May sound like a lot, but it is literally less than just a single flagship DSLR body that most high-end shooters will be using. And that's not even including the glass.
For my money, gimme a quasi Sports Illustrated lighting setup like this and a lower-level body and lens any day.
The trick here is to light directly (as in not bounce) but not directly (as in heavily feather the beam). If you aimed the lights dead on target (like a big "X") you'd have hot areas in close and cold at the far/back.
So instead "skim" them across the ceiling, aiming them high and diagonally across the court. By using tele-reflectors, which have narrow beams, you'll direct most of the energy away form the near court and you can get gorgeous, totally even lighting wherein everyone anywhere on the court is key lit, filled and rimmed.
You have to aim them higher than you think, and thus crank the power a little more than you think. But he bonus is that you get a lot of energy wasted upwards and thus bounding off of the ceiling. Which is cool, too.
A Word on Ratios
When lighting large areas like a gym or arena, the remaining ambient (shadow) areas don't need to be black. That's a good thing, because you probably don't have enough power to make that happen anyway. It's just difficult to overpower a full court enough to totally nuke the ambient.
But I like to drop the ambient shadows at least two stops. It'll mute the color differences between your flash- and ambient-lit areas, like under peoples' arms, etc.
Here's the process.
First, go to your sync speed (hopefully at least 1/250th, or shoot lit sports with another camera...). Then open up your lens to wide open. Now adjust your ISO until the ambient exposure is two-stops underexposed.
Now, test, eyeball and adjust the power levels of your lights while you are placing them until your key areas are sufficiently lit.
This is a good balance between flash and ambient that lets any color shift happen two stops down in the shadows, where it is not very noticeable. Also, it preserves as much power (and thus recycle and battery life) in your flashes as possible. Everything's a compromise.
And another nice thing is that you'll get some fill from the floor itself. It'll be flash-colored, then shifted by the reflective color of the floor. All in all, a pretty nice look and if you are working two stops over the ambient it will be the main driver in the shadows underneath.
So there's a primer/cookbook for lighting many indoor sports. I hope it is helpful. Important things to remember, in general, are:
1. Don't skimp on the lights. Know your recycles, power and t.1 times.
2. Don't skimp on the radio. Multiple lights can cascade net failure rates.
3. Build with modules. There are options for all numbers of lights.
4. Back that light up for evenness.
5. Feather it for control.
6. Plan your shooting positions to balance light quality and exclude your other lights from your frame.
7. Get ready to make some gorgeous action photos.
Questions/conversation/rants/incoherent thoughts? Use the Twitter hashtag #STRLitSports and include @Strobist at the end if you want to ensure I see it. I'll append this post with some of the better Q's and A's in a few days to improve it for archive readers.
And thanks for the help in making it better.