As the indoor sports season approaches, I thought I would opine on how to simulate arena lighting inside typically dark high school venues. Many people take their fancy DSLR cameras to basketball and ice hockey games thinking they will get great images of their favorite athlete, but all they get are blurry images full of digital noise similar to grain we used to get when we were shooting mostly film. You can spend a lot of money on the fastest lenses and the fanciest camera bodies, but your images still will not come close to rivalling those shot with some artifical light. Save your money. You do not need that 200/2.0 lens. What you need are some strobes.
My suggestions are applicable to basketball, wrestling, track, ice hockey, swimming and other indoor events in dark locations. I will talk about my strategy using Dynalite strobes and packs, but they are certainly applicable if you plan to use monolights from White Lightning, Dynalite, Speedotron, Elinchrom, Profoto and others as well as camera flash units with sync such as the QFlash, SB-800 or 580-EXII. Done right, you can capture images like those below.
If you want to know how it’s done, continue to the rest of the article:
3 bi-head tubes (Dynalite 4080SP)
3 packs (Dynalite M2000er)
3 13ft Lightstands or Magi Arms
3 Bogen Super clamps with 3 inch stud & safety cable
3 Extension cords
3 sync cords
3 Pocket Wizards (I prefer MultiMax)
1 Roll of orange gaffers tape
1 Pack of 14 inch zip ties
For basketball, I like to have my lights behind the baseline and far away from the corner. If the gym has a balcony where I can get my lights up real high, I will aim one light straight down toward the top of the key, while the 2nd light is pointed at mid-court. If the gym does not have a balcony, I point the lights almost straight up with the goal of bouncing the lights to the same aforementioned locations. Another option to a balcony is the bleacher rails. However, I find many of them are too flimsy unless you are using on-camera flash units. I place a third light at center court and point this directly at the opposite basket.
With three lights, I can walk anywhere along the baseline up along the sideline where my third light is located. There is one caveat, I can walk the entire baseline because my 2nd camera used to shoot action at the far court has a PW MultiMax set to fire all three strobes while my primary camera used o shoot the near court is set to fire only the two corner lights. If you are using the PW Plus units, you have to fire all three strobes all the time so you have to stay within the L formed by the strobe at mid court and the basket. I pretty much stay in one place though, which is the intersection of the three-point line and the baseline.
For ice hockey, I place a light at each blue line. Each is aimed at intersection of the goal line and the opposite boards. Just two lights will enable you to shoot both ends. At center ice, I place a third light, which is pointed straight down the centerline and pointing directly across to the boards across the ice. This enables me to shoot the entire rink from the side my lights are located. I prefer to shoot opposite the team benches, but often my location is dictated by outlet locations. I will usually shoot from the penalty box, the team bench, the stands and/or a step ladder against the boards.
My favorite look is when I utilize a backlight. I will place one light on the goal line and another on the blue line. The lights are pointed directly acrosse the line. On the opposite side of the rink I have a backlight in between my two main lights so that I can really light up the background. When I do this, I usually just light up half the rink unless I want to pack 6 lights.
I will place my light stand in my preferred locations. Whenever possible, I do not actually open the legs. I prefer to keep my equipment profile slim so I will zip tie and gaffer tape my light stands to a sturdy rail or pole. I then run my cables to the outlets and gaffer tape them out of the way. I use orange gaffer tape marked “cable” so they are clearly visible. In large high school gyms with huge bleachers and or a balcony rails, I use Bogen Super Clamps instead. The packs are set on the floor or attached to the ligt stand using a rack normally attached to a bicycle seat post.
There is one exception. The Seton Hall Prep vs Delbarton Ice Hockey game where I will always use light stands. That rivalry always pack the largest ice rinks in the area with the exception of Continental Arena so it is best to keep your gear as far away from everybody as possible. It’s not unusual to see kids hanging from the rafters, pipes, etc as well as several rows of broken seats during this match up. If you live in the central New Jersey area, I urge you to experience at lest one game between these two arch rivals. There is nothing like it on the high school level. Professional photographers who normally only shoot pro sports come out of the woodwork to watch this game.
Once I have my lights set up, I take a meter reading of the ambient light. Then I turn on all my lights and start at about a quarter power. I meter my lights and check to make sure I am about 3-4 stops above ambient. I usually just set my camera to manual 1/250th f/5.6 then adjust my ISO accordingly. Despite 2000 wtt seconds at my disposal, I still prefer to shoot at the lowest power setting in order to get the shortest flash duration. The shorter the flash duration, the more you are able to freeze the action and the faster your lights will be able to recycle. It’s always a balance between a low ISO and recycle time, which I like to keep at close to one second. If I have time, I take a custom white balance by walking onto the court or the ice or just set my white balance to flash. With Dynalite packs, I always the plenty of power to nullify the ambient light so I can set simply set the white balance to flash or 5500 kelvin for the best results.
Packs, Monolights and on-camera flash units
Strobes with Packs
On-camera flash units
If this seems like a lot of work to you and you simply want to enjoy your favorite athlete’s game then just hire me to photograph the game for you by completing this contact form. If you want to give it a go on your own, I can also give you some personal instruction on how to use your Nikon or Canon DSLR gear as well as lighting tips.
btw, just about everything you need is available through B&H Photo