On Assignment: Prep Basketball

There are lots of ways to use strobe to improve high school sports. And typically, nothing needs improving more than dimly lit high school hoops.

The gyms are often black holes, with ambient levels as bad as 1/125 at f/2 at 1600 ASA. Not even a speed lens and a hard ASA push is gonna help much there.

On top of that, there are hot spots and cold spots. And the sadistic architects seem to like to keep it nice and dark right over the rim for some reason.

I have evolved from shooting (un)available light, to direct strobe (ugh) to nuking the ceilings with White Lightning Ultras (find an outliet and hope no one knocks over your strobes.) I have even shot at 250 at f/2.8 at ASA 1600 and bounced a Vivitar 283 (at full power manual) off of the high ceiling (!) which has gotten me out of some dark situations.

But what I have been doing for the last few years is to cross light with a pair of shoe-mount strobes stuck up in the bleachers.

Lighting half of a gym is a lot to ask from a pair of SB's. So I am not overpowering the ambient, so much as finessing it.

This is not a bare-bones lighting setup, as far as cost is concerned. I use two shoe-mount strobes on Bogen Superclamps, high voltage Lumedyne external battery packs (because I am shooting lots of frames at half power) and trigger them with Pocket Wizards. Synch cords would be completely impractical in this situation. The point is to show you what you can do with a pair of SB's.

Here is the technique.

I am lighting half of the court with the two strobes. I can light the other half with two more - very easily - for a full-gym lighting setup with four shoe-mount strobes. (I will get to the front-court half of the four-light setup in a subsequent OA article.) But I typically shoot opposite end hoops with prep basketball. Typically, you need coverage at both ends for college and pro, when you need the picture. Prep, you usually need a picture, so long as it reasonably fits the outcome of the game.

This is a good example of both the "cross light" and "long-throw hard light" techniques we talked about in Lighting 101. It works because we are not working too much above the ambient, which is now providing the fill.

The lights are going to be placed (with Superclamps) above the middle of the bleachers, one on each side. There is something to clamp to above the center of the bleachers about 95% of the time. Railing, metal pipe - something. Even conduit, in a pinch. If there is nothing there, you will have to improvise (and tell me how you did it.) And don't clamp too tightly on electrical conduit, by the way. Use common sense on any clamping support.

The flashes are going to be set on manual at about half power. If the lights are typical sodium vapors or florescent (it'll almost certainly be one of the two) set your camera on florescent and green your flashes. It'll get you pretty close in either case. And besides, the ambient is only acting as fill.

Set the flashes to the 50mm zoom setting. You want a balance of coverage angle and ability to throw the light. You may be able to get away with a 70mm flash zoom setting for more efficiency. But you will have to experiment.

Aim the lights to a point about ten feet in the air above the top of the key.
The strobes should give you a pretty honest f/2.8 at your highest synch speed at ASA 640. If they are hot, turn down your ASA. If dark, vice versa.

This will be at about 2-3 stops above the ambient, but you are working at (pretty close to) the right light color anyway. So no worries - it's all fill. The light will be crisp, but you will be able to read the shadows just fine.

The light will cover about half of the court. If you are following both teams, stay at one end for the whole game and shoot cross court with an 80-200 or a 300. If you want, you can shoot from the sideline about a third of the way up-court, too. If you are following one team, just go up and re-aim the lights from the same positions at half time.

With a little practice, setup is less than 10 mins and teardown less than 5 mins. If I have 10 minutes to shoot a game on early deadline, I will absolutely use the lights. Even though I will only get 5 mins of shooting time (and the other 5 mins as teardown time) I will have more quality choices to choose from with the lights vs shooting all 10 mins available or on-camera.

Experiment with your power settings and angles. Use the warmup time to shoot and test.

You will be very happy with the quality of the light compared to anyting you can do on-camera.

Next: Taming Harsh Sunlight


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Blogger Charles C Stirk Jr said...

Nice explanation .. well done

Enjoying the Blog ...

April 11, 2006 10:24 PM  
Blogger Josh Hawkins said...

I use a fairly similar set-up. I'm limited to two off camera strobes (till I get more money) so I usually move them at half as necessary. And I'll tend to use an on camera flash also as a fill about 1 1/2 stops underexposed just so I don't get any real deep shadows on the face. Also, to speed up set-up and take down, check out the Bogen 175F clamp.


April 12, 2006 2:12 AM  
Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

The 175F is great, but if you're on something much bigger than an inch and a half (say 40+ mm) in diameter they tend to pop off. A velcro cable wrap will solve the problem quite nicely.

You can make a cheaper version of the 175F with an 'A' clamp and a tiny (and cheap) ball head from Gittos with a Bogen/Manfrotto cold shoe (about $20) for the whole mess.

April 17, 2006 6:23 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Mitgang said...

How would I go about applying this principal to an indoor volleyball game. The court is smaller and I only shoot one team. I was thinking about aiming the strobes at the back corners of one team's side.

August 26, 2006 2:33 AM  
Anonymous Addison said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "aiming 10 ft above the key"
could someone tell what the key is.

January 04, 2007 12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The key is a term for the area near the hoop extendind to the three point line (rectangle with a circle). It's nick name is the key because the original design looked like a keyhole from above. Also called the "paint."

January 06, 2007 3:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I don't get. If you're standing under the basket or slightly down the baseline with the strobes aimed at the top of the key, pointed in your direction, aren't you backlighting the players on the team you're shooting? Am I confused as to where you're standing in relation to the strobes?

January 09, 2007 4:43 PM  
Blogger TodayIFeelLike.com said...

Hello can someone help me out with a question. I have tried this a couple times in the last week and the results have been very mixed and I am wondering to the strobes need to be all the way at the top of the bleachers on opposite ends? I am wondering because I often shoot in gyms where there this only bleachers pulled down on one side. Finally, if both lights are pointed at the top of the key are shoot under the basket out of the question?

January 31, 2007 4:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to use a similar set-up for a dimmly (vapor) lit hockey rink. Considering the ice could probably be friend or foe, does anyone have suggestions for a set-up? I am usually shooting from the penalty box which is mid rink. There are very high plastic shields on all sides--nets etc.

February 16, 2007 7:46 AM  
Blogger Daryl said...

There's no mention of shutter speed in the blog. Isn't this important if the sync speed is 1/250th and I want to shoot at speeds above that to freeze the motion? I know with my SB-800 mounted on camera (Nikon D200) I can shoot at 1/400th if I set it to Auto FP High-Speed Sync Mode but I don't have that choice if I use Pocket Wizards and set the strobes to Manual Mode. I'm new to this so I'm confused. Appreciate any help.

August 24, 2007 1:28 PM  
Blogger Nick said...


Sounds like you might be interested in a D70, unless CLS will trigger Auto FP off-camera and you drop the Pocket Wizards. The Flickr Strobist group is probably a good place to ask. I wouldn't mind taking that silly D200 off your hands though? :)

August 31, 2007 5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The shutter speed isn't important provided it's 2 stops above the ambient lighting.

So if you shoot at 1/250th and f/2.8 as long as you can set your flash up to cover 1/250th and f/5.6 you will "freeze the action".

The reason: Your flash is the main light and since the ambient light is 2 stops below it will have little to no effect. If you can get 3+ stops of separation you will actually be able to freeze sweat drops with crystal clarity.

If you are having trouble understading this concept. take your D200 into a room. Set the camera up on a tripod, blacken the room and set the shutter to 1/30th of a second. Now jump while firing the shutter....guess what, you are frozen at 1/30th. Works the same way in a dimly lit gym.

October 17, 2007 12:35 AM  
Blogger Bambam said...

Hi, im interested in your setup, if it didn't elicit complaints from the refs or players, if the flash suddenly went off and inadvertently blinded them (say, while on a fast break or layup)?

December 03, 2007 5:05 AM  
Blogger Medrano, Timothy V. said...

hello, i will try shooting volleyball the strobist way today. any tips on how to light it? the gym is fairly large with a high and a Dark Brown ceiling. i have some gels to emulate the tungsten light. and i have only one flash. am i screwed? tips please!

February 01, 2008 6:51 PM  
Blogger Medrano, Timothy V. said...

i shot the game already... turned out quite nicely

here's the album:

mainly used my lone strobe as hardlight at the players back. all my shots were at 1/125 (im using the cheap ebay triggers) and at f 2.8-3.5.

February 02, 2008 9:39 PM  
Anonymous lukas said...

hi there,

i want do shoot some basketball on saturday. i've got two questions:

which lee filter should be used to convert the flash color? "green" is nothing really exact, can you tell me a lee number?

and another one: if i am using a flash with my 400d, i will have to shoot at 1/200 as a shortest time. isn't this time to long for such a fast sport?


February 13, 2008 11:05 AM  
Blogger David said...



This post is nearly two years old and your game is in two days. You might consider reading the comment guidelines to see where you should be asking this question.


February 13, 2008 12:49 PM  
Blogger William said...

Yes, this post is over 3 years old, but it is my first time reading it. Everything I have read on strobist, so far, has helped me tremendously. And this one will help me on my next attempt to shoot a boxing match with 2 SB's. The downside is that I am using the CLS on my D300, instead of PWs(on the wish list and first purchase when I can get more gigs). The CLS worked amazingly well the first time, considering they were both 35 to 40 feet from me and at an angle over the 30 degrees recommended by Nikon. Please check it out and critique.

September 12, 2009 1:30 AM  
Blogger JDF said...

can i do it with
alienbee b800

and 2 sb600s?
i dont know how to do it.
i use cypersyncs and i shoot wiht a d300s

September 15, 2009 3:02 PM  
Blogger JDF said...

someone should make a youtube video about this.

September 15, 2009 3:08 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...


I am the only person who gets told they aren't allowed to use flash when shooting a basketball game? I'd really like to know, do you guys click away during a whole match, with the flashes triggering and no one minds?

Also, can I ask, what are bleachers? Is that a photographic term / lighting equipment? (does it just mean the overhead lights?)



November 29, 2009 2:17 AM  
Blogger Ardy said...

Bleachers are the seating. I think in a gym, it usually refers to the bottom seating that is pulled out from the wall and sits on the floor of the gym.

December 15, 2009 1:39 AM  
Blogger Pierce said...

Lol @ the bleachers question =P

December 28, 2009 11:59 PM  
OpenID Carlos said...

Nice, easy set up with good results! Check out how I light high school gyms. http://www.carlosdelgadophotography.com/?p=297

I incorporate remote cameras into my set up as well.

February 01, 2010 6:47 PM  
Blogger John and Karen said...

I have used this technique a few times at one game my PW crapped out so I could only shoot when the player came from the side opposite the good light. I have never been told by refs not to use flash, I do use common sense and do not use it during a free throw. Some have asked about volleyball, this is a sport that prohibits the use of flash. That said refs dont always enforce it and some coaches don't care either. You may want to check when you get to the game before sitting up your strobes. I might also point out the further you get into a Volleyball season the tighter I have seen refs get about the rules. Good luck out there.


February 07, 2010 11:57 PM  
Blogger Seth said...

I just have one question that's always sort of nagged the back of my mind.

I get the idea of the setup in the bleachers, clamped on something like a railing.

But, my concern is - what about people fiddling with (moving, adjusting) or even worse, STEALING, your stuff. I mean, I guess there's really no way to prevent that from happening right?

Except to have faith in fellow humans and *COUGH COUGH*

Anyway... just a curiousity?

August 21, 2010 11:24 PM  
Blogger William said...

Very helpful site. I have an upcoming wrestling event I wanted to shoot for a friend. I have 2 strobes on lightstands, here is a picture of the venue, just imagine a ring in there. How should i go about setting this up considering ceiling height and all. http://m.facebook.com/pages/Corky-Row-Club/190089381017907?refid=20

January 19, 2011 10:15 PM  
Blogger O Newton said...

I know this post is 3 years old, but is there anyway to add a floor mat diagram to this set up. I think it would be extremely helpful for people trying to set this up.

January 05, 2013 2:35 PM  
Blogger Martin Del Vecchio said...

This technique works great for 5th-grade ballroom dancing also!

I shot this event last year in our high school gym, which is extremely poorly lit. My "natural-light" shots required an incredibly high ISO, and my speedlight shots produced sickly colors that I couldn't correct in Lightroom.

This year, I set up two remote 600EX-RTs in the stands, and had a third 600EX-RT on the camera as the radio master. Each flash had a "Full + Green" Honl gel.

My mounted flashes ended up at 1/8 power; I think I got away with that because they were mounted only about 10 rows up. My camera flash ended up at between 1/16 and 1/32 power.

It took me a while to adjust to shooting all-manual, but I eventually got everything set right. I ended up shooting at IS 1600, f/3.2 to f/3.6, at 1/160 to 1/200. Those histograms looked good on the camera, but in Lightroom I ended up increasing the exposure by 1/2 to 2/3 of a stop.

The gels really helped; white balance and tint correction was MUCH easier than last year.

My main problem was occasionally forgetting where my mounted flashes were, and shooting into them, which produced large blown-out areas on the floor.

I think that indicates that I had them aimed too low.

Thanks for the great article!

May 07, 2013 12:48 PM  

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