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On Assignment: Speedlighting a College Gym

Saturday, I shot the Towson/Drexel men's college basketball game for The Sun. I knew Strobist reader Patrick Smith would be there, and I knew he would be using the school's house strobes.

(Patrick is a photographer for Towson U's newspaper, The Towerlight, specializing in shooting sports and beer.)

For the record, we have the rights to use the university's house lights, too. In fact, as the local metro daily shooter, I am pretty sure the fine folks at Towson University's sports info department would let me (a) bump Patrick off of the lights, and (b) order him to be wash my car in the parking lot while I am shooting the game. (Don't tell him I said so.)

So I decided to use two Nikon SB flashes to augment the house sodium vapor lights in the gym. This also makes for a good time to compare what you can do with a couple of hot-shoe flashes, vs a few thousand watt-seconds (and dollars) of AC-powered, permanent strobes.

Before we get into specifics, let's look at the advantages of the two different systems:

Big, Honker Studio Strobes:

• Tons of light. Even bounced off of the ceiling (the Towson coach nixed the direct lights) they give you a solid 2.8 at ~ASA 400, everywhere on the court.

• Soft, pretty light (from the bounce)

• You can disregard the ambient light color temp, as the strobes totally trump the sodium vapes.

Little, Dinky SB Strobes:

• You can move them from venue to venue. (The biggies are pretty much permanent. Only SI trots them around regularly.)

• Recycle time: With Lumy turbo batts, I can fire my flashes eight times (on 1/4 power) while Big Lights Guy is counting, "one thousand... two one thousand...," after each shot. Even with Ni-MH AA's, I could get four 1/4 power shots off in a second.

• Oh, yeah: A couple thousand dollars cheaper.


Don't get me wrong. The big lights are great if they are (a) aimed well and (b) you can justify the money for installing them in an arena. Smart photogs work out agreements with arenas and then rent out the lights (when they do not need them) to help cover the up-front costs.

But this article is about how to use the little flashes. So we'll set the Duke Nuke'em flashes aside for the moment.

What I am doing is different than the way I usually shoot hoops. Instead of using the strobes as the main light and the ambient as fill, I am gonna use the ambient as main and the strobes as fill.

Do not be biased for one method over the other. Go with what is presented to you. In this case, my flashes were not powerful enough to nuke the ambient, so I decided to enhance the ambient a little.

When I arrived, the ambient lights were better than I had remembered. Seems TU had been getting more TV coverage, so they shelled out for more sodium vapes.

(Universal truth: There is nothing a college will not do to facilitate more TV coverage. Ditto politicians.)

Actually, I could have shot available light with little problem. But where's the fun in that? Besides, there is a second floor walkway with a railing about 25 feet behind each basket that was just begging for SB's. So here's how (one way at least) to do it.

First things first: Assess the ambient light color. This is easier than it sounds. I shot an available light shot from the 2nd-floor walk with the camera set to daylight balance and chimped the result. Looked greenish - reasonably close to fluorescent.

"Close enough for government work" is all you are gonna get here, so I set the camera to fluorescent and shot another. Not too far off. So I greened a couple of SB's and clamped them to the railing.

I use the cheapo, lime-green Home Depot clamps - just 99 cents each. The orange ones are the same size, but cost $3.99. (I assume the green ones are not ripe yet, and thus 1/4 the price.) I modded them by adding another 37 cents worth of 1/4 x 20 bolt and a couple of nuts. Then I attached the spare 3/8" stud that comes on the Dot Line umbrella brackets I bought from MPEX. A little gaffer's tape to strengthen the clamp even more and you are out the door for well under $2.00.

Now, the umbrella brackets mount right on the clamps. Cool, huh?

Yep, in the big leagues no expense is spared in the mounting of lights. Even more impressive is that I paid for the clamps, bolts and nuts in cash, baby. Need secure lights to a railing? Just whip out your good friend, "Abraham Lincoln," and see if he can persuade the guy in the orange apron to hook you up with the parts for a remote mounting system.

Back to the ambient, it's not that it is all that bad in this gym. But it is coming from a bad direction (top down) if you are on the hardwood under the basket shooting up. So augmenting the light from slightly above and behind the basket is going to help it out a lot.

Flashes greened, another test pop shows that I am pretty balanced at 1/4 power with a 50mm beam spread (at ASA 640 at a 250th of a sec.) One very important thing to note is that I am not pointing the flashes down at the players so much as skimming them at head height.

This is to feather the light. I do not want it to be too bright under the basket and too dim at the top of the key. Aiming them up a tad evens things out, as the closer the players are, the more they are at the edge of the beam.

As an added bennie, the lights can reach far out into the court (example below.) Amazingly, they will be adding some nice fill even at the other end. This even surprised me. Flashes balanced and tested, I head down to shoot the game.

I have not shot a lot of hoops this year. Truth be told, I am a little rusty. So as insurance I went up into the stands to shoot the first five minutes of the game with a 80-200 up in the stands, straight across the sidelines from the rim, at rim height.

I do this as insurance. First, it is very easy to get something from here, as the angle is straight across to the basket. You can just pre-focus and let the players come to you. Also, if the beeper goes off three minutes into the game to send me somewhere else on spot news, I know I will have a couple of good shots. Further, this will give me a different looking "B" or "C" photo than the baseline action stuff.

Easy, and good variety when compared to the baseline stuff. Works for me. Five minutes into the game I move down to the baseline to shoot along with everyone else. But if I had to, I could have left at that point with good action.

Now's a good point to show the effects of the flash vs pure ambient.

Here are the refs, with no flash. This is the baseline exposure which takes into account the ambient light without having to over expose the ceiling because the light is really coming from the wrong direction.

Here they are, same exposure, with the flashes turned back on. Honestly, the fact that they are lit is not even that obvious if you had not seen the other pic. Remember, we are not nuking the ambient so much as fleshing it out. The flashes, coming from the top/front of the direction the action is going to be facing, are basically filling the shadows and compressing the tonal range of the photos.

Here is what the light looks like from the baseline at my end of the court. It has a lit-but-not-overpowered look that I like, given how little hardware I am using to do the job.

I also like that I can just set my motors to run at a max of 4 FPS and not worry about recycle times unless I fire more than eight shots in a continuous burst. (four shots at a time if using just AA's.) In both ways, this lighting style is a hybrid between available light and nuked gym.

Here is a shot from the same position of action at other end of the court, (with an 80-200.) I am clearly getting some fill from the flash even at this distance. In other frames, I can even see the shadow of the backboard on the far wall.

This gives clean, fast-sequence-shooting light. If the news of the game happened at the opposite end, I'd have it. At ASA 640 or 800, I can crop it in without too much grain. Not so at 1250 or 1600.

As an aside, we have big house lights in Comcast Arena for the Maryland Terps. But honestly, the shooting speed stops me from using them most of the time.

So, if you cannot afford the big lights, you can get most of the way there with creative use of your small strobes. They will be there when you need them, and you can easily fit the whole two-light kit in a small camera bag, clamps and all.

Next: Special Q&A: Speedlighting a Gym


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Blogger Chris Parker said...

I shoot basketball all season and you wait until the playoffs to go in-depth into lighting a gym?!?! I know, I know, you covered gym lighting in OA, but not like this!

February 27, 2007 10:59 PM  
Blogger 3yellowdogs said...

Great how-to. Love the cheap Depot clamp method. I'm amazed at how well a couple of SBs at 1/4 speed illuminate even the far end of the court.

February 27, 2007 11:04 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

wish I knew this about three weeks ago. My school's gym also has a second floor balcony right behind the basket on one end. And a pretty nice ambient light level. This would have been just what I needed.

I was wondering if you could expand a bit on a couple things:
1. The number of strobes
2. Where the strobes are
3. Where you are.


February 27, 2007 11:15 PM  
Anonymous Daniel Miller said...

Nice technique, David.

I'm curious, did you attach a safety cable to the flash or bracket in case you had a mounting hardware failure? (It's impossible to tell whether or not there were fans seated below your rig)


February 27, 2007 11:17 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 27, 2007 11:43 PM  
Blogger djidji said...

David, I'm just a bit curious, one flash behind each basket, right? The local arena has solid walls behind the baskets and no railing systems I can see (apart from the one used for the overheads). Any idea where else can I clamp the strobes?

February 28, 2007 1:39 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Ferguson said...

This was really detailed, thanks!

Your 'Abraham Lincoln' bit cracked me up.

I'm on the verge of shelling out for my own starving student kit, sans pocket wizards. I'm shooting a Canon d-reb XT and mostly getting it for learning purposes. I know you probably get this all the time, but any advice?

Thanks :)

February 28, 2007 1:53 AM  
Anonymous Fidel Mercado said...

Just wanted to clarify something. The SBs at 1/4 power enabled you to shoot at 4fps with the SBs lighting each of the 4 frames as compared to Patrick's 1 frame every 2 seconds using the huge lights?

February 28, 2007 4:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article, thanks David.

I'm a bit miffed with;

"The flashes, coming from the top/front of the direction the action is going to be facing, are basically filling the shadows and compressing the tonal range of the photos."

Are you compressing the tonal range or expanding it? As I see the two shots the b/g is ambient lit and so are the refs, white is not near the RH side of the histo. Then when you augment it with strobes your refs whites are up where white should be, in an area that wasn't occupied in the ambient only shot, however all the lower tones from the ambient b/g are still there. So are you not expanding the tonal (dynamic) range rather than compressing?

Or am I totally wrong here?

Kind Regards

February 28, 2007 7:04 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Hi David,

As a beginner this article is exactly what I want to be reading... thanks and keep it up!


February 28, 2007 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

not putting down your other writings, but this is one of the most informative and detailed posts of recent!

great job, thank you!

February 28, 2007 1:53 PM  
Anonymous Doug said...

I'd be curious to see a diagram of where your strobes were in relation to the court/basket and where they were roughly pointed. You seem to be getting much better coverage than me when I do the same with strobes behind the corner of the court, aimed at the top corner of the key. An example can be found here.

February 28, 2007 2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease (!) add a simple line drawing or diagram of the position of the flashes relative to the court to the post.

I've asked three other photogs here at work to figure it out from the original description, and get three different answers.

Thanks for a fantastic resource.

February 28, 2007 2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, what was the ambient exposure? Obviously 1/250, but what aperture and iso? I would think if the ambient iso was 640 you would get a fair amount of ghosting.

February 28, 2007 3:25 PM  
Blogger The Yeti said...

Great article. I did something similar for a 10 year old girls game (had to put one of the strobes on a window sill)about 2 months ago and couldn't get the angle right. I tried this last night for grins at the Y and it is perfect. Thanks for the work! Now, if you can figure out how to get me the 200 f2 VR for a Lincoln, my life will be complete :)

February 28, 2007 3:28 PM  
Blogger R Mireles Photography said...

Great Right Up Dave, I also wanted to thank you for all the knowledge you provide I have learned alot from your articles. I look forward to your follow post.

February 28, 2007 3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am curious about what you do to prevent errant basketballs from hitting the strobes. Damage to the flash is one consideration, falling objects on spectators or players is another more serious issue.

February 28, 2007 5:02 PM  
Blogger MLKimages said...

I'm pretty new here and this is the exact thing I really hope you go into some real detail on. I actually have a meeting with the local high school booster club in a few weeks as I will now be taking photos for the school sports - I have about 0 indoor sports experience so this post got me very excited. I cannot wait for your follow-up post. - I just ordered my 2nd SB800 and some clamps and in a few weeks plan on ordering my 1st lightstands and umbrellas - all because of your site!...and I'm pretty local top you as well, just outside or Wilmington DE


February 28, 2007 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Why didn't you use the ol' Bogen super-clampy deal to clamp it to the railing (I know, they cost like 30 bucks, which is far more than your $2 setup....) but the seem to be a bit more secure. I thought you carried these anyway, so I was just surprised to see the home depot clamps (which, incidentally, I nearly bought the $3.99 version a week ago before I saw the .99 cent-ers. Spent a good 5 minutes trying to figure out the difference between the two - none)


February 28, 2007 5:48 PM  
Anonymous tessler65 said...

Sometime in the next n years, we'll be building a new arena and I've been thinking about pushing for some built-in "pro" strobes to make my shooting life easier.

Looking at the results of your shots compared to the one you posted from Patrick, now I'm thinking all I want is an access-reserved area where I can mount some small strobes for every game.

I second (or third or fourth) the call for a diagram. Even a rough one would be better than nothing! :)

Thanks for everything you do for us.

February 28, 2007 5:54 PM  
Blogger Andrew Smith said...

Fantastic article, thanks. Next basketball game I shoot, the big strobes are staying at home and my new 285HVs will be going with me. (Assuming they arrive in time.)

February 28, 2007 6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an Ohio University student and when I tried to use Nikon SB's in the universities Convocation Center I was told that because of MAC rules I couldnt have any lighting unless it was mounted from the catwalk (hundreds of feet above the court).
Although my SB-800's are good they are not good enough to take the place of those pricy AC powered strobes. From talking to grad students they told me that they use Alien-Bee's 1600 w/s model which cost somthing close to 375$ and are the best bang for the buck in AC lighting.
The student I talked to used four of the alien-bee's at the four corners of the court and triggered them with pocket wizzards.
Anyway I hope I didnt damppen your spirits too much..
Andrew List
OU Student Photojounalist

February 28, 2007 7:09 PM  
Anonymous Patrick Mallette said...


Seems to me that you are having a much easier time with white balance than I am. I'm shooting many different junior HS gyms that range from caves to dark caves; one however, has a good bit of daylight coming through large windows during day games, in addition to the sodium "vapes". I use a Expo Disk for WB; works great, but often the flashes come out too green (when gelled). Lighting is getting much better (thanks to your tutorials!), but having to process RAW files for white balance is getting to be a real p.i.t.a!! Other tips????

February 28, 2007 9:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you go about getting your strobes back if you get paged to be somewhere else mid-game?

Seriously, I know it sounds flippant but I really would like to know - adds another dimension to setting this sort of thing up if you nedd to be able to grab it all and run without interfering with play

March 01, 2007 9:43 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I need to understand the real numbers here. The sample shots with refs to show ambient and the flash added is not what I would call fill flash, but direct lighting with the flash. Please clarrify :) 1/250 ambient would show more finger/hand/ball blur and the fill would show ghosting ? - unless the flash took over to freeze that action. Would love for it to be this easy.

March 01, 2007 10:12 AM  
Blogger Jun said...


Great article, as usual!

I'm trying to second guess your thought process on how you arrived with your exposure settings. My first question is how did you how did you decide on ISO 640, instead of keeping it at ISO 400? Is it because you wanted to keep a fair amount of DOF (I'm guessing f/8 or f/11)? Could you have opened up to f/4 or f/5.6? Or could you have bumped up the SB power to 1/2? Or would that have meant that you can only shoot at 2fps?

Secondly, how do you keep a dead on exposure at hoop-side and at mid-court. With the fall off of any strobes, I would think that the players at hoop-side would be too hot, and the players at mid-court would be under-exposed (at least that's exactly what would happen if I was the one shooting). Did you have to adjust the exposure on the fly? And if you did, how can you do that so quickly when, say, the players are on a fast-break and they are streaking down the court towards you?

March 01, 2007 5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curious, everything I've read up until now says to place the strobes in the corners, shooting at the top of the key. This makes more sense and I could have done it all year long....I don't get it (why I didn't try this). However, I do have a question, which method do you think is better over all, placing them where you had them or putting them in the corners?

March 02, 2007 7:48 AM  
Anonymous Basketball said...

Great Article Nice technique!

You probably tried a lot of technique to get this one in the end.

Thanks I will use it.

February 22, 2008 10:10 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I just found this post and saw it dated the end of Feb.

I posted this clamp idea to the strobist group at the begining of Feb. Coincidence? Or did I not get credit?

May 09, 2008 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

This is a great site. Thank you for your information. I THANK YOU I SALUTE YOU IT,S A AMZING SITE.

July 14, 2008 2:35 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Thanks for all your tips ... here's my implementation of this post...always learning something...always trying to improve!

April 01, 2010 9:34 AM  

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