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Friday Night Lights

Happily, I am shooting high school football again this fall. Meaning I have come full circle from where I started nearly thirty years ago, except this time I am not shooting on deadline for a newspaper.

Which means I am free to shoot some of the facets I normally would have had to pass up, and to experiment with different ways of using flash. This past weekend, that meant a single speedlight, an OCF cord and a grid spot…

Before we get into the lighting, I would like to suggest to any budding (or wannabe) sports photographers to consider your local high school as a possible outlet. I have shot more college and pro hoops, football and baseball games than I can count. But there is something about high school football that always draws me back.

It's a combination of raw emotion and great access. And with the (best case) marginal light, it's technically a little more difficult than shooting in the bigger venues. With a little AC/DC blaring in the headphones, it's almost like watching a football game and playing X-Box at the same time.

What could be more fun?

After 30 years, I'm spoiled. My favorite way to watch a football game is from the sidelines, moving with the line of scrimmage. And since my daughter Em entered Wilde Lake High School this fall, I notified them that they now have a sports photographer for the next seven years. (Ben is three years behind her.)

In the 1980's, this was all manual focus cameras and Tri-X. Thirty years on in 2012—and with completely different gear—I am happily re-learning how to shoot high school football at night.

Step One: Avoid Flash for as Long as You Can

For a variety of reasons, shooting flash at a football game is not ideal. Unless you can light the entire stadium, you'll have some ambient to deal with. And stadium lighting is low in both quality and quantity.

So you'll definitely want to grab all of the evening light photos you can before the light is completely gone. You only get this in the first few weeks of the season anyway, and then the sun starts setting earlier. So while you can, shoot the crap out of the first quarter.

From warm-ups until the sun is gone, if it moves I shoot it. These will be your best photos of the night from a technical standpoint. Just pray something interesting happens in the first quarter. It's not a great strategy, but it is better than all of the others.

Alas, the sunlight will quickly evaporate, leaving you with the need to use flash. On a field that is 360 feet long, end to end. With bad ambient (low levels, spotty, not color correct, etc.). At a 250th of a sec, or worse.

But now that I have the luxury of time (and not getting yelled at if I miss a big play) I can experiment some with flash. Here is what I did last Friday, and it doesn't require much gear to pull off.

One Gridded Flash, Right on the Lens

I am shooting a Nikon D3 (several years old, much better focusing and low light cameras are available today) and a 300/2.8 (expensive but worth it.) But you can pretty much match this focal length-f/stop combo with a small-chip camera and a 70-200/2.8. Which is, I think, a bare minimum if you want decent odds at shooting outdoor sports at night.

Above is an iPhone snap from before the game. Mind you, at this point I had not yet attached the flash to the lens with the gaffer's tape still visible on the lens barrel. I just stuck it there for this photo.

And here is the thinking behind a gridded, lens-mounted flash instead of just using it on the camera's hot shoe.

First, the light is much closer to the lens axis. Almost dead on, in fact. As such, it will leave no distracting shadows as would a hot shoe-mounted flash.

Second, why a grid? This was a small moment of inspiration. The beam spread is smaller than the lens' angle of view. Because of this, it will not blow out field in the foreground. See the grass shot below as an example of how this works.

Lastly, a sneaky reason: The grid will only throw light toward who I am shooting, and feathered to the middle of the frame at that. So no coaches are going to see it pop-pop-popping with any real intensity and ask a ref to tell me to turn it off. (That can happen, you know.)

Here is the grass shot—lit primarily with flash—to show how the grid affects coverage. This is much better than the hot-in-front look that would come with a non-gridded flash.

Okay, so quality of light nailed down, let's work on the quantity of light.

TTL or Manual?

Easy one, huh? Moving targets, variable distances, it's a no-brainer to go for TTL. (Please don't tell McNally.) After all, who wants to be figuring out guide numbers on the fly?

Yeah, that's what I thought, too. Only it turns out TTL is (a) not as reliable in that environment as I hoped, and (b) TTL really slows down the frame rate of your camera. Remember, there are pre-flashes happening between each frame. Motoring and follow-focusing with TTL flash is like turning on the A/C while heading uphill in a Chevy Chevette. Not pretty.

I was testing out exposures at TTL -1 stop, -2 stops, etc. Minus one looked pretty good. Nice fill without calling too much attention to itself. But I hated the hobbled frame rate. Anecdotally, I also found the continuous AF to be less accurate with the extra lash calculations going on between frames.

So on a whim I went to manual and dialed in the power level to kiss the players with a little fill light at my typical shooting distances. 1/16th power was about right at ISO 3200. And my shooting distance was pretty consistent, so manual was actually more predictable than TTL. (And you can tell that to McNally.)

As a bonus, I got my full frame rate back, with better AF to boot. Much better.

But what about when they run right at me, as in on a touchdown when you are camped out in the end zone? Turns out, that's a happy coincidence. Here's an example:

This defensive back is pounding the field because he just missed a pick in the end zone. Not happy. And much closer to me than my regular shooting distance. But it is also darker in the end zone, so my ambient is down, too.

So the flash becomes the main light and the stadium lighting (in the end zone) becomes more of an accent light. Check out the guy on the right. Look at his hand. That's all flash, and you really see the near complete lack of shadow from the on-axis gridded flash.

As long as you keep predictable working distances, that on-axis light gives you shadow-free light on the sidelines, too. (Dude was actually texting during the game.) Just remember to drop your shutter speed to gather more ambient in that darker environment and realize that your flash is gonna fill to f/2.8, still. No worries.

Speaking of shutter speed, remember that you are shooting the action at the marginal speed of 1/250th at f/2.8. Choose the ISO that best exposes the highlights at that exposure and pray it is not over 3200. (Just eyeball it on the back of your camera.) And your gridded, on-axis flash is adjusted to underexpose to fill the shadows and provide detail.

One caveat: Since you are flashing on axis and everyone's pupils are nice and wide at night, you will have some major red eye to repair. So make that football watching plus X-Box plus eye surgery. Nature of the beast.

But still, this setup (gridded, on axis and dialed down) looks way better than just nuking them at full TTL from the hot shoe mount.

Since I have full access, a photo-friendly coach and no deadlines, my next step will be to bring along a VAL. Because my ultimate goal this year is to be shooting night high school football with multiple, off-camera lights.

Could be epic. Let's see how far those PocketWizard +III's can really go…

Editor's note: Because someone will ask, the photo at top is a six-shot pano, shot just as the sky was mixing in the 2nd quarter. Tips: Shoot quickly (esp. the frames with moving parts) shoot at a lower ISO and shoot it in RAW. (You'll have to anticipate the light mix and be willing to give up 5-10 minutes of game coverage to do this.)The original is over 10k pixels on the long and and looks pretty good at larger sizes.

And if you are interested in sports photography,
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