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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Blogger Dustin Grau said...

Very nice. Did you end up attaching the flash over or under the lens? Would it have made a difference either way being so close to on-axis? If above, did that leave enough room for your hand to steady the monopod rig? If below, do you think that [would have] made it even less conspicuous to coaches/refs?

September 10, 2012 6:55 AM  
Blogger Robert Faubert said...

Hi David, really great informative post. I really like your flash/grid combo attached to the flash, makes a ton of sense. I will try this out with some of my own stuff in the near future. Thanks, Rob

September 10, 2012 9:16 AM  
Blogger Eugene Simonalle said...

I have been shooting soccer (yay, earlier games = more light) and having to really watch the shutter speed to freeze motion. How much blurring are you getting shooting at 1/250th, even with flash? We'll have some Friday night games coming up and I am borrowing a 300mm f/2.8 for those games. I had planned to push the ISO up on my Nikon D7000 since it handles the higher ISO so well but now maybe I will bring out the flash and try your idea.


September 10, 2012 9:47 AM  
Blogger j_dot said...

Hey! There's no shots of the marching band! Share the love ;-)

You don't have to moderate this in: "Tips: Hoot quickly" needs the S in the last paragraph - it might save you several of these comments :)

September 10, 2012 9:47 AM  
Blogger t0n3 said...

Very interesting post, thanks! Fortunate school to have your talent on deck! Great idea with the gridded flash lens mount! I'd be curious to see a comparision shot with and without the flash. (Of course it's hard to get the players to stand still!)

September 10, 2012 9:48 AM  
Blogger Ken Elliott said...

David, I have to say that your idea of mounting a gridded flash on the lens is one of the most inovative ideas I've seen. I used to shot HS football with fast glass and pushed Tri-X to ASA 1600. I always hated the look of flash on the foreground, but never solved the problem. When it got dark, I switched to faster lenses with shorter focal length. I simply accepted the fact that I had to shoot my long lenses early in the game before it got dark. You are the first person I've seen that actually solved the problem. Well done.

September 10, 2012 9:59 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

Great Post David, wish I had this last week before shooting a night cyclocross. Used off camera, but needed a VAL to help line things up when moving around and riders taking different lines. This would have been a great approach.

September 10, 2012 10:26 AM  
Blogger Dylan said...

I shot HS football in NJ with a guy who had two VALs running up and down the sidelines crosslighting players with Profotos on painter's poles. I never saw his photos, but I'm sure they looked better than the files coming out of my D1X at 1600iso.

I also remember a link on sportsshooter a while back where a guy had mounted 4 high powered strobes on top of the press box.

September 10, 2012 10:50 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Do I really have to "HOOT" quickly David ... chuckle . . . I guess if it helps! great article on night sport photography

September 10, 2012 10:52 AM  
Blogger Richard Spears said...

Brilliant! You've inspired me to try shooting a game.

September 10, 2012 11:28 AM  
Blogger Frank Grygier said...

You may want to revisit this post from 2010.

September 10, 2012 11:38 AM  
Blogger "Mister Nasty Clamps" said...

David: This is a bit off-topic, but with the lighting rig you've set-up for shooting sports (i.e.: a strobe mounted right on the lens, with the head off the strobe moved forward from the body of the camera) you could easily emulate the whole "Terry Richardson look" before or after the games –– grabbing portraits of the players standing in front of a white wall or portable cyc.

Of course, this would all be predicated on whether or not you'd actually want to emulate the Terry Richardson look -- which is an entirely different discussion.

September 10, 2012 11:58 AM  
Blogger Paul DiSalvo said...

High School football is the best! I shoot about 20-25 HS Football games a year. My publisher requires low ISO (under 1600) and flash. I mount a SB-900 on a superclamp about 3.5' below my lens and connect with an SC-29. Keeping it that far away means almost no red-eye - about 500 frames this past weekend and maybe fixed 5 images. I do use TTL and an extra battery pack to improve recycle times. Works like a charm.

September 10, 2012 12:08 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Really liked the tutorial on this one. Thanks!

September 10, 2012 12:23 PM  
Blogger Fonk said...

Great post, David; thanks for sharing your setup. So far I've only been shooting daytime sports with plenty of available light, but have been thinking about heading to the local high school football games for some shooting, so this helps a lot.

September 10, 2012 12:29 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Would you try shooting with this same technique at a basketball game...I've seen you put flashes on both sides of gym mid bleachers. Just wondering if you would try this as well.

September 10, 2012 1:59 PM  
Blogger slawson said...

I wonder what the photography teacher and the school newspaper or yearbook staff are saying knowing you are taking picture.

Thanks for the post. I still a few years before my kids hit the HS years so I have some practice time. I probably wouldn't have tried using a flash before now. I probably would have just cranked up the ISO. Even with some movement in the pictures, I am amazed as the sharpness of the subject. I have never tried to shoot football at night. I have tried baseball during the day and it was pretty challenging to stop catch a swing with the ball in the frame.

Why football? Why not soccer?

The pano was great. I was wondering if you might try a 360 pano possibly during the National Anthem. Everyone should be standing still enough to attempt a shot. I was somewhat successful with some 360 in the back of a pickup during a parade this last 4th of July.
Let me know if you ever want to borrow my pano head. How about a shot inside the huddle?

September 10, 2012 2:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David, I attended a local HS game recently and saw an interesting setup from a photog on the sidelines. He had his flash mounted at the bottom of his monopod with a TTL chord. So is he just bouncing that off the turf as fill under the stadium lights? Probably need to gel to color correct?

September 10, 2012 2:42 PM  
Blogger Coach Stone said...

So, the only thing holding the flash on the hood is Velcro around the hood and end of the flash?

September 10, 2012 2:45 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I know this is a photo blog, but you do have to read the words, too...

"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."

September 10, 2012 5:58 PM  
Blogger Gipukan's blogging from a P1i said...

Interesting setup grid on the lens for indoor sports. Would this also work on a 300 to 400mm at f/4 or f/5.6 on birds.. yes yes its the ef 100-400 i'm thinking about on my 7d.

September 10, 2012 6:07 PM  
Blogger uglyfatbloke said...

I'll have to try this for's like football, bit for guys....and although virtually nobody knows about it, the USA Rugby team is pretty good to watch - they try play the game the way it's supposed to be played.
Soccer is of course a game for girls.....

September 10, 2012 6:14 PM  
Blogger vertizon said...

What angle grid?

September 10, 2012 8:43 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


20 degrees, I think. The 300 is already a pretty tight throw and I wanted to be well inside of that.

September 10, 2012 9:45 PM  
Blogger Tim Kamppinen said...

Did you use any gels to match the stadium lights?

September 10, 2012 10:31 PM  
Blogger Mike McClelland said...

another "duh" strobish idea for me to try. i've done straight ambient, and run a speedlite halfway down a mono, all in the name of high school sport . . . but this looks like it might be just what i'm looking for. thanks!

September 10, 2012 11:55 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

@Gipukan - You would probably want a Better Beamer for a lens above 300mm.

September 11, 2012 1:20 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

@Gipukan You will want a Better Beamer for anything above 300mm.

September 11, 2012 1:21 AM  
Blogger Chris Johnston's Nambian Photography said...

Ok all that tech stuff is very cool, but what I really want to know is who won?

September 11, 2012 3:14 AM  
Blogger Chris Johnston's Nambian Photography said...

cool tech but who won the game?

September 11, 2012 7:53 AM  
Blogger chris said...

How would you go about asking for permission to do this if you didn't have kids attending the school? This sounds like it'd be some great experience but I'm not sure how you get your foot in the door.

September 11, 2012 12:04 PM  
Blogger Scott Birdsall said...

Are the Honl 1/4 or 1/8 grids equivalent to the 20 degree grid you used? I just ordered the Honl ones.

My older son (Sr. in High School) decided to play football this year. I've been shooting lots of basketball, since that is his primary sport. I did pretty good at the firs game, but am always open to some cool ways to improve.
This site is awesome for that; Thanks Dave.

September 11, 2012 12:45 PM  
Blogger Dan Bobrowsky said...

I graduated from WLHS in 2005. A few years later while in college I stumbled across this blog and got hooked on lighting. Now I'm doing photography full-time. Small world.

September 11, 2012 1:19 PM  
Blogger Matias Mäki said...

Cool to hear about your implementation. I decided to use similar system to photograph Aikido in one dark training hall couple of weeks ago. The grid made things some much better!

September 11, 2012 2:45 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep. The 1/8" (my favorite of the two) would be closest.

September 11, 2012 2:54 PM  
Blogger PK said...

I've shot many fastpitch softball games. The trick to getting the ball in frame on a swing is watching the pitcher out of the corner of your eye and shooting before you think you need to. I spend entire games doing just batters so I can get the timing down.

September 11, 2012 4:46 PM  
Blogger Barry Shaffer said...

Been shooting HS football for a couple years now and have settled on the strobe mounted on the monopod a few feet below the lens to avoid red eye. I use the stadium lights as main and fill with a gelled strobe, everything in manual. Been using high iso and hs sync to get the shutter speed up there to avoid motion blur. Thought I was happy with my set up til I read your post, a grid? doh! Makes perfect sense. I've seen video highlights of games I've shot at and noticed how wide a pattern the flash throws at distance.
Gonna give It a try this week. Thanks David!

September 11, 2012 8:51 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Does the player being shot find the flash distracting? In the Olympics a diver got a redo bc he was distracted by flashes.

September 12, 2012 2:37 AM  
Blogger Stan Olszewski said...

Interesting concept David. I'll have to give this a try this weekend with my Honl 1/8" grid. I typically just crank the ISO up and live with the grain for my publications use. Noise is better than harsh shadows in these situations, in my opinion.

September 12, 2012 3:00 AM  
Blogger Brent said...

The grid/flash is a very interesting idea. However, I have found that I can make it work without flash by shooting high ISO (6400, 12800) and then using Noise Ninja to clean up the noise in my post processing.

I think you could easily become a nuisance if you are close to the action and pop the flash in the face of a kid trying to make a catch or something like that.

September 12, 2012 10:14 AM  
Blogger Barry Shaffer said...

I got a new camera this season with super high iso ability and thought I could just crank iso and go without flash - I didn't like the shadows cast by the helmets obscuring the players face. So the flash is now back on as fill (again, mounted low to try and attack the shadows under the helmet) I still take advantage of the high iso to keep shutter speeds and flash recycles fast and as long as I keep the flash power low enough to just fill the shadows on the players I don't get the big shadows cast on the stands behind them.
As far as flash being distracting, my son plays and he says, at least in football, they never even notice the flash (think the adrenaline is too high and they're so focused on the play to be distracted) I have shots of running backs looking right into my lens taken at about 30 yards and they never noticed my flash - but I do mount it low on my monopod vs. on the camera or lens.

September 12, 2012 11:06 AM  
Blogger richardsonad said...

David, if you attach the flash down towards the bottom of your monopod and angle up slightly you'll eliminate the evil red eye issue

September 12, 2012 12:32 PM  
Blogger Steven Shaffer said...

I set this up on a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 non-IS with hood removed. I wrapped a Honl speed strap around the lens barrel, attrached a padded camera bag divider using the Velcro, placed 580exII on the divider and then secured everything by wrapping everything with a Velcro One-Strap. I used 1-1/2" on flash head and 3/4" around the hotshoe. The Velcro straps are nice because you don't need a sticky Velcro piece andit can be reused.

Awesome idea David.

September 12, 2012 5:12 PM  
Blogger DougOrama said...

I shot a game tonight and tried the grid, but unfortunately I only have 30 degree grids, and there was no apparent effect when used on my D300 (DX) with a 300mm. I tried shooting with and without and saw no difference, but I do like the benefit of limiting who actually sees the flash.

I just mounted my flash on the hot shoe, so it's about three inches above where it would be on the lens. I have a feeling the difference is negligible as there were no apparent shadows. And if you shoot vertical the flash is on the same level as the lens view, so there's that. But the shots didn't look bad, and there wasn't even that much redeye, shooting at 3200 ISO, 1/32 power. Shutter speed is still a problem at 320-400.

September 15, 2012 12:37 AM  
Blogger Barry Shaffer said...

Tried the 1/8 grid last night, had the flash attached to the monopod so red eye wasn't an issue. It did a good job controlling spill on the grass but I think it was a little too tight when subjects got close, which wouldn't have been a problem if it were closer to the lens - 'but me hates red eye'

But I had to laugh to myself when I saw 2 other photographers with flashes taped to their 70-200 - Oh Mr. Hobby you are my hero. :)

September 15, 2012 8:37 PM  
Blogger Hodie Snitch said...

Did you use AA's or external power in the speedlight?

September 17, 2012 5:23 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


September 17, 2012 7:04 PM  
Blogger jonathan bae said...

I emailed 3 local high schools and 2 of them were very happy of my offer to shoot their games... thx David.

September 20, 2012 9:56 PM  
Blogger DC Welch said...

I am the guy who shoots the Marching band performances. Halftime at the football game is the easy one, but more demanding are the Saturday night band competitions. I am intrigued by the flash setup as my 300s @3200 and 1/250 is barely adequate without. Nothing in the rules but the band directors are really anti flash. Has anyone had pushback using this setup?

September 21, 2012 10:33 AM  
Blogger Aaron Hartwell said...

At the request of my son's team, I just started shooting our local football games. It's been a blast!

You can see some of the pics I've taken over the past few weeks here:

David, I'd love to see an update to see how you're evolving your technique on these things. I tried the grid/snoot last night. I'm going to tweak some things and try it again next week!

September 23, 2012 1:33 PM  
Blogger Ron Sellers said...

Great thread, I have been shooting the same high school for the last 5 years, not for pay, but for my enjoyment, hese is a link to the schools Facebook account:

My boys are still 5 years away from High school, and we would actually go to the cross town rival, this could get sticky.

September 24, 2012 4:50 PM  
Blogger Alan Skinner said...

Instead of a speedlight, how about about a gridded ring flash such as the Alien Bees ABR800 with a 20 degree grid pushing up to 320 watts? (I'm don't own one, but I'm curious, nonetheless. Obviously, this would require portable power, but the Vagabond is small and relatively affordable.)

September 26, 2012 11:32 AM  
Blogger Raul Kling said...

David, I enjoyed your post, and when when the time came and I needed it, I read it again and put the info into practice. I photographed the National Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship in Romania, my daughter being one of the contestants (fifth in the photo series). In addition to your technique I used a color calibration passport, which brought the colors to life. Below is the link to my blog post with the (selected) results. I would greatly appreciate your feedback. Thanks!

October 15, 2012 4:10 AM  
Blogger Thatsano said...

Since last football season I've been using a custom dual-flash monopod-based system made by Michael Bass Designs. The flashes are mounted a couple of feet down the monopod so red-eye isn't much of an issue and I zoom both the heads to 200m. Both flashes (SB900s) are usually at 1/8 power.

What's particularly interesting is that by doing this I'm able to shoot night football on horribly lit fields at ISO 800. On the best lit field I'm at ISO 400. The files are crisp and with the flashes both offset a bit it's hitting the players at slightly different angles and really making them pop.

Adding grids seems to be even better. :)

October 24, 2012 5:38 PM  
Blogger Steve Finkernagel said...

It was asked earlier, but I did not see a reply.... How are you avoiding motion blur when you shoot at the sync speed- 1/250? Generally, I'll want to be 1t 1/500th or faster when I am shooting any kind of action. I know the flash would provide some motion-stopping effect, but typically, I will get ghosting when I use it as fill.

Thanks for any feedback you can provide!

October 29, 2012 9:50 AM  
Blogger Barry Shaffer said...

@Steve Finkernagel - The only way I know of getting rid of motion blur at 1/250 is to either minimize ambient light making the flash the main (but this is a bit too harsh looking for my taste) or shoot slower moving subjects (ie:player running toward you, or wait til after the ball is caught) But a little bit of motion blur can make an image more dynamic like in this shot:

Personally, I like using HS sync and shooting at 1/500 or higher using the flash only as fill as I don't like having the background go black behind the subject - the downside is that HS sync SIGNIFICANTLY reduces the reach of the speedlight - so I've been using an external battery and bumping up the flash power to get the right balance.

October 29, 2012 1:28 PM  
Blogger Steve Finkernagel said...

So the flash becomes the main light and the stadium lighting (in the end zone) becomes more of an accent light.

Speaking of shutter speed, remember that you are shooting the action at the marginal speed of 1/250th at f/2.8.

Considering those 2 quotes.... He's not using HSS, nor is he eliminating the ambient light.... So I don't understand why there is no ghosting- the hand of the player slapping the ground is clearly moving, as are the 2 players chasing the loose ball.... yet- everything looks pretty sharp.


October 31, 2012 6:04 PM  
Blogger Wendy said...

Hello, I read in your column that this should work with "a small-chip camera and a 70-200/2.8" Do you think this will work with a Canon T3i and Canon 70-200mm f2.8? (I'm not 100% sure what a small chip camera is) Fortunately, I do have access to the entire sideline, my husband is one of the coaches, so I am able to stay pretty close to the action. This is a hobby for me, I take game photos to post on Facebook purely for the excitement of the local high school kids. I'm quite inexperienced in manual. I use running man auto mode most of the time but your post has inspired me. You make it sound do-able! I'm so excited to try if you think it will work. I really appreciate your time, it's intimidating when all of the other comments are from people with much more experience.

November 13, 2014 12:40 PM  

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