Friday Night Lights Follow-Up: Don't Try This at Home. Or Away.

Remember last month's post on lens-axis fill flashing high school football? I promised to get back with you after experimenting with lighting a game with off-camera flash—way off-camera.

I spent a decent amount of time figuring out how to approach it: what flash, what beam throw, light position, dealing with the coaches, remotes, fill light, ambient balance, yada yada.
Here's what happened.

The Plan

The idea was to augment an on-axis flash (described here) with a far-away rim/separation light, to give the photos more depth as compared to just low-level stadium lighting with fill flash.

Some assumptions going in:

1. You'd need some distance for any chance at predictable light levels over a large area.

2. You'd need some power. Not so much for absolute light levels, as you would still need to work close to the ambient in an ISO 4000/5000 environment. But mostly for fast recycling while lighting over a distance.

3. Coaches are not used to seeing something pop-pop-popping in the end zone. That'll be a concern.

4. Syncing is obviously going to be tricky over the long (and varying) distances involved.

The Gear

I thought an Einstein with a VML battery would be near ideal: fast t.1 times, fast recycle and a near bottomless pit of flashes at ~80ws, which is where I planned to use it.

As you can see, it is fitted with a standard reflector and a 30-degree grid. This was both to keep the beam more manageable over distance (no giant hot spot nearer to the flash) and to be able to direct the beam a bit away from the coaches' sight lines.

Remotes were mounted up top via epoxied cold shoe for maximum efficiency. But still, this is a long and varying distance. I tried a Skyport, an RPJrx and a PocketWizard +III in tests. The PW proved most reliable (albeit relatively) at these long distances. But it was still gonna be an issue.


We went deep in the end zone, about 25 yards beyond the back line, on a 12' stand. This meant the restricted beam would not be pointed directly at either coach. (It only takes one coach complaining to a ref and you are finished.)


Given 1/250th at f/2.8 and ISO 4000, I adjusted the power until it was about right at the (near) 20 yard line. We'd let the light go hot as someone got closer to (or into) the end zone. Remember, it's a back/rim from a sideline shooting position, so you have exposure/separation choices.

Did it Help?

In a word, yes:

Even out to the ~30 yard line, where this shot was taken, the end zone light (here seen from back camera right) gives some nice separation. It is not screaming at this distance, but still makes the shot more 3-D.

The Achilles Heel(s)

But in the end, two things ruined the party: Rhythm and sync.

By rhythm, I don't mean recycle. That actually works very well with an Einstein at 80ws with a VML. Not if you are going to uzi nonstop at 9FPS, but you can still keep up a restrained shooting rhythm on a play: click … click-click … click-click-click-click … click. That sort of thing.

But the problem is twofold. First, your shooting style is definitely affected by wondering whether your distant flash is firing. And you don't really feel comfy testing very much between plays.

Reason? During the play the coaches attention is on the ball. They almost certainly do not notice the big light going off. But between plays they are definitely gonna notice a pop-pop-pop in the end zone. And most likely say something. Then you're done.

Second, sync is a problem. Even with PW +III's (a normally reliable remote and the best of the three I tested here) sync is not reliable in that environment. There is a lot of distance involved with little height-to-distance-ratio help. (Think of it as a triangle. You always wanna go as high as possible when pushing remote distances, even if you have to separate your receiver from your flash. Because ground, grass, etc., absorb radio energy.)

Shooting from midfield was unreliable. As you get down to about the 20 yard line (moving camera position with the line of scrimmage) sync got to about 75%. Yes, there are bridge modes that would get me to near 100%, but they eat up sync speed. You need a 250th here, minimum.

But even working near the end zone I could not rely on consistent sync. For instance, here is the game-winning touchdown—scored with 50 seconds left in the game:

As it happened, this shot was a no-sync. And it would have been helped greatly by the back-right separation light. All I have here is the on-axis fill, with almost zero separation between the dark uniforms and the dark background. (The stadium lighting in the end zone is predictably abysmal.)

In the end, a lot of extra work for a chancy, potentially frustrating result. Given the ambient light levels, I almost wonder if an optically slaved light might work better than radio. In any case, the final conclusion has to be that lighting night football is not practical.

(Which may well be why no one does it, Dave…) Shut up, voice-of-reason in the back of my head.

Even with near-optimal gear, no deadlines and a friendly home-field coach, the results were disappointing to say the least. But I have never had a problem with warts-and-all disclosure here after a failed experiment, so there you go.

If you figure out a way to do this reliably, please report back in the comments. I am all ears. Because after you have seen a few of those holy-grail-backlit night football shots (always by happenstance from another photographer in the background) you know they are worth chasing if you can find a way to reliably do it.


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Blogger Photography By Martello [MMJPhoto] said...

Why not use some additional PWs in relay mode to boost the reliability? Or will the additional circuitry affect your sync as well?

October 29, 2012 8:31 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey S Baker said...

David were you using the PW on your hot shoe? You'd have better range using a 10 foot sync cord and a Val with a light stand with the PW on it up as high as possible.

October 29, 2012 8:48 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Great post, warts and all.

I am wondering if the PW on the flash is affected by RF coming from the strobe electronics. I haven't tried this but what about moving the flash PW to a separate stand 5-10 feet away from the flash, connected with (gasp) a sync cord?

October 29, 2012 9:13 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Every problem has a solution. But some solutions are expensive. :)

Rent a light truck.

October 29, 2012 9:20 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What if you put the remote wizard on a separate stand, higher up (10-15 feet, or more), on a shoe with a super-long sync cable?

October 29, 2012 9:32 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey S Baker said...

David, did you have your PW on your hot shoe close to the ground? Putting it up on a 10 foot light stand with a VAL to carry it you would have had much better luck.

October 29, 2012 9:44 AM  
Blogger Spotpuff said...

You can't have success without failure. At least you tried and learned!

October 29, 2012 9:46 AM  
Blogger Arthur McLean said...

Was this strictly to get that backlight seperation? I've wondered about mounting one (or two) up near the press box.

October 29, 2012 10:13 AM  
Blogger j_dot said...

Keep chasing it David!

From a gear perspective - would using a different PW product help any? The multimax might help you with the distance problem and also help you push the sync speed.

Another option is the MC2 on the Einstein to control the power from the camera position by using Mini and FEC (no AC3 required!) which would also allow for the on camera fill to still be used. I don't know what this would work at 9 fps though.

Also since you have the home friendly coach, see if he'll let you test out some of your theories at a night practice - as an added bonus your team will be used to the giant flashes of light coming from the end zone :-)

October 29, 2012 10:15 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

This is a great post, just because I've had people ask me about it in the past (when I actually shot games for a newspaper). Of course, at that time we were using D1s that were horrible at high ISOs. I would think that in that environment nothing would quite compare to some of the newer camera's high ISO capabilities, especially when combined with really fast glass. Don't even get me started on pushing Fuji 800 or TMax 3200 . . .

October 29, 2012 10:24 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

He wasn't trying to back-light his subjects, but here's how Mark Hancock lit a field:

October 29, 2012 10:25 AM  
Blogger Per Rutquist said...

A speedlite on a separate stand, with its own PW receiver and aimed at the Einstein which is set to trigger from both PW and optical slave. Should double your chances. (Some separation between the two, so that if somebody is blocking your line of sight to one, he's not blocking the other at the same time.)

October 29, 2012 10:29 AM  
Blogger JS said...

Obviously, a slaved end-zone light would be at the mercy of the point and shoots in the stands, unless their power was insufficient to trigger it.

What if you radio-triggered a speedlight that was close to you which was zoomed and gridded to optically zap the slaved end-zone light? Is that just stupid?

October 29, 2012 10:31 AM  
Blogger Gavin Photography said...

I used AB1600's at a HS JV football game once, but the PWIIs would only fire about half of the time. I used only one transmitter, with 2 AB1600s and one AB800 (with the 11" sports reflector). The PW would fire one and I daisy chained the other two using the optical slaves (so they lined up 45 degrees in front of each other). I had the lights pointed 180 degrees to the sun, mid-field. Since it was a JV game, the sun was still out and I didn't get any grief from the coaches. Samples: wide receiver , shooting into the sun , shot with no HDR .

October 29, 2012 10:34 AM  
Blogger Prelo said...

If Md. uses the same basic rules as Pa., and photographers aren't allowed in the team box the effect is to create two 35 yd long zones on each end of the field to work in - end line to 25 yd line. To work on the consistency thing, this would be one of the few occasions where I'd move the radios off the flash, and closer to the camera. I'm thinking a hard-wire and stand set up behind the 25 on each end would mean no more than a 50 yd distance to a receiver.
I'm not big on adding hard wiring, but if you're going to this much trouble, what's a couple of rolls of zip wire?

October 29, 2012 10:43 AM  
Blogger Sean Work said...

What worries me most about this setup is the use of a stand. When lighting in an arena or stadium I have a pretty simple rule of thumb. I imagine myself explaining to a civil court judge what precautions I took when setting up my lighting in order to keep it safe for the general public.
Okay, 25 yards is far enough away that you don't need to worry about players running headlong into it. It's still my experience that there are often kids running around football stadiums who don't always look where they're going. they're capable of knocking over a light stand, tripping on cables, etc.
For that reason I never use a stand when shooting sports. I use clamps with safety cables, preferably high enough off the ground that nobody can monkey around with it. I know that there are always risks, but I do my best to reduce them to an unlitigatable level.

October 29, 2012 12:00 PM  
Blogger DanW said...

Ditto, what Sean said. In fact in my location light stands are explicitly prohibited.

Regarding lighting from the press box, the middle of the field is the usually the best you're gonna get. As David mentions, it's the end zones that really need the help. Potentially some of the best plays are there and the light is almost always lower intensity and behind the players... so you don't get light on the faces.

David, have you adjusted your on-lens flash setup (described in your previous post) any over the course of the season? I was hopeful that would help, but I didn't get good results.

And another question... In high school stadiums with older lights, the lights flicker - not visible to the eye, but it shows up on photos. Both the color and intensity vary. Rattle off several frames in a row and you get very different look in each image. It can even vary across a single image if the scene is lit from two light sources that are out of phase. Have you ever experienced this, and have any suggestions to resolve or work around it?

October 29, 2012 1:33 PM  
Blogger Jon-Mark said...

To be honest, I'm confused by the sync issues you had. Last year I did a video review of the RP JRx's and tested them reliably at 800 feet at 7fps on a flat field. Can't understand why they wouldn't work for you over the distance of a football field.

October 29, 2012 2:41 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep. And I have used PWs to interior-lit helicopters in flight at those distances, too. With radio, there are always variables—some known, some not.

October 29, 2012 3:08 PM  
Blogger Bob Lash said...

Very interesting post David, thank you for all the effort. I'd love to see how you would light a hockey rink with speed lights to achieve the same effect. Just to add to the challenge, a hockey rink where the figure skaters are followed by a spotlight and aside for a few dim guide lights in the corners, the rink itself is practically dark. Looking forward to your reply as I have that exact scenario coming up in a few weeks.

October 29, 2012 3:42 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

If you get 50% reliability from a remote, 50% from another one and if the misfires happen at random, you might get 75% reliability when using them in parallel.
Use yet another one, and you might get to 87.5%.

I did a review of the Cactus V5 a while ago, and tested it against the PW+II :

I got 80% reliability for each of the triggers at 320 feet, but one would always work. An optical slave would have ensured 100% reliability.
If an optical slave isn't an option, you could always try to use a splitter cable.

Finally, knowing that you like to be upfront with people, why didn't you ask permission to the coaches?

October 29, 2012 3:45 PM  
Blogger Glenn Gunn said...

I was pretty much blown away by the sharpness of the photos in your first post on this. Made me almost want to stop shooting football 'cause I never get images that good and maybe never will.

But the photo in this post shot at the 30 yard line looks a little blurry. Assuming I'm not mis-viewing (always a possibility), is it possible that the second off-axis flash impacts image sharpness?

October 29, 2012 5:41 PM  
Blogger Eric the Red said...

Hi David, what about hot lights? Sync at any speed. Cheaper than a light truck. Would sorta look like they belong there. Only snag, I guess, would be finding somwhere to plug in . . .

October 29, 2012 7:05 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Have you thought about putting a metal reflector behind the antenna on the remote light to help the antenna receive the radio signal?...Bending a thin sheet of aluminum into a curve that is focused on your sideline might help. (Just pretend that the antenna is going to put out light and you want it reflected your way.) Should help the antenna gain...

October 29, 2012 9:37 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

@jon-mark and David...

On a sports field, TONS of wireless communication devices are in effect at or near the frequencies used by wireless transmitters, so interference is VERY likely. Plus RF behaves and affects things weirdly and inconsistently at best. in situations like the helicopter shot, there probably wasnt much rf except pilots radio transmissions on a completely different end of the spectrum.

I use the Phottix triggers and have reliably used them out to a couple hundred feet with no issues in some areas and other times I get in an office building full of steel, wireless networks and cordless phones, and 50 ft is a miracle. I assume any other trigger will behave similarly since the signal, once it leaves the antenna, is purely phyisics, obeying the same laws, regardless of brands..

October 29, 2012 11:42 PM  
Blogger chris said...

It is possible to know more of the details (maybe even all) in dealing with radio but it can get complicated. Everyone here is right that elevation is a key aspect here and the higher you could get those PocketWizards the better off you'd be.

When I look PocketWizard IIs, though, I see a horrible rubber-duckie antenna which probably has no gain and possibly might even have *negative* gain (for sordid details Google for: rubber duckie negative gain). Hams often homebrew "J-pole" style antennas (just wire inside a piece of PVC pipe) to get reasonable gain off of hand-held radios versus the horrible kit rubber-duckie antennas. Less than 1 milliwatt (what the PWIII is rated at) isn't a lot of power to work with.

Knowing what frequencies the PocketWizards operate on, it would be possible to surgically implant a new antenna or an antenna jack (in a PWII at least) that would actually have some reasonable gain. Even an elevated 1/4 wave antenna on just the receiving PW might make a world of difference. The down side: you'd have to perform surgery on a pricey PocketWizard. Any Hams that you know locally would be happy to take a look and help out, we have to know all about this stuff to even pass the test to get the license.

October 30, 2012 12:03 AM  
Blogger Daniel Brown said...

re: Chris's comments about radio - quick online searches turn up 340 to 354mhz frequencies for the PW3's. Another search for "pocket wizard 3 teardown" shows whats inside for an antenna - a simple copper wire coil. Should be pretty easy to graft on a connector which could be run to an external antenna. Easier though might be simply to use a metallic reflector strategically located behind the PW3. Anyone have a silver brolly handy? Or some cardboard and tin foil?

October 31, 2012 4:45 PM  
Blogger Aaron Hartwell said...

I've been having great luck shooting the nighttime football games this season.

I'm essentially metering for ambient and using a gridded on camera flash for fill.

It's been working well.


November 03, 2012 4:04 PM  
Blogger Paul S. Olson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 11, 2012 5:12 PM  
Blogger Paul S. Olson said...

Thanks for this post and while I didn't do any off camera strobes, I found that the lighting surrounding the player provides enough separation. Below is a link from a game I shot on friday using a D800 with mostly a Sigma 120-300mm 2.8 OS lens. I did use a flash with honeycomb grid on it, I preferred the shots about 75% of the time that were not lit with the gridded on axis flash i was using at low power. I found 1/250 is not enough to stop the fastest action shots and would rather rely on the ISO 6400 power of the D800 and deal with the noise in post (which is not really that bad)

November 11, 2012 9:12 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Increase the gain on your PW antennas.

November 12, 2012 4:50 PM  
Blogger Tate said...

This was done with a slow shutter speed and two Vivitar 285s shotgunned on a stand. Just did a pan while he ran:

My main goal was to get something different from the other photographers rather than something consistent.

November 19, 2012 4:22 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barth said...

I was told that staff photographers at the Courier Post in Cherry Hill, NJ in the mid-90's were using VALs along with on camera direct flash. Not sure how they were triggering back then, and it was nice that they had the budget for an assistant at a Friday night game. The VAL was on the opposite side of the field from the photographer and would move with the shooter, pointing the strobe-on-a-stick (probably a Vivitar 285) at the action. Of course this was also with film, so some testing must have been done at some point.

November 22, 2012 12:47 AM  
Blogger Sherry Estabrook said...

I saw a fellow photographer use 2 Sb-900 tied to his lens at 3 and 9 oclock. And he triggered them wireless.

December 02, 2012 6:59 AM  

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