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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