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Growing up in the midwest, I had my favorite sports teams and Sports Illustrated magazine’s photographs, particularly of arena sports (NBA and NHL), were the subjects of my bedroom posters.  At that  time of adolescence, I didn’t think about how the photographer captured my favorite sports heroes in action.  I simply liked the dynamic ‘freezing” of a moment during a game depicting why I loved a specific player.

To Light or Not to Light

My last job, here in Appleton photographing a large group of people interacting , (before the pandemic hit), was in an indoor sports complex shooting a soccer game for the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.  For that photo shoot,  I decided to proceed with the ambient facility lighting.  This meant a high ISO setting on my camera, keeping a necessary high shutter speed (to freeze the action) and a low f stop.  I decided not to use any added strobed flashes.  The results were OK but not like the dynamic images of Sports Illustrated!

action with ambient light
Because of the high ISO you can see evidence of grain in the image.  My camera settings were: ISO 12800  1/1250th sec  @ f/2.8   The grain was not a problem for this project because the finals were going to be used very small.  Still, I did not feel the dynamic excitement of images I had seen in the bedroom posters of my youth.

The Arena Flash

Legendary sports photographer Andy Bernstein has captured iconic images of the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings for over 40 years.  The images he captures are done with the help of powerful triggered strobe lights mounted in the catwalks and rafters of the arena he’s working in.   These strobes go off without crowd or players noticing.  In the images below, you can see the bright flashes in the ceilings.

strobe lighting evident in the ceiling.
Below is an extreme example of strobe lighting set lower in the arena. The strobes become the main lighting and the ambient arena light is underexposed.  Take notice of the harsh shadows from the strobe on the floor. This image was captured by professional sports photographer Garrett Ellwood.
underexposed ambient light - lower placed strobe

Testing for My Desired Outcome

These images influenced me to explore what I could do the next time I am in a gymnasium photographing an action event in the Fox Valley.   After my indoor soccer photo shoot last March, I stuck around in the empty space and did some testing.  I have no plans to pursue becoming a sports photographer for the NBA or any other professional arena sports franchise.  My photography jobs may locate me inside a youth ice arena or basketball gym in northeast Wisconsin, much smaller than the Fiserv Forum!  My supplementary lighting options must be portable, battery operated speedlights set off to the side, up high where no spectators are.  They would be triggered by Pocket Wizard radio slaves from my camera.  Below are the tests I did to see the difference added light makes in action photography. The first side by side lighting comparison is without an active person, simply to show what the added light does to the space in comparison to what the facility’s lighting is.

Now I am in the frame under ambient light.  I was jumping around just like a player would.  The ISO was 1250 , 1/1250th of a second @ f/2.8 .  The image next to it had 2 speed lights added up high and facing into me.  The settings were: ISO 1250,  1/1600th sec @ f/2.8.
ambient light and strobe with action
And finally, I have posted below the same setup except I removed one of the speed lights.  There is one light focused in at 35mm aimed at me, same position: facing me, up high.    You can see the light falloff on the outer perimeter of the frame.
One speed light focused

What’s The Use?

In doing this test, I have come to the conclusion that when I have a project here in northeast Wisconsin that is action orientated, (sports, dance, live music, etc), if I can set up portable strobes, away from the crowd and safely trigger them from my camera, I would use that option.  I can always turn them off if I want.  The challenge is placement of the units safely as not to interfere with anything.  My portable speed lights are the Nikon SB 900 units triggered with the Pocket Wizard radio slaves.  To get that Sports Illustrated dramatic, stop action lighting indoors, this method must be considered.

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