Improving Action Shots with Portable Lighting

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When you think of sports/action photography, lighting equipment probably doesn’t enter the picture, does it? After all, most photographers who work with lighting equipment use it to shoot formal portraits or indoor studio work, right? Well, that used to be the case. These days, lighting equipment is a lot more portable, affordable and easy to use, which means that it can dovetail with and enhance many different types of photography.

For this shoot, I wanted to capture some basketball action at dusk with an off-camera speedlight. I asked my assistant, James, if he would both assist and model for me, since he’s such an avid basketball player as well as a photographer. He agreed, and the next afternoon we met up at a basketball court on the East end of Portland, Maine. Once there, I walked around with the camera to get a general idea of the angles from which I’d be shooting. The sky had some nice cloud cover and the sun had not yet set and I took a few shots to determine what the optimal ambient exposure ought to be. This shot was taken at f/9 at 1/200th of a second, ISO 200.

After carrying some lighting gear over to the side of the court in a GigBag, James grabbed his basketball and took a few shots to get warmed up. As he did, I took a few shots of him to get a sense of the light. As you can see, I could either expose for the sky or James, but not both.

Next, I rigged up a StarFire speedlight so that I could throw a little light on James, while maintaining a good exposure for the sky. (The next three images were taken a couple of weeks earlier at a nearby beach using this same equipment, but for a different lesson. Just in case you were wondering where the sand came from!)

After setting up a small LiteStand and attaching a ShoeMount MultiClamp to it, I mounted the StarFire speedlight to a wireless receiver. I attached the flash to the LiteStand using the Adjustable ShoeMount Hardware, which also has fittings to support a small soft box. Then I mounted the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware to the ShoeMount MultiClamp. I then grabbed a Basic OctoConnector and inserted the rods of the Extra Small LiteDome soft box into each of the four holes of the Connector. Once the soft box was set up, I mounted the bottom side of the Connector to the ShoeMount Adjustable Hardware and adjusted the Hardware so that the Flash was optimally positioned to project light through the Connector and into the soft box.

I Velcroed the back flap to the back of the Extra Small LiteDome to prevent light spill from the flash. With everything attached, I powered up the flash, set it to about 1/2 power (The StarFire has a guide number of 114), and powered up the wireless receiver. To sync up the camera with the flash, I mounted the wireless transmitter to the hot shoe of the camera and tested the connection.

With everything set up, I raised the soft box up almost as high as it would go on the stand and weighted down the base of the stand with a sand-filled RockSteady Bag in case the wind cropped up.

I first had the light positioned camera right and took a few test shots at the same exposure settings. Here’s one from that series.

In reviewing the result, I saw that the LiteDome had done a good job illuminating James, particularly when compared to a shot without the flash.

But even though the light was effective, I wanted more of the scene in the frame. So I zoomed out and had James do a few more layups.

In camera, I saw that the light was exposing James fairly well, but the direction of the light was coming from underneath, which didn’t work. I also noticed that the light wasn’t really lighting up the ball or the net since it was positioned so low. The wind had also started to pick up, so to be safe, I swapped out the Small LiteStand with a Large LiteStand, which gave me more height and added stability. The light was now above the rim and angled down slightly, which would help render a more natural looking quality of light. While James took a few more layups, I took some test shots to make sure everything was still synced up.

With everything ready to go, I stood just a couple of feet away from being directly under the net with a wide angle lens setting. James had his camera mounted to a tripod and configured it so that that it would fire a series of setup shots as he took a layup.

We did a few runs like this and then reviewed the results. Here’s one from this series.

I liked the quality of light in the results, both in the sky and on James, but I still wasn’t getting enough of the scene. I wanted to capture James mid-air for a stronger visual impact. So rather than stand, I took a couple of steps back and knelt for a lower perspective. James took a brief water break and then ran a few more layups while I tried to capture him at the apex of his jumps.

Here is one of the better ones from that series.

The clouds in the background were becoming quite dark and added a dramatic quality to the shot. I also really liked the quality of light on both James and the hoop. Below, you can see the difference the light was making.

The only thing that bothered me was the angle of view. I had captured James from head to toe in mid-jump, but due to the optical distortion of the wide angle lens setting, as well as my relative position to him, it didn’t look like James was jumping very high, even though he was.

My ideal vantage point would have been at about 40-50 feet below the surface of the court with a telephoto lens, but that wasn’t an option. Risking injury to both camera and body, I came in even closer to the net so that I could shoot James’ entire body against the sky. In the setup shots below, I’m kneeling and sitting, but for the final shots, I was laying on the court shooting upward. A little awkward, but it ended up being the best vantage point.

I asked James to try and lift his knees when he jumped so that his legs would clear the treeline. After a few runs, we came away with some great results.

As is evident in the results, the added light (along with James’ athleticism) really made these shots sing. Next time, I might even bring two or three lights!

Written and photographed by Benjamin Clay.

Basic Lighting,

Outdoor Portraits,

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