Four-light setup at Frankfort Community High School in West Frankfort, Ill.
Disclaimer: I occasionally receive products to beta test for PocketWizard/LPA Design. The FlexTT5 and PowerMC2 units mentioned in this post are part of such testing. I have included links to equivalent products from other companies as well.
Great light is the foundation of great pictures.
When I worked as the chief photographer at the Ohio University Athletic Department, I designed and implemented a lighting system at The Convo, a 13,000-seat arena in the heart of Athens, Ohio. Over the past two months, I have taken what I developed at Ohio and translated it down to a much smaller scale, covering prep basketball games all across Southern Illinois for work.
In this edition of Behind the Scenes, I’ll share what I’ve learned.
My gallery edit from a recent basketball game. Since I used lights, I only needed to crop the images before transmitting.
I get a lot of questions about why I light every high school game I shoot.
The first reason is simple: color. Artificial lighting, especially the kind used in high school gyms, has a tendency to shift colors shot-to-shot, requiring correction in post. It is very hard for even the highest-end cameras to compensate for this problem. Since flash tubes output an even and full spectrum of light, the color of every image is perfectly balanced, which is incredibly important with skin tones. Most importantly, having this balance drastically increases the final print quality.
Having clean exposures also helps streamline my coverage workflow. I shoot a LOT of basketball. Just last week, I shot seven games in four days. I average about twenty captioned images for the photo gallery from each game I shoot, which would add up to a lot of time toning and processing if I didn’t use lights. If I do my job right, I rarely have to tone anything. In fact, about 95% of the images I turn in only need a crop in Photo Mechanic.
In addition, using my own lights allows me to creatively control the quality of light. Most high school gyms are full of distracting backgrounds; from cheerleaders on the baseline to light-up ad tables and scoreboard video screens, there is a lot of visual clutter to contend with. By controlling what is, and most importantly, is not illuminated, I am able to reduce some of these distractions.
My standard lighting kit that I use on a daily basis during basketball season.
The following items make up my standard lighting kit.
Big lights: A pair of Paul C. Buff Einstein 640 Monolights with standard reflectors and 15ft power cords. A pair PocketWizard PowerMC2 receivers dock in each light. A Vagabond Mini Lithium battery pack allows me to use the Einsteins in some of the pre-historic caves that don’t have power outlets.
Little lights: One each of the Nikon SB-900 and SB-800 speed lights, with Frio Cold Shoe mounts and Sanyo Eneloop AA batteries.
Radio control: Four PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceivers as speed light receivers and on-camera transmitters. One PocketWizard AC3 Zone Controller to toggle/control zones of lights. Before I moved to PocketWizard, the Paul C. Buff Cyber Commander system treated me well.
Grip: Four Avenger Super clamps with standard studs. I avoid using stands as they are bulky, and in most cases, a safety hazard.
The assembled speed lights, ready for action. From left to right: Super clamp, standard stud, Frio cold shoe, Flex TT5, speed light. On nights that I’m covering multiple games, this setup allows me to set up/tear down in only a minute or two.
Everything packed away in a some old Lightware case I found on SportsShooter a couple years ago.
No matter the size of the gym/arena, it is best for strobes to be at least 3 stops brighter than the ambient exposure in the gym, preferably five. This eliminates most ghosting and prevents the ambient light from changing the color balance of the image. Most of the gyms I work in these days are incredibly dark, making it easy to overpower the ambient, even with speed lights.
This means I’m using the speed lights at 1/4 to 1/2 power, zoomed to 50-70mm and aimed towards the free throw/three point line. Ideally, the lights should be positioned 10 feet behind the baseline and a similar distance off the sideline, on each side in a fairly symmetrical setup. The higher the better. For the mono lights, I’ll work from 1/8 – 1/4 power, as the wider reflectors that I cover more of the court, eating up some of the output.
In the field
In reality, very rarely can I set up my lights exactly how I want to. Factors such as available power outlets, mounting options, and working angles often limit my approach. In general, I will use the mono lights only if I am covering one game or am in the same gym for multiple games. I often have to shoot multiple games in a single night, so for those I’ll just carry the set of pre-rigged speed lights shown above.
What follows is a fairly exhaustive set of notes and examples from gyms that I’ve shot in over the past two months. I’ve tried to include as much information as possible. I wouldn’t consider many of these setups ideal, but they are the reality of what I have to work with. I shoot from the middle of the baseline, so all directional notes are from this perspective, looking downcourt. In most cases, I’ve left these images un-cropped.
A pair of speed lights does the trick at Christopher High School. A steel railing along the wall above the top row of seats makes it easy to mount lights above standing level.
Sample image from setup above: Egyptian’s Davantae Price puts up a shot during the Spartans’ 57-49 win over the Pharaohs in the championship game of the Turkey Tourney at Christopher High School in Christopher, Ill. on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
At Trico High School, a lack of power outlets had me improvising. An Einstein in one corner (seen here) and an SB-800 in the other side worked surprisingly well.
Sample image using the setup above: Sparta’s Sharvel Austin and Steeleville’s Kyle Smith jockey for a rebound during the Bulldogs’ 56-42 win over the Warriors in the Trico Invitational Tournament at Trico High School in Campbell Hill, Ill. on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
The balconies at Marion High School make the gym one of my favorites to light. This is the camera-right lighting position.
The camera-left lighting position. This is about as close to ideal as the gyms in our area get to lighting positions.
Coverage of the camera-right light.
Coverage of the camera-left light.
Both lights firing together.
Sample image of this setup being used as side light on the far side of the court for player introductions: Marion’s Malik Stuckey is introduced before the Terriers’ 72-69 win over the Wildcats at Marion High School in Marion, Ill. on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Seconds later, as a backlight for a huddle: Marion huddles before the Terriers’ 72-69 win over the Wildcats at Marion High School in Marion, Ill. on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Standard action from this setup: Marion’s Brant Hill scrambles for a loose ball with Carbondale’s Elijah Bidinger and Shamarc Bursey during the Terriers’ 72-69 win over the Wildcats at Marion High School in Marion, Ill. on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Getting funky: Using the AC3 controller to set both lights to full power, I set my camera to rear-curtain sync and 1/40th of a second to achieve this dynamic look: Marion’s Jawan Tucker drives to the basket under pressure from Carbondale’s Shamarc Bursey during the Terriers’ 72-69 win over the Wildcats at Marion High School in Marion, Ill. on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
At 1/25th, the effect is even more drastic: Marion’s Colton Carter works the ball during the Terriers’ 72-69 win over the Wildcats at Marion High School in Marion, Ill. on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
A pair of Elinchrom 600ws lights, mounted about 60-70ft above the court and 5ft behind and off the corners make for a dramatic amount of falloff. Thanks to SIU athletics for allowing me to borrow this setup for the tournament.
Shooting across mid-court, the falloff gives the light a soft quality across the frame.
What makes this setup so effective is the high angle the lights are mounted at: Alton Marquette’s D’Tae McMurray drives to the basket during the Bulldogs’ game against the Explorers in the Saluki Shootout at SIU Arena in Carbondale, Ill. on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
For this girl’s game at Murphysboro High School, I went with a quasi-bounce setup of two mono lights, letting some direct light leak onto the court. Since there is only power in the camera-right corner, I used the Vagabond battery pack to power this light. This is the camera-left side.
Another view of the camera-left light.
The camera-right light, in similar direct/bounce setup.
A reverse angle of the combination bounce/direct setup.
Sample image from this setup: Murphysboro’s Kierra Nolan fights for a rebound with Marion’s Haley Rushing (left) and Cortney Williams during the Lady Red Devils’ 51-42 win over the Lady Wildcats at Murphysboro High School in Murphysboro, Ill. on Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Sample image from this setup. Bounced lights tend to look better downcourt: Murphysboro’s Johnna Hines fights for a loose ball with Marion’s Marquisha Edwards during the Lady Red Devils’ 51-42 win over the Lady Wildcats at Murphysboro High School in Murphysboro, Ill. on Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Sample image: Murphysboro’s Aziah McBurney celebrates after the Lady Red Devils’ 51-42 win over the Lady Wildcats at Murphysboro High School in Murphysboro, Ill. on Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
This one didn’t work so well. At Johnston City, the only mounting options were even with the baseline.
Said mounting position.
Shadows were a big problem. If your lights are going to be low, they at least need to be off the end of the court: Johnston City’s Derek Smith snags a rebound during the Indians’ game against Sesser-Valier at Johnston City High School Johnston City, Ill. on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
A lack of power outlets at Herrin High School had me using a combination of a mono light camera-left and a speed light camera-right.
Sample image: West Frankfort’s Gage Williams drives to the basket during the Tigers’ 73-35 win over the Redbirds at Herrin High School in Herrin, Ill. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Sample image: West Frankfort’s Nic Korolenko snags a rebound during the Tigers’ 73-35 win over the Redbirds at Herrin High School in Herrin, Ill. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Decided to try something new at Pinckneyville, a three-light setup. One Einstein camera-right, a speed light camera-left, and another Einstein at mid-court camera-left aimed across the court made for a pretty dynamic look. I put each light in its own zone, allowing me to control power levels from my camera with the AC3.
Sample image: Nashville’s Keegan Anderson puts up a shot during the Hornets’ 41-34 win over Pinckneyville at Pinckneyville High School in Pinckneyville, Ill. on Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
A pair of mono lights bounced against a wall at Carbondale High School made for soft, but smooth light.
A reverse view of the setup.
Sample image: Cairo’s Trevon Houston and Carbondale’s Jarron Warren chase after a rebound during the Terriers’ 71-65 win over the Pilots at Carbondale High School in Carbondale, Ill. on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Du Quoin High School is a dream to light. A balcony railing about 15ft behind one of the baselines runs the width of the court and has power outlets at intervals across the span. With two mono lights, I was almost 5 stops over ambient.
Shooting across the lights: Pinckeyville’s Chris Priebe and Du Quoin’s Daulton Donoghue go up for the tip-off to begin the Indians’ game against the Panthers at Du Quoin High School in Du Quoin, Ill. on Friday, Jan. 4, 2013. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Sample image: Pinckneyville’s Luke Miller drives to the basket under pressure from Du Quoin’s Austin Mapps during the Indians’ game against the Panthers at Du Quoin High School in Du Quoin, Ill. on Friday, Jan. 4, 2013. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
With five stops of working room, I had no problem going down to 1/50th for some rear-curtain sync fun: Massac County’s Dazmeon Nickerson drives to the basket during the Patriots’ 60-40 win over Du Quoin at Du Quoin High School in Du Quoin, Ill. on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Bounce House: The Benton High School girl’s gym has an unusually low, curved ceiling, making it perfect for a pair of bounced mono lights.
Sample image: Benton’s Makala Carney goes airborne to save a rebound during the Rangerettes’ 35-31 win over Herrin at Benton High School in Benton, Ill. on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Sample image: Benton’s Samantha Minor has her shot blocked by Herrin’s Tori Johnson as Jesika Alongi defends during the Rangerettes’ 35-31 win over the Lady Tigers at Benton High School in Benton, Ill. on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
A pair of speed lights, maybe eight feet off the side of the court, five off the end, and seven feet in the air, made covering this game on the run easy, as I didn’t have time to set up mono lights. (Or, sadly, take a setup shot. Sorry!)
Yuck. That’s the one word I would use to describe the ambient at Frankfort Community High. For a long time, strobes weren’t allowed in this gym either. Ambient is a paltry 1/400th f/2.8 at ISO 6400.
This week, we were given the go-ahead to test a couple lighting setups for approval by the AD. For the first night of the tournament, I used a pair of speed lights. Even 40ft away from the free throw line, they were putting me a solid 3 stops over ambient at 1/4 power. Dark gyms are easy to light.
Sample image: Herrin’s Ryan Snider lands on a loose ball during the Tigers’ 44-30 win over Anna-Jonesboro in the 2013 Midwinter Classic at West Frankfort High School in West Frankfort, Ill. on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
For the second night, I went all in, rigging four of my lights. The two visible here are a pair of mono lights. In addition, I mounted a pair of speed lights, one above each scoreboard, aimed towards the same side of the court for backlight.
Sample image: Pinckneyville’s Katelyn Mayer puts up a shot against Herrin’s Gabby Woodis during the Lady Tigers’ 31-29 win over the Lady Panthers in the 2013 Midwinter Classic at West Frankfort High School in West Frankfort, Ill. on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
Sample image: Sesser-Valier-Waltonville’s Rae Lappin drives to the basket during the Lady Devils’ 49-20 win over West Frankfort in the 2013 Midwinter Classic at West Frankfort High School in West Frankfort, Ill. on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. (Joel Hawksley / The Southern)
(Repeated from above) A low angle of the four light setup, showing the location of the backlights.
Anyways. If you’ve made it this far, I hope this guide was of some use. I continue to experiment with these setups, and encourage you to do the same. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. Someone else is probably wondering the same thing.