Magazine Article


Shooting Indoor Sporting Events
Using portable strobes for a better quality of light

Today's professional sports and action photographer has been blessed with choices in cameras capable of producing high-quality images under lighting conditions that were never before possible.

The Nikon D3 and Canon 1D Mark III allow photographers to shoot at ISOs of 1600, 3200, and 6400 with much improved noise performance over the first-generation DSLR cameras. Youth sports such as gymnastics and figure skating are no-flash events and are often held in facilities with less-than-desirable lighting; ISO 3200 is generally the starting point for proper exposure. These cameras are capable of producing amazing images even at ISO 6400.

However, when possible, I prefer to use remote-triggered strobes to stop the action for consistent lighting, more accurate colors, white balance control, and, above all, the ability to use a lower ISO. A strobed image shot at ISO 100 can be enlarged without any noticeable noise to 20x30, as opposed to one taken at ISO 3200, which will require some form of noise suppression such as Noise Ninja.

On-camera flash can produce nice results, and sometimes it's the only option when you have to travel light, or space and time restrictions prevent the setup of strobes. Flash units such as the Nikon SB-800 and Canon 580 EX can be used as remotes, but I've had much better results with self-contained monolights.

I shoot with three Canon One Series bodies (photo at left) with EF 24-70 f/2.8, EF 70-200 f/2.8, and EF 300 f/2.8 lenses and PocketWizard transmitters attached. I prefer the PocketWizard line of remote triggers because of their range, durability, versatility, and ease of use.

I've had great success with the AlienBees line of strobes and reflectors, as well as the Quantum Qflash 5d-R, and use the lights that are best for the event being captured. This setup allows me to photograph an event such as wrestling or basketball with three different camera/lens combinations and be able to trigger strobe units.

Camera setup: DSLRs with radio transmitters.
The image above was taken at the 4,000-seat Hobart Arena in Troy, Ohio, where ambient light for ice hockey ranges from ISO 1600/3200, f/2.8 at 1/400-1/500, with cycling lights causing white-balance problems. Woolery shoots all of his action shots at this arena using available light, but this shot was done for a team promotion. He used a Quantum Qflash 5d-R and an AlienBees 800, both mounted on light stands with sports reflectors and triggered by PocketWizards fired directly at the subject. This photo’s exposure was ISO 200, f/5, at 1/250 of a second with a Canon EOS Mark II and EF 70-200 f/2.8 lens.
This image was taken in your typical high school gym at ISO 1600/3200, f/2.8, 1/400-1/500, but even though the lighting was recently upgraded, Woolery decided to shoot with strobes. They were bounced off the ceiling to produce even but bright-enough light to stop the action.
This image was taken at the Longhorn World Championship Rodeo held at Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio. The arena is bright, but this rodeo performance has several acts where the house lights are out and spots are used. It takes awhile for the arena lights to get back to full power, so strobes are necessary to photograph this event. Woolery had four strobes mounted at the platforms where the spot lights were located; these did a great job of providing enough light to freeze the action and allow for an exposure of ISO 400, 1/250 at f/3.5. Each of these units had a PocketWizard receiver attached for triggering the strobes. A Canon EOS-1D Mark II and EF 70-200 lens were used for this image.
This image was taken during the 4-State Youth Rodeo at the Champions Center in Springfield, Ohio. Ambient light in this very well-lit equestrian and livestock facility is ISO 1600, f/2.8 at 1/500. Although the EOS-1D Mark II does a great job at that ISO, the flash really adds pop to the image, and the lower ISOs make for much less grain. Woolery usually bounce four strobes off of the white ceilings, but wanted something a little more mobile, so he used a Quantum Qflash 5d-R with the sports reflector mounted on a light stand triggered by a set of PocketWizards bounced directly overhead. This was captured with an exposure of ISO 1000, 1/250, f/3.5, with the Canon 1D Mark II and the EF 70-200 f/2.8 lens.
This image was taken at Kingdom Sports in Franklin, Ohio. This is a very dark facility with ambient readings in the 1/125, ISO 3200, f/2.8 range at best. Fortunately, the ceilings were very low, and Woolery was able to bounce a Quantum Qflash 5d-R mounted on a 13-foot light stand to freeze the action. This league ordered posters of all of the sixth-grade players leaving the program, so using the strobes allowed him to shoot at a much lower ISO for enlargements without noise. The actual exposure was ISO 500, 1/250, f/2.8 with the EOS-1D Mark II and the EF 70-200 lens.
This image was taken at the same facility as the hockey goalie with four strobe units mounted above the arena floor on light stands in the utility areas off to the side of the catwalks. The strobes were aimed at the top of the key, and meter readings were taken on the court before the start of the game. The EOS-1D Mark II and EF 70-200 f/2.8 lens were used to capture the image. The exposure was ISO 200, f/4.5, 1/250. Having the strobes above the court and 100 feet away, fired direct, freezes the action much better than when they’re bounced—no matter how low the ceiling.