We’re in the middle of basketball season now, and your pictures are seriously killing me. In an effort to save the season, I’m going to address the two major issues and I’ll take any questions you might have in the comments.
1. Yes, most high school gyms and many college gyms have bad lighting. Too dark, comical color balance, painted walls and floors, I’ve seen them all. Guess what? The pictures you get will either be good or not, and there’s no grading curve based on the conditions. My first newspaper assignments were high school basketball. This is where I first learned the lesson that camera technology will not save you. Yes, I could get 1/500th at 6400-12,800 ISO, but no, those pictures wouldn’t look good. Often times 1/500th isn’t fast enough anyway, and even if it is, you still have to deal with either cycling fluorescent lights giving off different colors shot-to-shot or color casts that are so far away from white that you can’t get a custom white balance or even fix it in post processing. Particularly sadistic schools paint their walls in team colors that end up being brighter than the floor.
All of this is a hassle, especially when you’re shooting for newspaper money or no money at all. But as long as you have to put your name on the pictures, it’s still your responsibility to solve these problems. And in general, there’s only one solution: adding light. So after my first newspaper assignment at the edge of aesthetic value, I looked around online for information on how to light basketball. When money and time are not limited, you buy a bunch of arena strobes, mount them in the rafters, and hook them into the building power supply and a Flash Wizard. This is an expensive proposition and very time consuming if you have to put them in and take them out more than once a season, so this setup is generally only used by official photographers for NBA and major college teams. For the rest of us, it’s probably going to be speedlights and Pocket Wizards. Luckily for me, I found Strobist, and their post on high school basketball. After experimenting and talking to some other people I refined this technique a bit to work with the gear I had:
2x Nikon SB-800s (any decent speed lights will work)
3x Pocket Wizard PlusIIs or Elinchrom Skyports (cheaper options available, but these are the most reliable)
2x 8ft lighting stands
various connecting cables
I placed the lights in the corners of one end of the gym, as close to the baseline as safely possible, with the stands at max height so the light would be above head level. I taped and sand-bagged the stands for stability, and pointed each light at the foul line to provide overlapping coverage in the lane. Depending on the gym I would set the flash power to 1/4 to 1/2 and leave it. During warmups I would set the shutter to the max sync (1/250) and then adjust the aperture for exposure and the ISO to deal with how much ambient light I wanted in the pictures. Make no mistake, this is low percentage shooting. Things that happen outside of the light throw will be too dark. If players get between the light and your subject, they will be in a shadow. You can only shoot as fast as the flash can recycle without overheating. But if you are careful, you will get some pictures.
(Things to keep in mind: Coaches and/or refs can veto the whole thing, so before doing the work, get permission. Dealing with off-camera lights and light stands or clamps introduces added risk. Consider getting dedicated photography insurance.)
But lights or no lights, the pictures still have to get better. We stress shooting wide, but now we need to take it the other way with basketball. The pictures we’re seeing coming in to the Flickr group are a mess because there’s too much going on in the frame with extra players, bad backgrounds, too much depth of field, all with the action happening too far away. It’s time to go back to basics, and that means simpler, tighter pictures with better control over depth of field. Shooting now in well-lit arenas, I’ve been having success using the older Nikon 85mm 1.4 along side my 24-70 for action along the baseline and my 70-200 for pictures along the perimeter. Shooting these three lenses wide open and at appropriate distance (closer for the 24-70, further away for the other two) I can get enough of the background blurred out so that the pictures aren’t too busy. This should be your starting point, and as you get better results and work on your timing, you can start to anticipate the action and be ready when the player with the ball moves into the clear. There’s a lot of motion and a lot of players in a small space for most of the game. Use the extra bodies to frame your subject. Don’t worry about “fitting everything in”, this is just going to lead to the same busy, low-impact pictures. Rather make choices. Do you really need the hoop in the picture? Where is a good crop point? When this player jumps, how much air will he get? If this shot misses, where is the rebound likely to go?
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And don’t forget about the things that go on in between plays.