I have not done much basketball this year but all I have done has been available light. The D3s is remarkable that way. But I shot an area tournament game at Bob Jones High last week that required some strobes. The gym is pretty new but very dimly lit. This meant I could shoot available light but I would pay for it in the dark skin tones of some of the athletes being completely lost. On the other hand, strobes tie you to a limited frames per second rate and are generally annoying to have to set up and tear down.
I decided to try something. You can actually cheat your flash sync speed in certain situations. For instance, when shooting outdoor with strobe I have turned my camera upside down and gone past the posted shutter flash sync limit. You can get about 2/3rds stop to a full stop depending on how you position your subject and obviously the background would have to be sky or something much brighter than the subject for this to work. The upside down thing is because when I begin to lose sync it becomes visible at the bottom of the frame first. I thought I might be able to do this technique in the gym if I had a high enough ISO to give me good ambient exposure.
This meant I would be using my strobes as nothing more than fill lights and I would be attempting to stop action with my shutter speed alone. As you probably know, the strobe is usually what freezes action when you are shooting action with a strobe. The strobe peaks out at a much faster speed than your shutter speed. The strobe actually is firing when your shutter is completely open to achieve flash synchronization. This mean if your shutter is opening at 1/250th then your flash peak is much higher than this, say 1/500th second for the sake of argument. As you scale down the power on your SB style strobes you normally get a much shorter peak time; therefore, a much higher action stopping capacity. The trade off is, of course, as you turn down the power the strobes have to be closer and closer to the subject to make enough light for an exposure.
Shooting basketball with the strobes maybe 50 feet from the court, the shutter has to do the action stopping because they strobes are too far away to do that job. I set my strobes up on 1/16th power, put them on stands on the balcony with a throw of about 50 feet to the rim area around the basket and dialed up my camera ISO to 5000. I tried shooting at 1/250th which is the listed sync speed, then at 1/320th and finally at 1/400th. I settled on 1/320th second because the ambient illumination was strong enough to give an exposure on the court that was not overpowered by the fall off from the shutter blade closing. At 1/400th there was an apparent dark band along the bottom of the frame. So my actual shutter speed limit at those parameters was 1/320th. Obviously, I could have gotten a higher shutter speed by bumping up my ISO.
Shooting at a speed this slow meant shooting almost totally with a wide angle lens. 1/320th second is nowhere near fast enough to stop action with an 80-200 which is my lens of choice for most basketball. I didn’t mention it but my aperture was set to f2.8 which is the max for the 17-35 zoom I was using. So what did this accomplish? Two things really. The first thing is the strobe opened up the shadows on the faces and uniforms. Firing strobe also helped even out the color balance. When shooting in high school gymnasiums you will no notice the lights have a cycle. They are not constantly at full output capacity either in terms of quantity or color consistency. As you shoot without strobe you will frequently notice a fluctuation in exposure from about 3/4 stop under to about 3/4 stop over with a corresponding shift in color from red to something approximating blue. It really isn’t blue but it is beyond neutral. This is aggravating because it renders some of your frames useless due to either under exposure or over exposure. The strobe helps even that out because you can fudge more toward the hot side of the lights and the strobe will fill in when the cycle is low.
Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.