The Power Of A Single Flash In Sports Photography

Unlike studio photography where every aspect of lighting can be controlled, sports photography is usually conducted outdoors at the mercy of Mother Nature. Using a flash to augment the available natural light on a sports photography shoot is a great way to take back some control of the scene, and create a set of dramatic, compelling images.

In this article, I’m going to demonstrate the possibilities and techniques of sports flash photography by sharing a set of images that I created on assignment in New Zealand. All of the images were shot in one location, using a single flash. By the time you have read the article, you will have a deeper understanding of how to use flash for sports photography, and a better sense of how to control the lighting of outdoor photoshoots in general.

Please Note: This article is currently being re-written. You might come across a few jumbled paragraphs and text that is out of place.

To Get Started, Keep Things Simple

When it comes to using flash for sports photography, people often try to overcomplicate things. They take their entire studio setup outside, softboxes and all, and then struggle to get a sharp image of a fast-moving subject while balancing ambient light with a collection of strobes.

If you’re used to studio photography or portraits of static subjects, mixing ambient light with the light from a flash does require an understanding of new concepts. It’s easier to get to grips with these when you simplify your setup, which is why I’m demonstrating them in this article using a single flash, paired with a simple metal reflector. As you’ll see, this is more than enough to completely transform the look of your images.

Aside from the conceptual complications that are often experienced when learning to use flash outdoors with a moving subject, there can be several gear-related challenges, too. Shooting outdoors in bad weather may require you to protect your flash gear from dust, sand, rain or snow. You’ll also need to take the wind into account and make sure that your flash head doesn’t topple over. All of these are easier to manage when you start by learning with a simple one light setup.

Why Use a Flash for Sports Photography?

There are two overarching reasons why you might want to use a flash with your sports photography. This first is to solve a problem that is preventing your photo from being as good as it could be. When you’re shooting outdoors, this is usually a total lack of contrast-creating directional light on an overcast day, overly harsh direct light caused by a high sun angle, or backlight that leaves your subject in shadow. Proper use of flash can solve all these problems and make it possible to create portfolio-worthy images in any condition.

The second reason you might consider using flash for sports photography is to create a specific look for artistic purposes. Those that master this style of photography can develop a portfolio that stands out from the crowd.

The first is to solve a problem and the second is to create a specific look for artistic reasons. But before you start, it’s important to understand what that look will be and to understand the science behind creating it.

I can’t tell you the number of e-mails I’ve gotten from people who have bought themselves a flash simply because everyone else has one, and then struggled to understand the underlying concept behind using one. They get caught up in the “why doesn’t my photo look like your photo?” question and don’t stop to understand the basics.

flash for sports photography
ISO 50, f/11, 1/320 @17mm

Let’s start by looking at the opening image. The use of flash in this photo really makes it what it is, it simply wouldn’t be the same without it. Firstly, the flash pulse has allowed me to freeze the action of the skier, whilst having a slow shutter speed of 1/320 which left the flecks of snow looking like they are streaking through the air and not frozen in time. This is achieved by having a focused beam from the flash that’s only hitting the skier. As you can see, no flash is spilling down to the ground at all.

The second thing the flash allows me to do is to bring out the colours and detail on the skier. Without the flash, and aiming directly into the sun as I was, this photo would have just been a silhouette, and not a very good one at that. In fact, I wouldn’t even have bothered with shooting this unless I had a flash.

The next thing that flash allows me to do is to control the ambient light exposure. The ambient light is grossly underexposed here, bringing the sky colour down to that deep blue and giving you the impression that he’s almost floating in space. It gives a radically different look and it’s eye-catching to the viewer because it’s not how we typically see the world.

In terms of setup, it’s dead simple. The flash is about 5 feet to my left on top of a 6ft light stand, and I’m crouching down with a 17-40mm lens on a Canon 1-series body. The flash is triggered by basic Pocketwizards.

Careful use of just one flash can open incredible possibilities and that’s what I want to demonstrate in this article.

What Kind of Flash Do You Need?

To really take control of your lighting outdoors, you need to be able to overpower the sun with your flash. Exactly how much flash power is required to do that, is not a simple answer. For example, on an overcast day, you will need much less power than you will on a bright, sunny day.

Aside from the weather, you also need to take flash-to-subject distance into account. The light from your flash follows the inverse square law. This means that if you double the distance between your flash and your subject, the light on your subject will be one quarter what it was before, not one half, as many people assume.

From this, you can hopefully appreciate the necessity to keep your flash as close to your subject as possible. Doing so will dramatically reduce the amount of flash power that is required to overpower the sun. If you can half that flash-to-subject distance, you will get four times as much light.

Sports photography comes with its own specific challenges, though. If you were shooting a portrait outdoors, it would be easy to place a flash just outside the frame, thereby minimizing that flash-to-subject distance and making it easy to overpower the sun. For simple outdoor portraiture I’d be happy with a 600W/s flash, and confident of overpowering the sun with a camera that has an x-sync speed of 1/250 or faster.

For sports photography, there will always be more space between the flash and the subject, and this means you will need more power. In general, I would recommend having at least 1000W/s of power on tap if you don’t want to be constantly fighting limitations. This could be a single 1200W/s pack like an Elinchrom ELB 1200, or it could be a pair of 500W/s heads like the Profoto B1Xs. The more power you have, the easier it becomes.

Example Sports Flash Images

Gear Used for Example Images

Elinchrom Ranger sports photography
My one-light flash kit for these images.
  • All of the example photos were taken at Snowpark in Wanaka, New Zealand. Sadly this ski hill has closed, but it used to be a favourite hangout for professional winter sports athletes who were training during the northern hemisphere’s summer months.
  • All of these photos use just one single 1200W/s flash. In my case it was an Elinchrom Ranger RX with an ‘A’ head, pictured above, but it could just as easily have been a flash from another brand such as Godox or Profoto.
  • All of these photos were taken within a the span of a few days.
  • The locations used for these photos were all within 200m of each other.
  • The flash was triggered remotely using regular PocketWizard radio triggers.
  • None of these images used any form of high-speed flash sync, be it HSS, Elinchrom Hi-Sync or Pocket Wizard Hypersync.
  • The shutter speed was always limited to the native x-sync speed of my camera. In this case it was a Canon 1-Series camera with a max x-sync of 1/320.

The reason that I mention all the above is to show you that a little creative thinking can bring you a variety of images within a very small space. Changing your lighting setup, the weather and your lens can make dramatically different photos. 

If you’re just starting with flash and moving objects then it can be tough to understand how it’s possible to get tack sharp photos when using a shutter speed of 1/320 as most of the images on this page do. What you have to remember is that the creation of the image on your camera’s sensor is done in two stages when you’re using a flash. First, when you click the shutter button the flash fires its burst of light at your subject. The burst of light takes a specific length of time which is called the flash duration. The duration of the flash pulse varies depending on the power setting of your flash. This flash burst is effectively acting as what you might think of as your shutter speed in regular photography terms. It’s what freezes the motion of the subject. For sports you want a pretty fast flash duration, say at least 1/1000 of a second, but if your exposure is 1/320 then after the flash burst has finished the shutter is still open for quite a bit longer. This is the second stage. In this stage there is no longer any light coming from the flash, you only have ambient light left and this ambient light is now busy ‘painting’ in the rest of your image. Filling in all the areas where your flash was not pointed. The problem most people struggle with is that during the second stage of ambient light only, this is still falling on your subject as well and ‘painting’ in more of your subject as it continues its trajectory. This is what creates blur when done incorrectly.

The trick is to underexpose your ambient light so that the part of your subject that is painted during this second stage is less visible than the part that’s already been exposed by your flash. There are many other tricks to overcoming this problem, but that’s for another day. I just wanted to lay some groundwork there for those that aren’t familiar with the idea because this article is really just concentrating on the creative power that you can get from a single flash.

Example 1

sports flash photography
ISO 50, 1/320, f/7.1 @22mm

I have a few versions of this shot, but I picked this one for the article because it clearly demonstrates the position of the flash. You can see it in the bottom left-hand corner of the frame. If you examine the light on the snowboarder’s pants and white jersey, you should be able to see that that the sun is coming from the top right of the frame. The flash is almost exactly opposite the sun.

Although the snowboarder would have been lit by the sun, without the flash the rocks would have been almost totally black. With one flash, placed a long way off my camera angle, I have created contrast and texture that accentuates the obstacle being jumped by the snowboarder. The low positioning of the flash has also added light to the underside of the snowboard to give that bright yellow a little more pop.

Example 2

flash sports photography
ISO 50, 1/320, f/11 @80mm.

The skier in this photo is Simon Dumont, a multiple X-Games halfpipe champion and world record holder in the sport. and it was close to midday when this photo was taken. You can get a sense of how high the sun was by looking at the snow on the wall of the halfpipe in the bottom right-hand corner of the frame. The high sun has filled in all the shadows from the textures in the snow, leaving a harsh, bland light that is far from ideal.

With such a high sun, and Simon travelling over the top of my low shooting position on the deck of the halfpipe, his face and body would have been in total shadow if it had not been illuminated by a flash

Since the sun was high, and Simon was going to be above me, it would put the part of him that’s facing the camera, almost entirely in shadow if I had not used a flash. I positioned the flash pretty close to me for this shot and you can see its reflection in his goggles.

Every situation is going to be slightly different and you have to read it very carefully. The general rule would tell you not to put a flash on the same axis as the camera if you want it to create contrast. In this case, it was just a couple of feet off to my left-hand side but I left it low to the ground on a tripod instead of a tall light stand and that added to the contrast as I was standing up. So the axis of the flash vs. the camera doesn’t just have to mean how far to your left or right you put the flash, but also how far up or down compared to your shooting position. It’s for this reason that I also like to use a very tall light stand. In many cases what you want to avoid is using a support that puts the flash at the same level as your camera. I like to keep a tripod around as well as a lightstand because this gives me the option of putting the flash really low if I need to.

ski photography flash
This shot gives you an idea of where I might position the flash to achieve this effect.

This image is great because it shows you the other way that we can create dramatic and interesting contrast on a subject with a remote strobe. This time I’m shooting at 200mm so I’m standing quite a long way away from the flash. Clearly, the flash is almost directly on the camera’s axis and it’s also about head height on that tripod. This time the contrast on the subject is created by the difference in height between the subject and the flash, and my distance from the flash. If I had walked up to the flash and stood right next to it we would have had much flatter, boring light on the skier. By walking a long way away, my camera can see parts of the skier which the flash cannot. When that happens, when the flash cannot see all that you are seeing, you get contrast. Simple as that.

So we’ve covered three ways to achieve that contrast and to make your subjects pop:

  1. Get the flash off your camera’s shooting axis
  2. Get the flash above or below your camera’s shooting axis
  3. Get the flash further away from your shooting position

The real skill comes from experimenting with all of these things at the same time and understanding how variations in each one will affect the final image. It’s not complicated though if you’re only using one flash. You just need to visualize that flash painting light into your image. What can the flash see? What can the camera see? If you know the answers to those two questions then with practice you’ll be able to construct the photo in your mind before you’ve even taken it.

flash with sports photography
ISO 50, f/8, 1/320 with a 15mm fisheye lens.

This shot needed a flash to direct light onto the skier’s face which would otherwise have been in complete shadow. The rocks on the right-hand side of the frame would also have been extremely dark had I not spilt some light onto them, and it would have left a very unbalanced image. Large black areas in an image will always draw your eye away from the subject so you use the flash to eliminate it to a degree that provides a more balanced image.

flash sports photography
ISO 50, f5, 1/320.
snowboard flash photography
ISO 50, f/10, 1/320, 15mm fisheye lens.

Example 6

snowboard single flash
ISO 50, f11, 1/320 @140mm.

This was a stormy day with incredibly flat light. The clouds of fog were so thick that you’d be excused for thinking this was shot in a studio with a grey background! I love situations like this because I am put in total control of the lighting and it makes life so easy! You don’t have to work around the sun – your flash is the sun!

For this shot, I once again underexposed the ambient light to create even more contrast between the sky and the wooden boards. The boards also act as wonderful leading lines that take your eye right to the subject. With less ambient light to overpower on this day, I was able to place the flash head further away and out of harm’s way. The flash head was on a 6ft light stand, around 60-degrees off the axis of my lens.

Without a flash, the shot would have lacked the tonal and colour contrast that ends up making this a winner. On a day when most people didn’t bother to come out of the restaurant at the ski hill, I was able to work with this athlete to create an image that was eventually used in multiple magazines, and a clothing catalogue. Mastery of off-camera flash is my lemonade machine when life gives me weather lemons!

Wrap-Up

Some of the resulting work in use

I hope this tutorial has given you some ideas for your next sports or action images. I have used skiing and snowboarding in this example because I wanted to show a cohesive set of images all taken in one location, but the concepts discussed in this article can be applied to any form of sports photography.

Photo of author

Dan Carr

Professional photographer based in Yukon, Canada, and founder of Shutter Muse. His editorial work has been featured in publications all over the world, and his commercial clients include brands such as Nike, Apple, Adobe and Red Bull.

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42 thoughts on “The Power Of A Single Flash In Sports Photography”

      • Do you have any suggestions for killer books about flash photography (or sports in general). I understand it can be achieved using just one flash but you’ve given me a thirst to find out more!

        Reply
        • Hey Rich, glad I stoked the fire! Honestly I’ve never read any books on
          flash though so it would not be right for me to speculate. Have a
          google around and see what you find. My feeling is that you’re going to
          find a lot on general flash use and not a lot for sports….. I plan on
          writing an in-depth eBook at some point myself but it’s going to be a
          while away. If you find something great though, please return to this
          thread and share it with everyone!

          Reply
          • haha the flames are blazing! Ive just purchase the einstein too, super excited. Will be back in the Whis bubble for a few weeks this season to see some friends and hopefully get some sick shots in the park. For sure i’ll post a link if I find a sweet book. If I don’t then I’ll be patiently waiting for yours..!

            Reply
  1. Greetings from Spain. Just one question. You say you are not using the HSS of the PW but the shutter speed is always 1/320 or even 1/400, more than the speed sync of the camera. I have a 6d with 1/180 speed sync. Can I do this?
    Thanks Dan

    Reply
    • Yes you can do this as well. As you increase your shutter speed past the recommended maximum there will begin to be an are of the frame where the effect of the flash is not visible. If you position your subject in area where the flash IS vidible then you can still get great results. The area with no flash is often referred to as banding because in dark spaces it will appear as a darker band across the frame. If your exposure isn’t entirely reliant on the flash though, this band won’t be visible.

      Reply
      • HUGE thanks! I’ve been rocking off camera flash for a while but have been wondering about this and how much wattage is needed to get results like these at midday (for kiteboarding)!

        Reply
    • Hey there, I am also in Spain using a 6D. Mine maxes out at 180, even if I am shooting 1/200th. It just regulates itself. I bought some Einsteins to be able to freeze the action. I can freeze water drops in the studio no problem but getting outdoors with the ambient is tricky.

      Reply
  2. Awesome article- just what I was looking for! I’m hoping to get into kiteboarding photography. So far my alien bee 800 hasn’t done a great job at overpowering the sun since I am usually a bit of a distance from the subject (maybe 30feet/10 meters) Do you think the Omni reflector (18″) reflector would help (and hopefully getting closer to the subject)? Or do I just need to save up for something bigger? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    Reply
    • Hey Kallie, I’m glad you keep coming back haha! What sort of trigger are you using? You might just be able to get away with it if you use the reflector AND use some form of higher speed sync in order to shoot at a faster shutter speed. There’s so many variables that it’s hard to say definitely, but tell me what triggers you use, and also what camera…

      Reply
      • Thanks so much Dan! That would be a relief, I can only buy/haul around so much gear lol. I have the regular pocket wizards (3s). I’m headed down kiteboarding in a week so hope to get in some practice!

        Reply
        • You need to look into using a Pocketwizard Flex TT1 as the transmitter and this will allow you to use the hypersync function to get a faster shutter speed than the normal x-sync speed. It’s a bit fiddly, but most people can achieve a sync of 1/800 or 1/1000, and being able to cut that ambient light means you need a less powerful flash. It’s probably worth a shot before investing in a totally new flash, but do some online reading about it all first.

          Reply
  3. Aaaand I just realized I already commented on this article lol. It’s a good resource I keep coming back to apparently ????

    Reply
  4. Hey Dan…I’m am SO glad to have come across your website and have been successful in taking crisp photos using off-camera flash over powering the sun when I am out in an open field. HOWEVER, where I am not so successful is when I am shooting in a deep, dark forests. I’m ending up with my subject being blurred.

    According to you (paragraph 4 of this article) it’s because I have too much ambient light coming into the picture.

    If I set my SS to 1/400, f 4, ISO 2000 I’m getting blur. The background is exposed to how I like it.

    I’m using D3S, either one or two SB-800 units and PW Flex TT-1 and TT-5.

    Not sure what I’m doing wrong and it’s driving me up the wall. I realize it’s hard to comment when there are so many variables but any help given is greatly appreciated. Thanks.

    Reply
    • It’s kind of like teaching someone to drive a car without being there haha! A lot of possible issues… What you need to remember is that you are relying on the flash burst to freeze your action, so your flash duration needs to be fast enough to freeze action. Usually that needs to be in the region of 1/1000 or faster. I don’t know the flash durations of the SB-800, and it varies depending on the power setting as well… so it’s really hard for me to comment specifically. My shot in the dark guess is that it’s a combination of too much ambient and a flash duration that’s too long, but it could also be the angle and lens you have chosen as well as this will affect the relative rate of progression of the subject through the frame… For example, if you have someone coming towards you , you’ll be able to get away with a longer shutter speed than someone travelling perpendicular to your frame. Is any of that any help? Are you shooting your flashes in manual mode or TTL?

      Reply
      • HI Dan…thanks so much for the quick reply. I re-read your blog before I went out yesterday and took in account ambient and flash duration time. My photos were much better (less motion blur) than what I had so thanks again for that tip!!!

        I’ve been checking out your other blogs and cannot thank you enough for the variety of subjects and how clearly you present them. I particularly liked the self-portrait one as I was wondering how I could configure my PW’s to do this.

        I realize I set you a whopper of a question that is hard to answer without being there (good analogy with the car). Having said this if you offer one on one lessons/mentorship let me know. I have a slew more questions I’d love to ask you to help me hone my skills 🙂

        Reply
        • haha…forgot to add some info to my reply back to you! Yes, I am shooting in manual and came across the angle yesterday. Head on my photos were sharp but when taken off to the side (so subject is square to the camera) I encountered motion blur and realized I needed to change my settings – as you had mentioned that camera angle is a variable.

          Reply
        • I coach people via Skype every now and again. Some people do a monthly mentoring program with me, and some people just pay for a one off phone session. If you’d like to know more details, you can drop me a email via the contact button in the top menu 🙂

          Reply
  5. Hi Dan,

    Great blog. There is so much confusion about strobes it’s great to see examples used in the field.
    I’ve started to use the PW AC3 unit to fire three different strobes in three groups in succession to allow for multi burst flash at full power without waiting for the recycle. I’d be interested to hear if you ever do this.

    Reply
  6. Very cool, I had no idea about freezing motion like this with a shutter speed that low. I will definitely have to try some things out, not sure my speedlite 430ex ii will cut it though.

    Reply
  7. Hi Dan, thanks for the great topic! Your images appear to be tack sharp. I’m still struggling with freezing athletes outdoors. I am using a 6D (1/180th max flash sync) and PCbuff Einsteins. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is too much backlight/ambient light. I really like to shoot into the sun for that dramatic and rim light look while using the flash to fill in the silhouetted part of the subject, the problem is, there is ghosting around the edges. I would love to attach a photo here. Are your snowboarders traveling quite fast? Or are you timing your shots to catch them at the peak of zero gravity where they hang for a bit? Also, the 1/400th might be enough to freeze them, 1/180th is not. I have an idea, tell me if you think it would work. I’m thinking to put a ND filter on the end, mount my camera to a tripod, and do a long exposure to set the scene, then BLAST the talent with as many lights as my battery pack can handle at full power, hopefully adding enough light to freeze (and illuminate) the subject without affecting anything else, and they will be moving so fast through the scene should not even register. Thoughts?

    Reply
    • There’s so many things to take into consideration. Peak of action can be one thing, but more important is the direction that they are travelling relative to the sensor of the camera. If they are coming towards you, you can use a slower shutter speed. If you use wide angle, and they travel perpendicular to the lens, it is MUCH harder to freeze motion as their distance travelled across the frame in the duration of the shutter is so much more. Your idea of using an ND filter won’t work. You will be decreasing the effect of the flash with the ND filters, just as much as you decrease the ambient light. The only thing you can do is to try and increase the flash power by putting the lights closer to your subject, then this will necessitate a smaller f-stop. That smaller f-stop will decrease the ambient light and increase the ratio between ambient and flash light. Do this, and also be sure to use a fast flash duration and this is the recipe.

      Reply
      • Thanks Dan for that explanation. I remembered what you said about the subject moving across the frame as opposed to coming towards you (or going away). It’s hard when you are limited by the environment and are in the moment of trying to create your vision. I was in a kayak with a fellow photog who was holding the flash, pointing it at the wakeboarder as he jumped across the plane of view. This was the coolest angle, and we couldn’t really position ourselves closer or in his trajectory for safety reasons and getting the gear soaked or worse falling over! It would love to share the photo if that were possible.

        Reply
  8. Hi Dan!
    Thanks so much for this amazing info. I have shot natural light for years and now finally following my dreams and chasing the extreme sport world. Right now my main issue is rodeo. I shoot a lot of night time rodeos and only have 8 about 8 seconds to get the shot. I shoot with a Canon 1Dx mark 2. Any suggestions on a flash that could keep up with my camera? Thanks again!

    Reply
    • That’s really tough! Your best bet is to use a setup like basketball photography if you can! They often put 4 mains powered studio strobes up high in all four corners to make sure you get good coverage. Mains powered strobes will recycle much faster, and since you are night, you won’d need very high power anyway. You might be able to get away The PaulC Buff Einstein, or the Elinchrom lights. really depends on your budget, but definitely go mains powered if you can!

      Reply
  9. Hi Dan,

    First and foremost great content. I will utilize the links you provided when purchasing any future equipment.

    I have a question regarding the very first photo you showcased. You wrote ” Firstly the flash pulse has allowed me to freeze the action of the skier, whilst having a slow shutter speed of 1/320 which leaved the flecks of snow looking like they are streaking through the air and not frozen in time. This is achieved by having a focused beam from the flash that’s only hitting the skier. As you can see, no flash is spilling down to the ground at all.”

    My question is: how did you orient the flash so that the skier was the only object illuminated and flash was not spilling over? The trajectory can be vaguely calculated of course, but there’s always variance with each individual skier. To have the flash not only timed perfectly, but also hit the exact desired location is a mystery to me. Did you take a few practice runs before hand?

    Reply
    • Thanks for the kind words 🙂

      The skier, Jossi Wells, is one of the best skiers on the planet. If I ask him to jump, he says “how high?”. The variance would be but an inch or two, which is well within my beam of light. The spread of the beam is controlled by the reflector on the flash head. You can get different reflectors with different beam spreads. The one I tend to use is called the Sports Reflector from Elinchrom and it has a tight beam pattern for stuff like this.

      Reply
  10. Great article, thank you. How is your planned book doing. The technology has moved quite a bit during the last years, and I feel like reading before investing (rather old fashioned, I know).

    Reply
    • To be honest, I decided against doing the book, for a number of reasons.

      While technology does indeed march on, these techniques do not change all that much. Yes there are some new sync technologies out there but they all impact the flash power output. I still prefer to use good old fashioned minimum x-sync speed and max flash output just the same way I have always done.

      Although the Elinchrom Ranger RX in the article has now been replaced by the ELB 1200, its only real benefit to me would be the lighter weight.

      Reply

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