flash for sports photography
iso50, 1/320, f11 17mm

When it comes to flash usage with sports, many people try to overcomplicate things. The reality is that you can make incredible improvements using just a single flash once you understand the basics behind why you are using it, and how it works.

There’s two reasons why you might want to use a flash with your sports photography: The first is to solve a problem and the second is for artistic reasons, to create a specific ‘look’.  But before you start, it’s important to understand what that look will be and to understand a bit of the science behind it all.

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 photos?” question and don’t stop to think; to take it back to the basics and understand the mechanics behind what they are doing.

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 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.

The second thing the flash allows me to do is 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 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 lightstand 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.

So let’s take a look at one set of images:

  • All of these photos were taken at Snowpark in New Zealand, sadly this ski hill closed down this winter but it used to be a favourite hangout for professional athletes who are looking to train in the northern hemisphere’s summer time, which is winter in New Zealand.
  • All of these photos use just one single flash.  An Elinchrom Ranger RX with an ‘A’ head, pictured below.
  • All of these photos were taken within a few days of each other.
  • All of these photos were shot within 200m of each other.
  • NONE of these images use the Pocketwizard Hypersync function.  They are all shot using regular Pocketwizards and limited by the camera’s native x-sync speed.
Elinchrom Ranger sports photography

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.  Change your lighting setup, change the weather and change your lens and you can make dramatically different photos.  Some of you might be thinking that I’m only getting these images because I’m using a relatively expensive flash system like the Elinchom one but you’d be wrong.  The principles that I’ll discuss in this article are applicable to all larger strobes, and there are many that are less expensive than the Ranger.

One thing I would say though is that if you’re looking to do this kind of work then you should ditch the Canon and Nikon speedlights.  They contain all sorts of useless electronics that you just don’t need.  They are underpowered and often overpriced.  The principles are the same, so if you’re using speedlights then you can certainly get started, but in the long-term you’ll be far better off with a battery-powered ‘studio’ style strobe.

If you’re just starting out 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 in 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.

single flash sports photography
iso50, 1/320, f7.1, 22mm

In this photo you can clearly see the flash actually in the photo in the bottom left hand corner.  Examine the light on the snowboarder’s pants and white jersey and you’ll be able to quickly see where the sun was coming from.  The flash is almost exactly opposite to the sun in this photo.  Without the flash, the rocks beneath the snowboarder would have been almost totally black and it also helps to illuminate the underside of the snowboard to make that yellow pop just a little bit more.

flash sports photography
50, 1/320, f11, 80mm

In this photo the sun was high since it was probably close to midday.  You can get an idea for how high just by looking at the snow on the wall of the halfpipe in the bottom right.  There’s almost no definition in that snow, no shadows and incredibly harsh light.  The skier in this photo is Simon Dumont, multiple x-games halfpipe champion and world record holder when it comes to this kind of sport.  Since the sun was high, and Simon was going to be above me, it would put the part of him that’s facing me, 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 interesting 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 lighstand 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 lighstand.  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
iso50, f7.1, 1/400, 200mm

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 is able to 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 should be able to construct the photo in your mind before you’ve even taken it.

flash with sports photography
iso50,f8,1/320, 15mm fisheye

This shot needed a flash to direct light on to the skiers 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 spilled some light on to 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
iso50, f5, 1/320
snowboard flash photography
iso50, f10. 1/320, 15mm fisheye
snowboard single flash
iso50, f11, 1/320 140mm
Some of the resulting work in use

This was a stormy day with incredibly flat light. The fog clouds were so thick that you’d be excused for thinking this was shot in a studio with a grey background. In fact it’s shot right in the same place that all these other photos were taken. 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!

I underexposed the ambient light a fair bit again to create even more contrast between the sky and the wooden boards, and the boards also act as wonderful leading lines taking your eye right to the subject. The flash was placed quite a distance off to my left for this one, probably between 50 and 70 degrees from my lens’ shooting axis.

I hope this article has given you some ideas and inspiration for your next sports or action images.  Of course I have used skiing and snowboarding in this example because I wanted to show a set of images all taken in one spot, but the ideas here can be used in any form of sports photography.  It’s often assumed that my lighting setups are more complex than they are, and whilst sometimes I have done shots with up to 7 or 8 strobes, it’s perfectly possible to do effective, compelling work with just a single flash if you understand some of these key principles behind their use.  Stay tuned for more articles on the subject of flash and sports photography.

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