An Introduction to Action Sport and Strobe Photography

An Introduction to Action Sport and Strobe Photography

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In a previous article I explained how photography strobe lighting does not need not break the bank and how there are affordable options out there for both amateurs and pros alike. So to re-cap, the low-cost/on-location strobe lighting option that I have opted for, is a set of Yongnuo YN-560 III flashguns; they are well built, have a guide number of 58 (a pretty decent output for a flashgun), have radio triggers built in and last but not least are only £50 a unit.

Strobe lighting can be utilized in pretty much any photographic discipline; they are not just for portraiture, still life or product photography. You can use strobes to photograph anything, even using them in long exposure or composite landscapes, giving a feel of painting light into the shot.

In this article I am going to briefly cover how you can use low cost strobes in sport/action photography in a couple of different ways/set-ups. Without the use of expensive Pocket Wizards with high-speed digital sync capabilities, a function that allows you to use strobes at a much higher shutter speed.

First of all, you will need to find out what flash sync speed of your DSLR is. The sync speed is the highest shutter speed your camera can perform at while leaving enough time for the strobes to trigger and light the image properly. For many cameras it is 1/250, although I work a lot with a 5DII and this only offers 1/200. You will also need to assess the sync speed rating of the flashes themselves, or if you are using standalone radio triggers you will need to know their recommended sync speed.

Where to start? First of all I generally favour using wide lenses, full manual camera mode, an f-stop of 5.6 or above and manual focus so I can concentrate fully on getting the right composition and not waiting for the camera or AF to think (resulting in potentially missing the shot). It is far easier to get to grips with strobe photography in sport if you are lighting a subject and/or area which is dimly lit to start with, this makes it very easy to see where the light is falling and where power adjustments may be needed. It is also more forgiving on cameras with lower flash sync capabilities. I took the following photo at night, using 2 flashguns, 1 was hand-held (above and left of the frame) and 1 on the floor the other side of the ‘rail’ facing up (roughly inline with the snowboarders arm pit in this shot). Because it was so dimly lit naturally, it meant that I was able to use a shutter speed of just 1/60, as other than the very short period of time the flash was emitting light for (flash duration will vary depending on model/manufacturer) and freezing the action, the shot would have been completely dark and underexposed. At this shutter speed other external light sources, if brighter than the strobes, can result in your subject blurring or a loss of image sharpness so keep an eye out for light spills!


When you get to grips with the basics of strobe photography and sport you can then go on to take shots where more ambient light is present which can make a shot as much as being a hindrance to it. You will need to balance the light, finding a happy medium; it is worth shooting the frame with no strobes in order to see where the ambient light is coming from before working out what strobe power you should be using. 99% of the time the more ambient light that is present in a frame (in particular where your subject is going to be), the higher the power of your strobes will need to be, or closer if you are running out of power! In the shot below I have balanced some ambient light, which is being nicely controlled by the canopy of the trees with 2 flashguns. Again, 1 is hand held (above and left of frame), the other this time is more of a stylistic feature of the shot, being placed behind the rider. Using higher f-stop numbers (f5.6 or above) will also help achieve the ‘rays’ coming from the light source like in this shot. Again, as with the previous shot, shutter speed is not everything when freezing movement! This shot is only take with a 1/125 shutter and in normal conditions the rider would be very blurred and the shot probably unusable, as would be the same if you were using a lens with a mid to high focal length. The balancing of the various light sources present in the frame is what has caused this image to look sharp and the motion frozen.


Tip: If you are unsure of what strobe power to use, get the subject to stand roughly where they are going to be in the action shot and take a test. Even if the subject is standing a lot lower than they will be in the actual shot don’t worry it still helps to give a rough estimate of what the lights are doing.


Although it can be tricky with these types of low cost strobe setups you can achieve some nice results when the ambient light is extremely high throughout the frame. In the shot below I used a single strobe (left of frame) to help fill some shadows on the skateboarders front as he was heavily backlit by the sun (as you can see from his shadow). This could have been achieved with an on camera flashgun, which can generally work at higher shutter speeds than radio-controlled flashguns. However, I didn’t want the light to shoot completely straight on to subject, completely eradicating any shadows, instead it acts as subtle angular fill (even if on full power). I was also able to crank the shutter of my 5DII to 1/320 (only rated to 1/200) helping to freeze the motion. Ordinarily this would result in strange underexposed bars running across your frame, where the shutter has moved over the sensor to quickly or slowly and resulted in the light of the flash only being present in part of the image. (Especially in dimly lit situations like the snowboarding shot). However, if you have exposed mainly for the ambient sun light and sky, only a small section of the image needs the strobes influence, in this case the rider’s front torso and face. You wont notice any under-exposed bars across the image. Shots like this one can take a bit of trial and error (and luck) but proves you don’t need to rush out and buy Pocket Wizards with digital hyper-sync functions just yet. You can push limits of more affordable kit and get some great results, even when using them outside of their recommended limits.



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