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Best Seat in the House

Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.

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September 21, 2007 11:22 PM

Friday Night (Flash) Lights.

Posted by Rod Mar

I SO really wanted to title this post "Flash Friday", but my editor said I couldn't.

Apparently, it has some kind of other meaning than MY topic, which is using on-camera flash to photograph high school football under the lights.


In my business, pro football is the hardest to shoot, followed by college and then high school. This is because of the relative speed of the players. When a high school quarterback throws deep, I actually have time to look up from my viewfinder, seek out the receiver, and still get the photos in focus. When a pro quarterback throws deep, it's much faster. And don't get me started on a short slant in the pros -- you or I don't have much of a chance at all.

But lighting wise, the opposite is true. Pro stadiums are always well-lit, collegiate stadiums are usually darker (but they play more day games) and high school games played on Friday nights are like shooting photos in a cave.

Friday night high school football is fun to photograph -- the players are playing for the colors on their jerseys, nothing more.

Shooting prep football can be technically challenging, because once fall sets in, the games begin in darkness and the stadium lights are far too dark to shoot at a shutter speed that will freeze motion.

Example: At Qwest Field at night, the light is something like ISO 800, 1/500 sec., f2.8. At French Field in Kent, where I photographed Kentwood and Kentridge, the available light is ISO 1600, 1/125th sec., f2.8.

For those of you keeping score at home, that's a difference of three stops of light. Or two. No, three. I'm pretty sure. Anyway...

You can't freeze action at 1/125th of a second. The shutter is open too long and players running through the frame will blur.

So the answer is to use flash. Electronic flash is nice, because it adds light, but it also adds many things that can make a photograph suck pretty quickly. Among these unwanted add-ons are red-eye and shadows.

Here's a photo from tonight's game shot early in the first quarter with a bit of sunlight augmenting the stadium lights:

(Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN, EF 300mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 1600, 1/320th sec., @ f2.8)

As it gets darker, I use some flash (just a wee bit) in order to freeze the action and balance the light with the available light around the field (if that's too technical for you, trust me when I tell you it confuses me, too). Here's a frame that looks balanced and so it works:

(Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN, EF 300mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 1600, 1/250th sec. w/ flash set at 1/16th power @ f2.8)

When the flash doesn't work is a situation like this one, where there's a metallic white sign not only catching and reflecting the flash, it's also catching a shadow (and yes, there's a portable toilet back there, too. I'm not sure if it's a Porta-Potty, Porta-John, or Sani-can, so if anyone is near French Field and could look it up for me, that'd be swell. Remember, facts are important in journalism):

(Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN, EF 300mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 1600, 1/250th sec. w/ flash set at 1/16th power @ f2.8)

That's one helluva frame, huh? I'm just glad the quarterback didn't fumble or there wasn't any other important element of the play that would have gotten ruined by the reflection/shadow.

I'm no complete idiot. I'm kind of an idiot, but not a complete one, so after that gem of an image I found spots to shoot from that didn't include signs and portable toilets.

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