How to shoot sports with off-camera lights

 
Outdoor lifestyle photographer Mead Norton outlines the basics of shooting outdoor action with off-camera lighting

Adventure sports photography is one of the most demanding subjects to shoot, especially if you want to shoot events. Not only is the location you are shooting in not very camera-friendly (dust, rain, snow, mud, rocks), but to get the best shots you have to get away from civilization, which can mean hiking, riding or skiing into the woods to find the best shots.

Using on-camera and off-camera flash together

Whether you are shooting mountain biking, skiing, motocross, or even trail running, the main attribute that attracts people to these types of sports is speed, and as photographers we all know that the faster a subject is moving the harder it is to photograph. One of the secrets that lots of professional photographers have in their bag of tricks (or rather their camera bag) is using remote flashes to help freeze the action and make the athlete pop. It takes a bit of practice but once you get to know your equipment and its limitations, it does get easier and you will see dramatic improvements in your images.

Fill flash

 

Set-up

There is not a lot of extra gear needed to get your flash off your camera and firing remotely. The most basic and cheapest option is to get a long PC cord that plugs into the side of most cameras and flashes (if your camera or flash doesn’t have a PC connection, you can get PC hot shoe adapters for both the camera and flash) and a light stand or tripod. If you want to have a bit more flexibility and you have a bit more money then a set of radio triggers is the way to go. There are lots of different options depending on your needs and budget. The most common system is Pocket Wizard. I recommend if you are interested in doing off-camera flash work outdoors that you stay away from infrared systems, as they are not very reliable in bright light.

Flash overpowering sun

The first thing you need to do to get set up with an off-camera flash is to get comfortable shooting photographs with your camera set to full Manual. If you try to use a remote flash with your camera set on Auto, the camera won’t compensate for the flash and you will generally get an overexposed image in the end. Once I have found a location I want to shoot, I take a test shoot to check my composition and exposure setting. When exposing the scene I like to have it be about one stop underexposed from normal, that way when I add the flash the subject stands out and pops out of the background.

Overpowered sun

On location

Once you have found your location and have a base exposure figured out then the next thing to do is set up the flash. When setting up the flash, think about where the sun is in the scene and how the shadows are falling. That is important because if you want the image to look natural you don’t want to make the flash the main light, by overpowering the sun. But if you are shooting in a dark forest you can use the flash to create directional light that’s not there to begin with.

Ranger system in action

Remember, just like your camera, when using flashes remotely you need to use them in manual mode, as most radio systems can’t use Through The Lens (TTL) metering to judge how powerful the flash should be. This is where knowing your flash comes into play. Most flashes are adjusted on a power scale from 1/1, which is full power, and can down as low as 1/64 or lower, and every fraction is equal to one stop of light (1/1 is one stop more powerful than 1/2). There are three factors that affect the exposure when using a flash: distance between the flash and the subject, the aperture, and the ISO. If you are finding the flash is too powerful at 1/64 setting and you don’t want to change your ISO, you need to move the flash further away from the subject. Shutter speed does not affect the exposure from the flash, but it does affect the background light and using faster shutter speeds helps to freeze the action as well.

Spotlight zoomed flash

Another trick to help isolate the subject is using the zoom head on the flash to create a spotlight of light. I generally like to manually set the zoom to a slightly longer lens than the one I am actually shooting with, and even if I am shooting with my 16–35mm lens I will have the flash set as if I was using a 50mm or 70mm lens. This focuses the flash more and the flash has to cover less of the scene (less power drain) than what the camera sees through the lens.

Spotlight

Variations

Generally, most cameras have a maximum synch speed of either 1/200s or 1/250s. This means that when shooting with a flash the maximum shutter speed you can use is 1/200s or 1/250s to get a full exposure. But when you are shooting fully manual, you can cheat a bit and shoot at slightly faster shutter speeds, and the more powerful your flash the more you can cheat. For example, when I am using my Elinchrom Quadra lights (reviewed in D-Photo no. 52) I can walk my shutter speed up to 1/500s. Be careful though when you do walk the synch speed up as what will happen is that the shutter will close before the flash finishes firing and you will get a dark line across the side of the frame — and the faster the shutter speed the farther into the frame that line will appear.

First-curtain synch

If you have a weaker flash, one thing you can do to help freeze the action (even at 1/200s) is to set the flash to rear-curtain synch. Normally the flash is triggered when you press the shutter button and the shutter opens, and for portraits this works quite well. But for action shots having the flash fire at the beginning of the exposure can be problematic, since when the flash fires it helps to freeze the action, but if the shutter stays open longer and your subject keeps moving then the image will appear a bit blurry. Setting the flash to rear-curtain synch won’t totally eliminate the blurriness when trying to shoot a fast-moving subject at 1/200s or slower shutter speeds, but what it will do is freeze the subject at the end of the exposure so that the blur leads into the frozen moment, not the other way around.

Rear-curtain synch

Summary

  • Get comfortable shooting in Manual mode (both camera and flash)
  • Set base exposure to be underexposed in relation to flash exposure
  • Use radio trigger system or a PC cord  (I carry both in case one system fails)
  • With more powerful flashes, you can use faster shutter speeds
  • Set flash to rear-curtain synch to help make image appear sharp even when using slow shutter speed
  • Experiment

All images: © Mead Norton

This article originally appeared in D-Photo Issue No. 53. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: