Shooting action using flashes

Recently I did several portrait shootings with internationally successful athletes. The ambition is to set up special lighting using flashes. This blog is about the difficulties that you encounter and how to solve them.

Gael Suter, 26.06.2017

Gael Suter am 26.06 2017 im Tissot Velodrome, Grenchen, Schweiz, Foto: Ulf Schiller 2017

The Basic Setup

First let me explain my typical setup like I used it for this portrait of the European Scratch Champion 2016 Gaël Suter. The customer (Tissot Velodrome) showed me a target picture with a portrait of a 5xOlympic Champion and Tour de France winner (you know who).  That target picture showed a grim looking cyclist. Side lighting was the main artistic ingredient. So I placed my 120cm soft box with grid on the left hand side. This was my main main source of light. Next, I took my 180cm strip light (with grid too) and placed it on the right hand side behind Gaël. The idea was to create a rim light that would separate Gaël from the background (typical for sports portraits).


Tomáš Bábek

The shooting with Gaël took place in the same underpass below the stands of the Tissot Velodrome where I took this portrait of the Czech Keirin European Champion Tomáš Bábek. However, this time I wanted a completely black background. I did this by increasing the flash power and reducing the ISO to its minimum (I don’t remember the exact data, but the data for the photo with Gaël were about 1/160, F8, ISO100).  Moreover, the grids on the light sources ensured that there was far less stray light in the room than on the picture with Tomáš.

The rest was easy: Gaël balanced his bike on the rollers and I ensured that I pressed the shutter exactly when his right foot was in the picture.

(As an aside: the portrait with Tomáš was taken when I still had worse gear / less experience than I have now, but I’m still extremely proud of the basic idea: the two Speedlights in the background created hard shadows that took a heart-like form in front of Tomáš. I used very weak lighting from the front in order not to destroy the main effect.)

From still pictures to action pictures

Taking action pictures is considerably harder. This is a shooting that I did with Stephan Wiesner in December 2017 when we met the U23 European Silver medalist Dany Brand. The basic setup was similar, but not identical. One light source (the same 120cm soft box) from Dany’s front (of course now to the side of the photographer). Instead of the strip light we chose five speed lights from the back (notice the better quality of the lens compared with the picture with Tomáš).

Dany Brand Shooting

Dany Brand (Silver 400mH at the European U23 Championships 2017)

The main problem is to freeze the action. To explain, a flash has a short but not infinitely short burning time. This time gets longer, when the flash is used at higher power. In such cases, the action often won’t be frozen. The usual result is a quite ugly image. So we had to ensure that the burning time was sufficiently short! This meant that the flash had to be at  low power. The usual reaction would have been to shoot with wide aperture. However, there was a second difficulty: we wanted to create the star-like look of the flashes in the back. Hence we had to shoot at F13 which is less than half the light as in Gaëls photo. We solved the problem by increasing the ISO (ISO 400) and moving the flash as close as possible. It was just outside the frame.

Moving the light source close is almost always a good idea in portrait photography. By the law of physics with half of the distance you need just 1/4 of the flash power. Moreover, the light gets softer (which was a potential problem here because we also wanted Dany’s muscles to pop out. But, as you can see, his muscles were bigger than the light source was soft 😛 )


Me, Dany, Stephan

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