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Flash in sports photography

What happens if you do or don't use flash?

Available light required a slow shutter while panning, resulting in a good deal of blur
Available light required a slow shutter while panning, resulting in a good deal of blur


Should you use flash to shoot an indoors (or even an outdoors) sporting event where the lighting is inadequate, or should you switch to a faster film or a faster ISO setting instead? What differences can you expect in your pictures if you do or don’t shoot with flash? Good questions.


Many indoor sports are played under lighting that is less than desirable from a photographer’s perspective, particularly if color film is being used or if you don't change your white balance setting in your digital camera.

Fluorescent, tungsten or mercury vapor lighting are types commonly found in gymnasiums, tennis courts, hockey arenas and other indoor sports buildings. These types of lighting systems, although seemingly acceptable to the human eye which automatically adjusts and compensates for different types of lighting to make the scene look normal, can affect the overall color cast of your images. Film and digital sensors do not behave like the eye. Film records a scene without any automatic adjustment for the type of lighting, and a digital camera may make an adjustment if it is set to auto white balance. Fluorescent lighting, for example, can produce an overall bluish-green cast in images shot on daylight film or when using a digital camera set for normal daylight, yet we humans do not see the color difference when we are viewing the scene.

Color film is balanced for specific types of lighting. Daylight color film, for instance, which most of us use most the time, is color-balanced for ordinary daylight. To use color film in lighting conditions for which it is not balanced, corrective color conversion filters can be used. If you don't use color conversion filters, your indoor pictures may look similar to the picture above of a basketball player photographed in the artificial light falling on the playing court. The overall warm yellow cast is caused by the artificial light source.

A digital camera's white balance setting can be adjusted to achieve a similar effect without the need for external color-balancing filters.

Flash stopped the action and produced noticeable shadows
Flash stopped the action and produced noticeable shadows

 Waiting for the peak moment without using flash will reduce blur
Waiting for the peak moment without using flash will reduce blur

More important, however, in the case of the picture above on the left, is the effect on exposure of the artificial light in the gymnasium. The gym's ambient light falling on the subject was not bright enough to permit an action-stopping fast shutter speed with the film speed or low ISO sensitivity setting that was used, therefore much of the picture is blurred. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the blur effect provides a sense of motion and action.

The next basketball picture (above right) was taken using flash. The action is frozen because of the high speed of the flash. The color of the light on the subjects seems a bit more natural, because illumination from electronic flash is balanced to match daylight. However, the light from direct, on-camera flash created shadows behind the players.


Since lighting levels and lighting quality vary from one indoor sports locale to another, we suggest you experiment to see what is right for your chosen sports arena, and try both: use flash for some shots and the building's lighting for others, being sure to select an appropriate shutter speed. Then, check your results to see which worked best.


1. Unless you are real close to the action, you will need a telephoto lens. The relatively low light will require a large maximum aperture, ƒ2.8 or wider. Most zoom lenses and lenses in the 200mm and up range do not usually have the wide maximum apertures needed, so unless you have a particularly fast telephoto, you will have to use your longest lens that has a maximum aperture of ƒ2.8 or better. A lens in the range of 80mm to 135mm should be suitable.

2. Choose high or very high-speed film or a high ISO setting for your digital camera. ISO 400 may be suitable, but the ISO 800 to ISO 1000 speed range will permit faster shutter speeds or better depth of field.

If your film is black and white, you should not see marked effects from the type of lighting. If you use color film, particularly slide film, you probably will. Check your prints to see what effects the building’s lighting source had on your images, and talk with your lab or camera shop about which color conversion filter to obtain to correct the lighting problem by balancing the lighting source with the film.

If you are shooting digitally, a quick check of your image on your camera's viewscreen wil tell you if you need to adjust white balance.

3. Choose a shooting location that is likely to be the scene of maximum activity. This could be the goal in a hockey arena or the net in a basketball game. Then prefocus your camera, preset your exposure, look through your viewfinder as the play approaches and shoot when there is action in the viewfinder frame.

Low ambient arena light often results in underexposed pictures like this.
Low ambient arena light often results in underexposed pictures like this.

Photographed in existing light with minimum blur thanks to a fast ISO setting and peak-of-action shooting
Photographed in existing light with minimum blur thanks to a fast ISO setting and peak-of-action shooting

4. There may be some blur in your images regardless of all the preparations to prevent it. You may not have been able to use a fast enough shutter speed to stop the action. (Remember, this is not always bad. Some blur can make an action shot look more alive. Many professional photographers deliberately use slow shutter speeds to blur a sports action shot, sometimes even moving the camera to create greater blur.)

If unwanted blur cannot be avoided because the movements of the players are too fast and furious for the shutter speeds available to you, be on the lookout for moments when the action hesitates briefly. For example, a basketball player may be too blurry if you photographed him or her when jumping, but can be acceptably sharp if you catch the player at the peak of the jump, when action briefly pauses before the player drops back down again.

It requires anticipation, knowledge of the game, timing and fast reflexes on your part, and usually a little luck. You can see how this works in the hockey photograph on the left. One player is unmoving on the ice and the other is just about to skate off, but not yet in motion. The black and white martial arts picture above provides another example of shooting at a peak moment to reduce blur. There is a tiny amount of blur in the participant's foot, but otherwise the picture is acceptably sharp.

5. Continuous high-speed shooting (requiring a motor drive for a traditional film camera) can be a big asset in capturing just the right moment.


1. First, determine whether flash is permitted. Some sports building managers discourage it because they feel flash may distract the play, particularly if used close to the players. Your flash going off right in a player’s face as a goal is about to be scored can affect the outcome of the game.

2. You will need a powerful flash unit to illuminate distant play action and for your flash unit to recycle quickly.

3. Higher-speed films or a digital camera's higher ISO setting will give you more range and faster recycling times.

4. Expect to be surprised by the effect of flash when you see your images in print or on your camera's monitor. The background may be quite dark, even though it didn't look that way to your eye, since the range of your flash may be limited or your automatic camera/flash combination may shut down the flash when it deems the exposure of foreground subjects is sufficient. The image on the right illustrates this effect.

5. Since flash is effective in stopping motion, choose moments of peak action to shoot with it. This means waiting for the critical moment, just as the ball is about to be tipped into the basket or the tennis player’s racquet reaches maximum height during a serve.

6. Watch out for ghosting when using flash in an area that is already brightly-illuminated. This occurs if your shutter speed should normally be set at, say, 1/250 sec or 1/500 sec due to the ambient light. Since most cameras require a slower shutter speed to synchronize with the flash (generally 1/60 sec and sometimes 1/125 sec or 1/250 sec - check your camera's manual), the existing light creates a secondary "ghost" image in the picture. You can get around this by using a slower film speed or ISO setting, attaching a neutral-density filter, using a smaller aperture or simply switching off the flash.

 Flash  will often illuminate the subject & foreground only
Flash will often illuminate the subject & foreground only
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