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Archive for Sunday, March 21, 2010

Behind the lens: The story behind those flashing lights at the NCAA basketball games

Kansas University big man Cole Aldrich, right, jockeys for position with Kansas State’s Wally Judge in the Jayhawks’ March 3 victory over the Wildcats.

Kansas University big man Cole Aldrich, right, jockeys for position with Kansas State’s Wally Judge in the Jayhawks’ March 3 victory over the Wildcats.

March 21, 2010

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The three camera controls of shutter speed, aperture and ISO are tools to make a correct exposure in any lighting situation. But if you can create your own light, you’ve added a fourth.

For most point-and-shoot fans, this is accomplished by using the camera’s built-in flash. For more serious photographers, there’s the option of a hot-shoe mounted flash with a tilting head.

But let’s think really big. Like for lighting up a basketball arena. From 1987 through 2006 the Journal-World had powerful flash units hung from the catwalks at Allen Fieldhouse to photograph basketball games. I remember well, since I helped install them. And yes, the catwalk is near the ceiling and is not for people scared of heights or floors of see-through metal grating.

The lights were in each corner, aimed at the courts, and connected with several hundred feet of synch cord. One additional cord was dropped to the floor for the photographer to connect to his camera. Without the strobes, exposures were probably 1/250th a second at f2.8 at 3200. With strobes it was 1/250th at f4.0 at ISO 200. The flashes gave us a 4 stop increase in illumination, or four times the original ambient light.

Digital camera sensors have improved as have arena lights, so we no longer use strobes in the fieldhouse. But publications such as Sports Illustrated and Sporting News continue to travel with and use strobes for college and pro events.

Sports Illustrated brought in lights for the KU men’s final home basketball game against Kansas State, March 3. But if you attended or watched that game on TV, you probably didn’t even notice the constant flashing light. The typical flash duration will be about 1/1000th of a second. Even if the photographer is shooting a motordrive sequence, you may not notice the flashes.

While you watch this year’s NCAA tournament, see if you can spot the occasional flash of someone’s arena lighting. Here are a few things to look for.

  1. If you see a cord tied between a goalpost and a catwalk, it is probably someone’s synch cord.

  2. During the game, look up toward the catwalks and into a corner of the arena. Among the constant arena lights, you should spot an occasional flash.

  3. Pay close attention during action near the basket, especially during shot attempts or rebounding efforts. These are important moments for all photographers and will be the most likely time to spot the brief flash of a strobe light.

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