Lighting High School Gyms for Basketball

© Matthew Jonas 2010/Evergreen Newspapers 2010

Editors Note: While I am compiling my Year in Review photo galleries, I thought it would be a good time to post a few things I had been keeping in the bank. Enjoy.

The frozen parts of me are glad to be off of the football field and into a more temperature controlled environment. I’m talking about the start of the high school basketball season, of course! With the change of scenery comes a change in the equipment. This year I have streamlined my lighting equipment and managed to pack everything I need to light a gym into one small backpack, my Think Tank Photo Airport Antidote. Many shooters have given up on lighting gyms with the introduction of cameras that are capable of producing low noise, high ISO pictures. I still like the thrill of timing a picture just right and making an image that has good color to go along with good action.

Shooting with speedlights brings a challenge to shooting indoor sports. Instead of the “spray and pray” motor drive mentality, you get 1-2 frames per second. The flash has to recycle and at 1/2 power, you get roughly 2 frames per second. At 1/4 power you get roughly 4 frames per second. Its a real art form to time your pictures right. You have to pay attention to the game, watch each player and anticipate the action. It can be frustrating but also very rewarding when everything comes together. (See photo above)

© Matthew Jonas 2010

What’s in the bag?

A lot. A whole lot. Inside the my Think Tank bag is 4 Super Clamps, 2 Magic Arms, 4 Umbrella Stand Adapters, at least 32 Sanyo Eneloop AA batteries, 4 Wizard Brackets, 4 5/8 inch mounting studs, 4 Nikon SB-80DX strobes in Domke Wraps, a roll of yellow electrical tape, a roll of caution tape, 4 pc to Pocket Wizard cables and a bunch of Pocket Wizard Plus IIs. Fully packed, the bag weighs 10-15lbs but is easily transported to each gym that I need to light.

© Matthew Jonas 2010

The Setup

I try to show up a little early to each assignment. For each light, I use a super clamp, stud, stand adapter, PW, cable and strobe. Each light takes a couple of minutes to assemble and then a couple more minutes to place. It takes about 10 minutes for me to light the entire gym. Each gym is a little different. Some require additional gear such as light stands or different clamps. I tend to shoot in the same gyms week after week so I know ahead of time what I need to bring.

I try to place the lights as high as possible and then aim them towards the top of the key. This gives me pretty even lighting from the 3 point line to the basket. Shadows are a problem directly under the basket but even with large arenas you will still have some issues. It gives me the best coverage for the places that will have the best chance of action.


As far as cost is concerned, you are still looking at around $2k for a speedlight setup like mine. The Pocket Wizards alone in this setup are more than $1100 of the cost. There are always cheaper alternatives out there and you can probably put together a similar kit for under $1K. I use what I use because it suits my needs and is reliable year after year. Here is the breakdown:

  • 6 Pocket Wizards @ $169 each
  • 4 Super Clamps @ $25 each
  • 4 5/8 Studs @ $4 each
  • 4 Nikon SB-80DX Strobes @ $100-$150 each
  • 4 Umbrella Stand Adapters @ $17 each
  • 4 PC sync to PW cables @ $15 each
  • 32 Sanyon Eneloop AA Batteries @ $22 (for a set of 8 )
  • 4 Domke Wraps @ $10 each
  • Misc. tape, safety cables, etc. @ $50
  • 6 Wizard Brackets @ $27 each (set of 3)
  • 1 Think Tank Photo Airport Antidote @ $200

Your other cost is insurance. Not for the gear, although I do recommend it, for the liability insurance in case one of your lights injures an athlete or spectator. You should carry about a million dollars of liability insurance. I will say this only once. IF YOU DO NOT HAVE LIABILITY INSURANCE, DO NOT TRY THIS! PERIOD. If you do, please continue.

How It Works

I could go on and on about flash durations, power settings, light positions and a whole lot more. However, somebody with a lot more experience, who I learned from, has already done that. I suggest taking a trip over to and reading On Assignment: Speedlighting a College Gym and the Q & A: Speedlighting a Gym section afterward. It worked for me. Photos using the technique and equipment discussed above are regularly published in the Canyon Courier, The High Timber Times, The Columbine Courier and the Clear Creek Courant.

© Matthew Jonas 2010/Evergreen Newspapers 2010

7 thoughts on “Lighting High School Gyms for Basketball

  1. Great and timely post. I am a hobbiest with two daughters playing basketball. I don’t have all of the gear (or skill!) you have but still want to get the best shots. I have a Canon 7D and thanks to some Christmas money, a 70-200 f2.8 should be on my door soon. Any advice or is the 8- shot per second spray mode my best bet? Thanks and I enjoy your posts.

    1. Michael, my advice to you would be to get out there and practice. Each gym is going to have different lighting conditions so learning how to properly white balance will be important. Setting your camera on M for manual and boosting your ISO will also be equally important. You can’t stop action at less than 1/500th of a second. So figuring out how to get that shutter speed (or higher) will be a combination of ISO and f-stop. I use back button focus and always choose the point at which it focuses. Your camera is only as smart as the person using it. Good luck!! Thanks for reading.

  2. Ah, great post, but now I’m worried about your insurance comment…I shoot for my college newspaper so it’s not like I’m actually going to make any money from this. :/ I’ll stick to other sports I suppose.

    1. Liability insurance is one of the most overlooked parts of professional photography. Check with the paper. They might cover you. If not, the insurance is actually pretty affordable. Search for companies that insure photographers and you should be able to find one that will insure your equipment and provide liability as well. Good luck.

  3. I’m surprised that you are using flash photography at a basketball game. I was always told to keep the flash off to keep from “blinding” the players. Does the flash bother them? Do you only take the photos when they aren’t shooting? How do you work with players/coaches/etc. that may not want flashes during the game? I have noticed that at televised games that flashes are rarely if ever used. I would love to use a flash to get better pictures on the court.

    1. High David, I’ll try to answer your questions the best I can. I don’t shoot much basketball anymore but when I do I always use a flash. Actually I use 4 of them, mounted to the stands or railings, high above the court and well away from the players line of site, triggered by PocketWizard radios.

      I have never had a player or a coach complain. Most of the time they don’t even notice. The duration of the flash “pop” is only around 1/2000th of a second. By the time I shoot the picture, the player is already committed to whatever they are doing and it’s almost invisible.

      I shoot throughout the entire game. I usually show up early to set up. I will ask all coaches, officials, etc if they have any objections. Also, if the league has a rule book you might check there for any photo related issues. Some governing bodies for high school sports have rules specifically for flash photography. The most common one is no flash from the floor under the basket. Mounting strobes away from the floor is usually ok.

      Hope that helps. Good luck!

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