This is a very cool effect, dramatic and not your usual basketball image: Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images. There are other examples like it in the linked gallery. My question is how this was achieved.

My guess is some sort of very strong, focused strobe - almost like a spotlight - that is pointed straight down a few feet in front of the middle of the foul line. Butler exposes for this overpowering light resulting in the rest of the court basically disappearing into shadow.

If this is true, wouldn't this look strange on TV (kind of like lightning) and also wreck a few shots for the other pros shooting the game? Is it unusual for a photographer to be able to set up his own lighting like this for a professional sporting event?


3 Answers 3


Its almost certainly a strong strobe like you suggest and exposing for it will indeed darken the background.

As far as looking strange on TV, unlikely. Its a blazing fast blink of light not targeted at the audience or the cameras but only at the court. Lightning as a light source is much more omni-directional.

Many large courts even have these strong strobes built into the court that an official photog can use. Courts vary on their lighting policies somewhat so its strictly a case by case basis. And yes, it could conceivably mess somebody else up, but we're still talking about a light burst of 1/10000th of a second that they would also decide to shoot - so its unlikely. EDIT: Technically, that's not quite true - the main strobe need only fall within their shutter speed (so closer to 1/200th of second possibly) to mess them up.

The Strobist discusses here about his lighting of a gym and mentions these large lights.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @rfusca - thanks, I see your point about the burst being so short it would likely not be a problem. Would this single strobe need to be more powerful than the other arena strobes or is the fact that it is the only one going off at that time enough to create the effect? \$\endgroup\$
    – Daveorama
    Mar 29, 2011 at 17:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ How strong it needs to be to create a dramatic difference between your background a subject depends on the distance to your background somewhat. It would need to be stronger than any other lighting casting light into your frame during your exposure. \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Mar 29, 2011 at 18:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Still short, but I bet the light burst itself is much closer to ¹⁄₂₀₀th overall, if it's firing at full power. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Mar 29, 2011 at 19:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's far more likely that a pack-and-head system is being used, and for sports one would normally use multi-tube heads (at least a dual, but sometimes quads) to dump the power as quickly as possible. Getting 1000 joules out in a five-thousandth of a second through a single head & reflector is no problem at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Mar 29, 2011 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ No, it's not likely anybody was thinking "that's gotta be an SB800!". I just wanted to point out that a lot of flash power doesn't need to mean a long duration. I (well, a team of us) used a system a lot like the one I described to shoot hockey once. We had seven "hot spots" (one behind each goal, four between the in-zone faceoff circles and the blue lines and one at center ice) each with four 500WS speed packs feeding a quad head at half power. Not only could we freeze speeding skaters, it'd keep up with a 3fps motor drive. (Remember when that was fast?) \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Mar 30, 2011 at 0:17

Life is truly strange -- back in (much) younger days, I helped shoot some of the games at the college my brother was attending. We hand-built a couple giant softbox-like contraptions specifically to eliminate lighting like this.

Lighting like this is easy: a reasonably power strobe pointing straight down, mounted on the ceiling, about halfway between the basket and the free throw line. Normally you want it on a radio slave, so it only goes off when the "right" people shoot.

The "softbox" in question was only vaguely like a normal one, but still worked reasonably well. Basically, the strobe was still mounted on the ceiling pointed straight down, but something like 3 or 4 feet below that, we suspended about a 3x3 foot piece of plywood covered on the top with somewhat crinkled aluminium foil to reflect the light back upward. On the ceiling around the strobe was a considerably larger square of crinkled aluminium foil (probably 8x8 feet, or so, if memory serves). Then, probably seven feet down from the ceiling was a frame built out of PVC pipe (probably something like 12x12 feet), with white cloth stretched across it on the bottom. Canvas on the sides with still more crinkled aluminium foil kept all the light going where we wanted it.

With these, we got pretty even lighting almost where most of the action took place, at least in basketball. It wasn't quite so good for volleyball, where the action is mostly at mid-court, but even for that it wasn't too bad (a lot better than its predecessor, anyway). FWIW, I believe they stayed there in regular use until a new gym was built something like 15 years later.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Back in the day, shooters working for SI or the NBA league office would run hundreds of feet of PC cable between groups of four 6,000WS strobes and their power packs and drop it from the catwalks to just behind one of the goals. No radio triggers for them! I've read/heard anecdotal accounts of SI sending a crew to a college to get shots of one star player and then donate the $6-9,000 worth of strobes/power packs to the school and leave it in the rafters rather than take it down. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Apr 23, 2019 at 10:59

I would imagine it is a wireless off-camera flash mounted up on the backboard support, manually set so he could control the ambient (background) light with aperture/shutter speed and thus create the spotlight effect.

Someone more familiar with flash photography might well prove me wrong though.


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