Shooting High School Basketbll is always an Adventure

Being a photographer is not always easy or glamorous. There are many challenges, especially at events like high school sports.  The cameras have gotten automated and can do a lot of the work, but there is still a lot of problem solving to do.

Poor lighting is common. Schools have limited budgets and they don't have a way to put in TV quality lighting. They often use mercury vapor lights for their venues.  To overcome that I used to set up remote flash units off to the sides of the gym.  Some venues are restricting the use of flash (even though the National High School Federation and the New Mexico Activities Association (p.9, section D) say that remote flash is allowed). To combat that photographers are having to buy very expensive cameras and lenses that can shoot at 6400 ISO or higher. Last night I was at ISO 10,000.

The next issue with lighting is that these mercury vapor lights are not daylight color balanced.  They give off a very warm (yellow) light that does not look good.  Auto white balance usually does not go far enough. To handle the color issues it is best to manually set your white balance, either shooting RAW and using a grey card, then setting white balance in Lightroom, or by trying different manual settings and getting close.  The Miyamura gym color balance looks acceptable around around 2400 degrees Kelvin.

Another issue with the poor lighting is that it can adversely affect your camera's ability to auto-focus.  AF systems work by looking for contrast.  When the light is low it is harder for the system to tell where edges are and lock in the focus.  This means missed shots. It happens. Cameras have come a long way in recent years, but like Mr. Scott, the camera makers cannot change the laws of physics.

Now that the technicals are out of the way it is time to find a place to shoot the pictures from.  The best photos come from getting as close to the action as you can.  Robert Capa is famous for his quote "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

The best photos for basketball usually come from the floor. You want to see player's faces, so the baselines are the best options, where you can see the players coming at you.  The baseline comes with issues though.  If the players get too close to the baseline they are often not in the light anymore and their faces are in shadow.

Of course there is always the roving referee who happens to get between you and the action at just the right moment.  If they have a three-person crew you can watch and see where the ref on the baseline likes to stand, to the left or to the right of the basket, then you can sit on the other side and reduce the number of times it happens.

The baseline can be a very crowded place.
Now things got even harder.  This season the NMAA has apparently instituted a new rule that photographers are no longer allowed to be under the basket - even if not using flash. (I am still trying to locate where this new rule is - if you know where it is posted please let me know) It is a safety thing as a player might run into them and get hurt.   However they have not done anything to keep the players safe from collisions with cheerleaders.

The cheerleaders have a tendency to stand right up at the baseline, leaving no place for fast running players to go if the action goes out of bounds. It also leaves no place for working media to be able to do their jobs.

When it comes to basketball games, smaller gyms and big crowds can be noisy. Do yourself a favor and bring some earplugs.  Yelling fans, blowing whistles, cheering cheerleaders, warm-up music over the PA-system and the school's pep bands all mix together to make for some pretty awful conditions for your hearing.

Try to work around the limitations and get the best images possible in the situation.  Schools aren't going to suddenly drop a heap of money on new lights just for a few photographers, referees are still going to run in the way at just the precise moment, and cheerleaders will keep standing on the sidelines trying to get the fans pumped up and excited.

There are always challenges when photographing events - there are always variables that the photographer can't control. If it was easy everybody would do it.

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