Shooting Events with Lights – and how to avoid the inevitable sore back!

Camera Rucsac - with lights
Gear. Heavy. Does your back in.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been using flashguns more and more on location, rather than my mains lights with a battery pack or similar, mainly because they’re much more portable. I’ve even shot about a dozen races of various sorts with them, and since this involves me covering a very wide distance at a decent speed, what gear to take needs a bit of forethought. All in all I’ve probably shot more than a dozen races with this setup – the Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest series, the Men’s Fitness Tough Track, Wadenhoe Quadrac, Merrel Mudman and Iceman, as well as using it on smaller events. Here are some things I’ve learnt during these shoots:

  • First off, you’ll need a decent rucsac – a shoulder bag will simply swing about too much if you’re running or cycling. I tried making do with what I could fit in a belt pack, but failed, plus it was far too mobile when running at any speed. I’ve been using the LowePro Vertex 200 for 3 years now, and it’s my main camera bag. It’s pretty comfortable even when loaded, and has a decent amount of padding, plus all sorts of places to attach extra bits like light stands to. I cut the waist belt off almost as soon as I bought it though – they don’t fit the length of my back (very few do) and they get in the way, so I took a knife to them. At the risk of stating the obvious, make sure you’ve got the straps set up and tensioned right before you start heading out for a race, after several miles you’ll really notice if somethings not right!
  • Weight. This is the killer factor. Bear in mind that everything you want to shoot with, you’re going to have to carry. Most races don’t last very long, and cover a wide area, so if you want to get to more than one spot on the course you’ll need to be able to move swiftly, and you don’t want to have to go back to the car every few minutes. Only experience will tell you how much gear you need (more on that in a minute) but be ruthless with any stuff you’re doubtful about. I normally carry about 16 spare AA batteries in my bag, on a race I’ll carry 8. Likewise my bag normally has 3 prime lenses in it – they get left at home on a race, along with things like light meters, cable releases, and all sorts of little bits like pens and notebooks. Every gram less helps, believe me.
Merrel Mudman - Shot with lights
Merrell Mudman 2009
  • Research. I wouldn’t suggest using this setup, with lights on stands, at big events like the London Marathon (for example) as you may find they get trashed accidentally by spectators. Do as much research as you can on the event, and work out what the route is, what the likely spots are for good shots, how you’re going to get round (bike, or run, or possibly even by car on rare occasions) and how close you’ll be able to get to the runners. Bear in mind that balanced against daylight, flashguns aren’t all that powerful, so they’re best placed in locations where you can narrow down the expected track of a runner to a few feet or so. They tend to work best in bottlenecks for example, rather than open fields, as once you’ve set them up you need to bear in mind that your subject has now got to run in a fairly predictable path, otherwise they won’t be lit!
Wadenhoe Quadrac
Wadenhoe Quadrac 2009
  • Gear. Having shot many jobs I’m now pretty settled on what I take, and it’s always pretty close to what you see in the picture above. I may add pocket wizards if I think I’ll need to trigger the flashes outside the usual CLS range, and I’ve even taken out the 70-200 when I know I’ll be shooting everything from close in (I shot 95% of the recent Men’s Health series on the 24-70). I can’t stress enough the element of weight – there’s no point in having lots of gear with you if it’s too heavy to drag to the location. As time has passed I’ve carried less and less – I used to carry no end of “grip” gear for rigging flashes in odd places, but realised there was never time to use it, so I’ve stopped.
  • Supplies. Pack a cereal bar or two, and some water (unless you’re able to pinch some from the water stands on the course). You may not burn as many calories as the racers, but my camera bag weighs about 12kg in this config, and I’ve cycled more than 20 miles up and down hills with it on. It’s quite tiring, to put it mildly.
  • Technical. In a nutshell, as with so many other things – don’t over complicate things! Bear in mind that you can’t ask people to pose for shots, as they’ll be more concerned with the race, so setting up lighting that only covers an area of a couple of inches may not be the best way to go. Think about how you’re going to trigger any extra lights – I started using the Nikon CLS system about a year ago, and now use nothing else on these jobs. It saves scrambling up and down muddy banks to adjust powers on flashes – something I’d done a lot of when I’d used Pocket Wizards. Over time you’ll find that you need to fiddle less and less – you start to realise that a certain flashgun, at 35mm zoom, and at 1/4 power, is going to give you f5.6 from the same spot each time, and so on. You may also find that the best shots will be in covered areas (woods, tunnels etc) so that you don’t have to fight quite so hard with the ambient to make things look “flashy”.

The reward for all this hassle is well-lit, dramatic shots, from vantage points that other photographers often don’t make the effort to get to, or once they’ve got there they don’t move from them. The downside is a sore back!

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