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|| News Item: Posted 1999-02-04

Arena Lighting
By Darrell Miho

Photo by Shawn Cullen

Photo by Shawn Cullen

This cart is full of everything you need to light the McKale Arena in Tucson.
As a former lighting technician for Sports Illustrated, I have had more than my share of lighting basketball and hockey arenas across the country. There are easy ones and there are difficult ones. From high school gyms to doomed stadiums. All are different, yet the setup principle is basically the same - get even light across the court/ice.



Speedotron is by far the most widely used strobes for lighting arenas...and for good reason. They are durable, have sufficient power and offer a short flash duration. 90% of the arenas I have been in with permanent strobe lights have Speedo equipment. And for the purpose of this discussion, I shall use Speedotron as the standard and all examples will be for full power at 2400ws.

Quad tube heads (4 flash tubes per head) are the standard head used for sports photography. Speedotron has two types, a two cable and a four-cable head. The two-cable head has a maximum output of 4800ws; the four-cable head max is 9600ws. Very seldom will you use more than 2400ws.

I prefer the two-cable head because in the event one of the flash tube sockets is bad; the power is automatically transferred over to the other flash tube, thus maintaining the original power setting (one flash tube @ 1200ws and 2 flash tubes @ 600ws each). With a four-cable head, if a socket is bad you lose that power (3 flash tubes @ 600ws). Plus it is lighter and takes up less space (two less cables).

There are two types of reflectors in use, an 11-1/2" with a collar and a 16" shiny (highly polished mirror surface). The collar on the 11-1/2" reflector reduces the angle of the flash, thus reduces the amount of light falling off into the seats. The longer the collar, the more narrow the spread of light. Effective in arenas with catwalks 70' or less, the 16" shinnies are used in the larger arenas and have a flash spread of 30 degrees. A collar may be added to the 16" shiny, but seldom necessary.

There are several power supplies available with 2400ws. The 2401sx are one of the newest packs available from Speedotron. It has been designed and built for sports photography. It has a cooling fan and low voltage trigger (LVT) built in (see section on LVTs for more info).

Pros: They are durable, sufficient power for most arenas @ 2400ws, they travel well (God forbid you have to travel with them and camera gear!) and the quad tube heads have a very short flash duration (less than 1/800th to 1/1000th sec at 2400ws).

Cons: They are heavy and bulky, not to mention expensive. A complete set of 4 packs, heads and reflectors cost roughly $12,000 (but who ever said photography was cheap)

Each pack must have clean power, meaning each pack MUST be on a SEPARATE circuit with nothing else on the same circuit. Failure to follow this rule will result in power packs blowing internal fuses or circuit breakers at the electrical panels.

Photo by Shawn Cullen

Photo by Shawn Cullen

This is a Speedotron pack in the rafters of the McKale Arena in Tucson.
Finding clean power can be a problem if there are numerous sets in an arena or you are in an older arena without a lot of power available in the catwalk. It is advisable to call ahead and talk to an electrician if you have any doubts.


Elinchrome 1000RS (1000ws) are ideal for very small arenas (under 6,000 seating capacity) or high school gyms with low catwalks or ceilings. Also available is a 500ws unit.

Pros: They are a mono-block unit (the flash and power supply is one piece). They are small and lightweight compared to the Speedos. They also require less amperage to power them and therefore, less likely to blow a circuit breaker.

Cons: Each head is only 1000ws. They do not travel well if not packed properly.


Dynalite has come out with there own version of the sports lighting setup. The system however has not been tested extensively yet. It is a cross between the Speedo and Elinchromes. For more information contact Tim O'Dell, the Charlotte hornets team photographer. Tim has a set he uses at the "Beehive" and is very pleased with the results.

Pros: Smaller and lighter than the Speedo and probably travels well.

Cons: Only a bi-tube head, not as powerful as a Speedo (2000ws or 4000ws power supplies available)


Like Elinchromes, these are mono-block units. I do not have any experience using these.

Pros: They are smaller and lighter than Elinchromes. They are the least expensive of all the lighting setups.

Cons: Less efficient. 1000ws from a white lightning will give you less light than a 1000ws Elinchrome or 1000ws from a Speedotron.


Super Clamps, mafer clamps or c-clamps are used to attach the heads to the catwalk. Super clamps and mafer clamps are best with the 3" stud* to allow more room to position the strobe.


Photo by Shawn Cullen

Photo by Shawn Cullen

Plastic or Lexan shields should be used on every head. Holes drilled in the reflectors allow you to attach the shields using ties.
Plastic or Lexan shields should be used on every head. These are used in case of a flash tube falling out or shattering and prevent the flash tube and debris from falling on spectators. Tiny holes drilled in the shields allow air to flow through and keep the heads cool. Holes drilled in the reflectors allow you to attach the shields using wire ties. Tape may also be used, but not recommended on permanent setups. Tape tends to get old and lose its stickiness over time.


Safety chains, cables, straps or cords should be used on all heads and packs... especially here on the West Coast where earthquakes can toss a power pack over the edge.

Chains and locks are recommended for permanent setups so no packs or lights "walk" away. When traveling, I use climbing straps and carabiners. They are lightweight, can fit anywhere and are fast and easy to attach. These can be found at Sport Chalet, REI or any good outdoor sporting goods store that carries climbing equipment.


* Wire cutters/strippers: no explanation necessary...I hope!
* Line tester/plunger/button: used to check sync lines and remote camera lines.
* 2 - outlet testers: used for checking outlets and what circuits they are on.
* Radio slave: for testing and metering lights from the court/ice.


Photo by Shawn Cullen

Photo by Shawn Cullen

Some of the essential tools needed to light an arena.
These are not essential, but can come in handy for any multiple of "surprises":
* Leatherman or MultiTool: come in handy for anything from fixing cameras to cracking crab legs.
* Soldering Iron: for splicing wires and making remote cords that will last longer than a day.
* Flashlight/Headlamp: some catwalks aren't well lit. Sometimes if you're working late, the lights get turned off or are on timers. Headlamp allows you to have both hands free without sticking your MagLite in your mouth and drooling all over it cause you were too cheap to buy the mouth piece or head strap accessory.
* Key rings: just the rings. No bottle openers or trolls attached...just the rings. Which are useful for attaching safeties to cameras or wizards in an instant.


* Zip cord: 18 gauge/2 wire electrical wire. Also called zip cord or lamp cord. Comes in 250' spools.
* Male, female and add-a-tap connectors: used to connect everything...hardwire, jumpers, and drop lines.
* Gray/white tape: for anything and everything: for taping down lines, ac cords, shields, reflectors, labeling etc.
* Wire/Cable ties: attaching shields to reflectors, securing sync lines, locking cases etc.

All these supplies should be readily available at Home Depot, HomeBase and Eagle hardware. You should also be able to order it through your local electrical store. And believe it or not, some of the connectors are available at 7-11. Add-a-taps, however are more difficult to find and illegal (don't meet electrical code requirements) in some states. If you are caught with these in your possess-3 years...just kidding.


The following are general rules to be used as guidelines only. These are not set in stone, nor am I the god of lighting. Each arena, as well as photographer preference, will dictate how strobes will be set up.

For a typical basketball setup, you need 4 packs (power supplies), 4 heads, 4 reflectors, 4 clamps and 4 shields. An imaginary line should be drawn along the edge of the court right behind the photographer's row to the catwalk. Each light should be positioned in each corner somewhere from where the line intersects the catwalk to 10 feet behind it. The farther behind this line you go, the worse the shadow on the court will be.

Each light should be aimed roughly where the dotted line of the free throw circle intersects the center of the lane. This allows for minimal shadow from the backboard/shot clock while allowing for light to reach the other end of the court for shooting with your long lens. The light will generally fall off one f-stop down court. But of course you will meter before the game!

For a typical hockey setup, you need 8 packs, 8 heads, 8 reflectors, 8 clamps and 8 shields. One light should be positioned at each red line and blue line on each end of the ice. The lights on the red lines should be aimed at the "forks" of the face-off circles. The lights on the blue lines should be aimed straight in, along the blue line towards the middle of the line. The blue line lights should be powered roughly 25% less than the red line lights. This should give you even lighting all the way around the ice.

The great thing about hockey is you have a built in fill card underneath!

Photo by Shawn Cullen

Photo by Shawn Cullen

Tape down the reflectors for safety.
Expect the worst to happen when traveling. I advise taking a spare pack and head. Parts get loose during transit, or something breaks and without a spare, you can be screwed. Especially if you are in a small town where you can not rent the equipment, or you can not get it shipped in next day because it is the weekend, or worse yet, you are setting up the night before or the day of the game.


Domes are the most difficult arenas to light. There usually is no catwalk (a couple of exceptions are the Alamodome and Georgia Dome), so lights have to be hung from the concourse levels and scissors lifts need to be brought in behind the temporary seats. Keep in mind that the lights and packs need to be out of spectator's line of sight and reach. We have had "baskets" made for certain arenas to hang the lights and the strobes over the edge.

Lots of zip is needed to run sync lines along the concourse railing and then dropped to the floor level away from the seating area and then run to the shooting position(s)

Another problem you may encounter, depending on which side of the court you are shooting from is that you may be shooting right into your backlight. In this case, a router or diode box may be used. The diode box controls which strobes will fire. This requires A LOT more zip. Each strobe has its own sync line that must be brought to a common point where they all plug into the diode box. Two or three separate sync lines are then run from the diode box to the shooting position(s). Each sync line fires a different combination of strobes, either three or four. You then connect your cameras to the appropriate sync line to eliminate the backlight when necessary.

Diode boxes may also be used in arenas with low catwalks/beams where shooting into the backlight causes a real problem.


Wiring the packs together is fairly simple. You run a sync line using your zip cord around the catwalk in a "U" or "H" shape (depending on the catwalk). Each pack is connected to the sync line via a "jumper" cord (male connectors on each end).

When you start connecting your packs to the hardwire it is advisable to go in order. When you plug in the first end of the sync line the first pack, the strobe light will fire. If it doesn't, then your pack may not be on, the trigger may be bad or the head cables are not plugged in.

When you plug in the second pack, the strobe should not fire when you plug in the sync line. If it does, then the polarity of your sync is backwards. Simply remove the sync and rotate the end 180s and reinsert the male plug. Hit the test fire button on the pack and make sure both strobes are firing. If not, there is something wrong in the sync line somewhere between the two packs. Once you fix the problem, proceed to the next strobe in line and repeat these steps until each strobe is synched together.

A typical arena should take 3-4 hours to set up. A dome could take all day.

If you set up at a certain arena on a regular basis, I advise putting in a permanent sync line. This will generally save you an hour each time. Make sure your lines are secure and taped and well marked. However, I wouldn't assume that it will always be there or will always work. On numerous occasions, I have returned to an arena where I had left a sync line only to find it "butchered" with sections missing.

Apparently other photographers felt that SI doesn't come in their arena often and they needed some zip, but were ill prepared (read lazy) to deal with "problems" that occur, so they would take liberties on our sync line. So be prepared to put in another line or make repairs where necessary in case this happens to you.


If you use your strobes a lot or travel with them frequently, it is advisable to have them checked every year during the off season. Traveling often can loosen screws that hold vital pieces together. Loose screws rattling around inside can also cause shorts. Heavy use will also reduce the efficiency of the capacitors and shorten the life of your flash tubes.

If they are black near the base then it is time to replace them. Otherwise, your capacitors may be losing their ability to store power and should be checked.

Photo by Shawn Cullen

Photo by Shawn Cullen

This is how you gobo your the heads in an arena.
If you have a permanent setup, make sure to also clean the Lexan covers and the inside of the reflectors from any dust accumulation. Do not cover the packs with plastic to keep dust off. This can cause overheating.

Do not tape down the reset breaker buttons, they are there for a reason. If they keep popping, there is obviously a problem. Either the pack or electricity is faulty or you are shooting too fast. Taping them down can cause overheating or an electrical fire.

Other tips:

Low voltage modification: It is advisable to have all your power supplies modified with a low voltage trigger (LVT). Sync voltage is cumulative, the more packs you have hardwired, the more voltage you have running through the sync line. Camera electronics have been known to get fried from too much voltage running through a sync terminal.

Canon EOS1/1N, and Nikon F4/5, N90 are pretty well insulated from this occurrence, even without LVTs, however I do not recommend using more than 4 lights w/o LVTs installed. It is not advisable to use lower end cameras w/o LVTs installed, regardless of the number of packs.
Speedo 2401SX packs have a built in LVT and cooling fan and designed for rapid firing. Speedo 2401 and 2403 series packs may be modified internally, whereas the 2405 series must be modified externally. Dynalites and Elinchromes must be modified externally.

Mic jacks: many arenas have implemented "no drop line" policies. If they do not have a drop line system installed, this can mean having to run miles of zip through seats and stairwells, along walls just to get your sync line to the floor. Mic jacks can be used to avoid this. Simply wire a couple of mic jacks (males) with zip cord. Be sure to wire them identically, otherwise they won't work. Then find an open mic jack in the catwalk and another one near the floor and plug your sync lines into the mic jacks.

Then find a sound engineer that can patch the two jacks together at the sound board/panel. Make sure to note the mic jack location numbers for the sound engineer. Ta da...your drop line is done! Don't forget to buy them a beer or send them a hat or T-shirt, they just saved you a sh*t load of work!

Photo by

Shawn Cullen packs it in after a long day at the McKale Center.
Radios slaves: radio slaves are great when they work, and they can be your worst nightmare when they don't. Radios are best when you have to move around a lot, such as during pre game warm-ups or after game jubilation when you run onto the floor. Dragging around a wire would obviously be a dangerous situation for you, your camera and any other person running around.

When using a radio, keep in mind that many factors come into play, especially at big events like the NBA finals. Many photographers are using them now. You need to make sure that you are not on the same frequency as someone else. Not only will you fire their lights (or remote cameras), but they will also fire yours. Also be aware of cordless mics and radio antennas...they can also trigger or interfere with your radios.

The Pocket Wizards have reduced the impact of such interference with numerous channels and dedicated frequencies that no one else has.

Remember one rule: if you can hardwire your camera, don't use a radio. Hardwire is THE most reliable way to fire your strobes.

My favorite arena to light without a permanent set is Arco Arena in Sacramento. By far THE easiest place to light. Drive your car/van into the arena to the freight elevator, load straight into the elevator; take the elevator all the way to the catwalk. I think there are three steps, not flights, just steps you have to step up to get to the catwalk. That's it! Set up time: less than 2 hours. Tear down time: less than an hour!

My least favorite arena: any dome.

And one last note: use of external strobes through the sync terminal voids your camera warranty. They put the sync terminal on the camera, but you're not supposed to use it. Go figure! So if any repair person asks if you use external strobes...LIE, but you didn't hear that from me! Taniwaki, close your eyes!

If you have any questions regarding arena lighting or a specific arena, feel free to email me at

Happy lighting!

(Darrell Miho traveled the country lighting arenas for Sports Illustrated, working events like the NBA Finals and the NCAA Final Four. He is currently freelancing in Southern California, but his heart is in Hawaii.)

Related Email Addresses: 
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