Dave Black Shooting his Dreams
In 1980, Dave Black began photographing sports by working the Olympics that year. Since then, he’s covered 12 Olympic games and countless world championships, international competitions, and national sports championships in the United States and other countries. He’s also covered professional football, baseball, basketball, motorsports, and others. Tennis, golf, and college sports have also graced his portfolio. He worked for Golf Digest for five years, and has had long relationships with Newsweek, TIME, and Sports Illustrated. With thirty years of experience, there’s not many sports Black hasn’t covered.
Deeply knowledgable on many types of photographic gear, Black enjoys speaking about different technologies and how he uses them. Black was earning a living with sports photography when relying on motor drives, which, if you’ve only shot digitally, advanced 35mm film at varying speeds, depending on both how you set it and mechanical integrity. Relying on devices like this to get photos which paid was often trial and error, and Black kept himself on the bleeding edge of technologies we take for granted today.
Black feels he first made his mark by lighting sports which typically didn’t get strobe treatment. “For me, lighting has always been in the mix,” he says. “Early on, I would light or strobe light the indoor arenas of events we were covering. I would light Olympic sports, which wasn’t done much at that time—boxing, wrestling, indoor track and field, swimming; things like that.”
The old days of the way this type of photography was done are not the fondest of memories for Black. “In the mid‑80s and probably up into the early 90s, strobe lighting an arena would be done with what was called hardwiring the system,” he explains. “In other words, you’d run hardwire between all the power packs and then you’d drop a hardwire line down from the catwalk system of the arena to your photo position, which is typically sitting on the base line of the court for a basketball game.”
“I hated hard wiring. I hated dragging spools of wire around. I hated getting the whole thing set up and then having some maintenance guy up in the catwalk step on the line and break it,” Black remembers, laughing. “I went to the PocketWizard units pretty early on. I thought, ‘Man, this is a good deal.’ I still have a couple of the early units. They worked with good success. People would ask me, ‘How are you doing that?’ This is long before MultiMAX, long before a lot of the fancy PocketWizard stuff you have now. It was just a very basic transmitter-receiver system. I used it and it worked well. Gosh, this was probably 1988, ’89.”
Black has become a HyperSync devotee, and uses the PocketWizard FlexTT5 to achieve high speed syncing. When asked to describe HyperSync and how it’s working for him, Black is direct. “Unbelievable,” he says, laughing. “In a word, that’s a pretty good one to use. Ever since I can remember lighting sports events, I’ve wanted to light them outdoors, in the daytime, and you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t combine the ambient light—the daylight—and the flash from the strobe at a fast shutter speed. You’d always be at 1/250 of a second, and combining the two kinds of light—the daylight outdoors and the strobe lights from the power pack and flash tube—there’d just be blurring at 1/250 of a second. It isn’t a fast enough shutter speed to stop the action.”
Now that he’s using the FlexTT5, Black is able to achieve the speeds he needs for off-camera flash outdoors at sporting events of all kinds. The FlexTT5 isn’t the only weapon in his radio trigger arsenal. “I use the PocketWizard AC3,” he says. “I can adjust the power on the power pack up and down. More power, less power, right from the camera, because I just fit the AC3 right on top of the FlexTT5. It’s like, ‘Man, is that nice!'” he laughs. “That is great.”
When asked to detail what’s actually going on when Black shoots with off-camera flash, he is a patient and helpful instructor. “Most of what I’m dealing with is sports, but the FlexTT5 system does something else, or helps who I would call portrait photographers, as well. What it allows you to do is use a very fast shutter speed, let’s just say 1/1600 of a second. That’s really fast. 1/500 is pretty fast. A thousandth of a second, that’s even faster. 1/1600…wow,” he says in amazment. “That’s really a fast shutter speed. The faster your shutter speed gets, the smaller your aperture gets. Which is depth of field. That controls your depth of field. If I were doing a lit portrait outdoors, before the FlexTT5 system came along, I’d have to shoot it 1/250 of a second, which is a very standard sync speed. But outdoors that’s going to give me an aperture of like f/16 or f/22. So not only is my subject in focus and perfectly sharp, but chances are all the background that’s behind them—trees or a lake or whatever it is, the church if it’s a wedding photographer—that’s also in focus because of f/16, f/22. What the FlexTT5 system does is I can say, ‘I want a picture of this bride in front of the church. I want her to be in focus and sharp, but I want the depth of field to be very narrow or short. I want like f/4.’ I can do that with FlexTT5 units.”
“I can go up to like 1/1600 of a second, have my aperture at f/4,” Black continues. “Then the church behind her becomes very soft and diffused. It makes a beautiful portrait. Not only is it just for me as a sports photographer, but I think anyone who does portraiture lighting outdoors. This is a tremendous system. I might add, it’s relatively inexpensive. It’s not cost prohibitive. The comparison is, to achieve the same things I’d have to buy eight speed lights at $500 each. That’s a lot of money. And I do own a lot of speed lights to do various projects with, but essentially, I can use the FlexTT5. I also use the PocketWizard ST4. That is actually on the power pack.”
The technology Black has adopted has quite literally enabled him to shoot the way he was previously unable to. “When the power packs are 80 feet away or something, I can’t stop the cycling action and say, ‘OK, guys. Stop,’ and then run across the track and dial the power up and then run back over, make another test shot, run back,” he explains. “All I have to do now is just dial it in on the AC3, right on top of the FlexTT5. ‘Oh, I need more power over there. Dial it up.’ You know? ‘Oh, that’s too much? Dial it down.’ I don’t even have to leave, in this case, the motorcycle guys. They can just keep flying around the course. I don’t have to do anything. I just keep taking pictures.”
Black also feels remaining unobtrusive as a photographer is critical to other types of shoots. “It’s the same if you’ve ever done portraits,” he says. “You don’t want to lose relationship with your subject by going, ‘Oh, Marcia, just stand there for a second. I’ve got to go change all the settings on these power packs.'”
Often finding himself fielding questions from other photographers, Black regularly explains his set-up, and how it works, to other professional sports photographers. He credits HyperSync as being the secret ingredient to his rig. “That’s what separates it from all other systems. I’m achieving 1/1600 of a second and it looks great,” he says. “That’s fast enough to stop pretty much anything you’d want, I think.”
In the future, Black sees himself covering larger events, with possibly even faster speeds. He has recently successfully shot kayaking, and feels there are few limitations to what he can do. “Honestly, I’m not a technology kind of guy,” he says. “The technology improves and gets better all the time. This kind of system I’m using now allows me to make pictures I used to dream about.”
Written by Ron Egatz