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How To Photograph Volleyball

This fast-paced sport presents opportunities for awesome action photos

Volleyball is a great sport to photograph because it can be relatively easy to get close to the action. And since that action is often indoors and out of the weather, it’s a more comfortable sport to photograph too. Photographing football, for instance, might require a super-telephoto lens in order to cross the vast distance from the photographer’s position to the action happening at the other end of the field. Add to that the challenges—and discomfort—of shooting in winter’s inclement weather and indoor sports such as volleyball become a much more appealing photographic subject. Here are five tips on how to photograph volleyball.

Equipment Concerns Are Minimal

This sport is the great equalizer when it comes to cameras and lenses because its smaller scale means there aren’t really any special (read: expensive) requirements to be able to make great shots. While some sports take place in stadiums across acres of turf, even high-profile volleyball events make it easier for fans and photographers to get close to the action. From a seat in the stands, a 70-200mm zoom can accomplish a lot, particularly if you’re positioned high and can shoot across the net as the outside hitter spikes the ball. If you’re photographing a kids’ game in a school gymnasium, you might be able to position yourself practically courtside. From here, putting yourself near the net allows you to create compositions focusing on the action above the net as well as sets and defensive plays that happen on the ground. For these, a normal 50mm lens might be perfect for great shots, and you can even make a wide angle 24mm or 35mm work for interesting pictures taking in the entirety of the court.

Dealing With Speed Is Very Important

As with any sport, a camera capable of shooting a very fast frame rate of 10 frames per second (fps) or more is an excellent asset. It’s a great way to capture a sequence of before, during and after the player makes contact with the ball, such as spiking, bumping or setting. Speaking of bumps and sets, some actions happen at a slower pace than others. The ball and body movement in a set, for instance, is generally slower than with a spike. If you’re limited by your equipment and can’t dial in a super-fast shutter speed, or if you’ve got considerable lag time between pressing the button and capturing the frame, consider focusing on some of these other actions that aren’t moving lightning quick. There’s a moment in a set, for instance, when the ball is on the setter’s fingertips and practically comes to a momentary halt. This is a great time to get by with a slower shutter speed or to overcome a lack of high frame rate by focusing on the moments when things slow down. For freezing the motion of a spike, expect to need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th if not 1/2000th or more, while a bump might be tack sharp at 1/500th.

Let’s not forget the impact of speed when it comes to focusing, too. If you’re using a state-of-the-art mirrorless camera capable of instantaneous focusing and focus tracking, your chances of sharp shots increase substantially. But if you’re using older equipment or a more basic camera, you might be better served by using manual focus and prefocusing on the area where the action will happen. Because, if your focus is hunting while the action unfolds, you’re going to miss a whole lot of shots. So, instead set the focus to manual and pick a spot where you know the action will unfold—whether that’s the spot that the server prefers to make impact or the area of the net in which the opposite hitter will appear for the kill.

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Work With The Light, Or Lack Thereof

Because we’re talking about how to photograph volleyball indoors, you’ll need to address the elephant in the room: the light. While it’s probably consistent within a given facility, all too often it’s consistently poor. Sodium vapor lights, green color shifts or simply low levels of overall illumination can present a real problem for volleyball photographers. Overcome them first by making a custom white balance setting at the start of each shoot. Photographing a neutral gray card courtside can, when combined with RAW image capture, provide the ability to adjust white balance in post and ensure perfectly accurate color. Without raw capture capability, you’ll need to get the color just right in camera, so you could dial in different white balances and use the one that looks best to your eye or simply set it to auto white balance and live with getting “close enough.” Color will be a secondary concern if you can’t get enough light into the camera to deliver fast shutter speeds and capture fast-moving action, so be sure to provide sufficient ISO regardless of how much noise it introduces.

ISO presents a philosophical concern for some photographers, but I take a more simplified approach: noise is the least of our concerns. Not only is noise one of the easiest things to minimize in post-processing, even noisy pictures are preferable to those that aren’t sharp. You see, if you can’t provide sufficient ISO, you’ll never achieve the fast shutter speeds that freeze the action. So, while your ISO 400 image file may be clean and noise free, when photographing volleyball indoors you’re not likely to have a shutter speed faster than 1/60th of a second even when shooting with the aperture wide open. This simply won’t suffice. So, one approach is to crank up the ISO to 6000 and then use shutter priority to dial in a shutter speed of 1/2000th and see whether the camera is able to open the lens enough for an appropriate exposure. (If it’s stopping down to ƒ/11 you’ve got the ISO too high; if it’s choosing ƒ/4 or so you’re probably in a good spot). Another approach—and my preferred mode in many situations—is to dial in exactly the manual shutter speed and aperture combo I’m looking for (say, 1/4000th at ƒ/4) and then set the ISO to auto. It will adjust the ISO as high or low as needed to make my camera settings work, ensuring that I’ve got sharp shots with an ideal depth of field and letting noise run wild if necessary since that’s the thing I’ve got a better shot at repairing in post. There’s no fix for a slow shutter speed that captures blurry action.

Work For Clean Backgrounds

Indoor volleyball courts can have a variety of backgrounds, from blank gymnasium walls to crowded grandstands. In order to put the focus more squarely on the subject, you’ll want to minimize distracting backgrounds. This can be done with slightly longer lenses (which condense the scene and eliminate background clutter by moving it out of frame) and by shooting at wider apertures that create shallower depth of field. These steps alone can go a long way to cleaner compositions, but in some cases, you’ve got more options.

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If you’re in a facility that offers overhead viewing, you’ve got a great vantage point to create simple backgrounds since shooting from above puts the court itself in the background. Even if you’re shooting with a pocket camera or a smartphone that doesn’t offer long glass or adjustable apertures, you can still simplify the scene and eliminate background distractions by shooting from above. Conversely, if you can get down very low to the ground courtside, you might be able to eliminate some background clutter by using the ceiling or walls as the background. Plus, both of these unique vantage points offer the added bonus of making more interesting images since we’re so far from the normal eye level.

Keep The Ball In Your Shots

Last but not least, don’t forget the golden rule of volleyball photography: don’t lose the ball. Make sure you keep the ball in your composition. If that requires going vertical instead of shooting horizontally, go for it. Without the ball in the frame, the photographs are inherently less compelling.

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