I’ve now got a season of Middle School Volleyball under my belt, as well as at least one college-level game, and boy have I learned a lot!
First, a shout out to this website biggerinthemiddle.com, about the only volleyball-specific photo how-to I could find on the internet. Lots of useful information there. I also found some great advice on Randall McAdory’s Lens Extender site, but I found him late in the season. If you know of any other volleyball-specific sites, how about adding them to the comments?
OK, so what have I learned?
First, the lighting in our home school’s gym is atrocious. Not only is it dim (for photography purposes), but it’s mixed. There’s fluorescents mixing with tungsten, creating this really odd orange/green mix. To make matters worse, the gym floor and bleachers are varnished wood, the walls are tan, and many of the “accoutrements” in the room are orange, adding to the color effect.
This is where knowing how to set a custom white balance comes in handy. I bought a small white / grey / black card set, and use it to set the custom white balance on my camera to match the actual lighting in the room. When I got home I was able to confirm that despite the still-horrible orange cast to all of the pictures, it was the fault of the room, not my white balance. The whites were in fact white!
The second problem we confront in the gym is the lack of lighting. Even at ISO 3200 (really pushing it, even on my camera), I was barely able to get 1/125 at f4. This is much too slow to freeze a flying volleyball, and barely fast enough to catch a moving player. To make matters even worse, the varnished basketball court floor doesn’t diffuse the ceiling lights very well, leading to hot spots. Still, I was able to handle the lighting OK and get some decently exposed photos.
At the tournament, the lighting in the high school gym was much better, and a good deal brighter than our home gym, but really only enough to get the ISO down to 1600, or the shutter above 1/200. The lighting was more even as well, but the floor was still a bit too mirror-like. It was nice to have learned a bit about the “exposure triangle” (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) to be able to compensate for the lighting conditions. I did notice one other fellow trying to use his on-camera pop-up flash from 40 feet away. I wonder how his shots worked out…
The college game was far better than any of the others. I’m not sure the type of lighting, but white balance was no problem, as you can see from the shots here. Plus I was able to get all the way up to 1/640 at f5.1 and ISO 1600, leading to some (relatively) very sharp photos.
Third up, I love my manual focus lenses! I used the Tamron 70-210 a lot, set at f4 and 100mm (200mm equivalent), and particularly shooting from the stands to the far side of the court (about 85 feet to the net), I had enough depth of field to keep everyone on my team’s side in focus, without having to twiddle with it. This was especially nice when shooting through the net, as the autofocus didn’t handle that quite so well.
Up close, from the side, I’m not certain whether I liked my “new” Sigma 35-70mm manual lens or my Olympus 40-150 AF lens. The Sigma did work well, but the zoom range of the Oly suits the venue pretty well. Up close the 40mm is a bit restrictive, can’t get the whole court in view.
I’ve since purchased a Tamron 40A 35-135 zoom that is nearly perfect (in terms of zoom range) for a Middle School sized gym. The short end is wide enough to get some good multi-player shots, and the long end is long enough to zero in on a play from the top of the bleachers. It’s a good “one lens to carry” for my needs, though it is quite heavy compared to more modern lenses. At the season-end tournament, I was able to shoot an entire match with just this lens, with the sole exception of the wide full-court “establishing shot” I took at 14mm. Of course, at f3.5-4.5 it would be nice if it were a little faster glass, but for $20 I can’t complain.
This was the best part, and the hardest part. Technically speaking, I quickly caught on to watching the serve, predicting where it would go, and getting the camera in the right position to follow the action. By the end of the season, I was even beginning to be able to do some composition before the crucial moment. It’s pretty much a given that at least a little bit of cropping will be necessary, as the game can move very fast and sometimes you need to zoom a bit wide to be sure to catch the action in frame. Or at least I do. I’m sure I’ll get better at this.
The hardest part was balancing my “duty” to take good photos against my interest in enjoying the game. That was, of course, my daughter and her friends out there fighting hard to win the game. I often found myself missing great shots because I was busy watching the action, or missing the flow of a great play because I had my eye to the viewfinder. Mostly the former.
It would actually be easier, and more fun from a photographic standpoint to photograph other teams playing, and sit back to enjoy and cheer on our own team. But then, how would we have photos to enjoy afterward?