After the heat of summer, when students return to school in the United States, Volleyball is one of the sports played in the Fall season. It moves from being an outside sport, to an inside one. This is unfortunate, at least from a photographic point of view, since most High School gyms are poorly lit. However, even in these conditions, with some practice and the right equipment, you can still get good pictures.
I shoot Volleyball with just one camera, concentrating on taking pictures of the team I am supporting. Past experience has taught me that the other team (school, parents and fans) will seldom, if ever, purchase pictures, no matter how much time and effort I spent on promoting such.
You don’t need the ball in every shot.
Due to the dark conditions, a lot of people shoot this sport with a 200mm f/2 lens. I have never owned or shot with that particular lens, and at a price of almost $6,000, I don’t plan to (unless that Lotto ticket wins or my rich uncle dies). I have, however, shot it with a 50mm f/1.8 and a 85mm f/1.8 on a D800E. Of those two lenses, I would suggest the 85mm, due to the longer reach. I have also shot it with a 70-200 f/2.8 on a D3S. While I like the extended reach of the 70-200, unless you have good light, I would suggest staying with f/2 or faster glass.
I shoot Volleyball from the stands, usually getting a seat in the first three or four rows. I sit on the end of the gym where my team is playing, switching ends when they do. I try to get a seat close to the net area (about six feet to the side of it). Note: If the gym is crowded, you may not be able to switch seats when your team moves.
For me, Volleyball does not lend itself to being shot from the ends (like Basketball), nor is there a lot of benefit to moving around (like the sidelines on American Football), however you are welcome to try.
Like with most sports, you want to use a quick shutter speed. However, to keep your ISO within a reasonable range, you typically can’t go too fast. If shooting f/1.4 glass, you can get away with 1/1,000th of a second, or even a little faster. With f/1.8 glass I normally shoot Volleyball at either 1/640th or 1/800th of a second. For other camera settings, see my “High School Sports Photography Tips” article. Remember, the lower the F-stop number, the thinner your depth-of-field, so be sure to have your lens dialed in on your camera.
Follow the ball with the camera, that is where the action is, but keep you other eye open. Sometimes two or more players are reacting to the expected path of the ball, and collisions can occur. Be prepared to shoot in short bursts. I have my camera set on “Ch” mode, and normally shoot in bursts of two or three shots.
Volleyball is a very vertical or tall sport, and is usually best shot in portrait orientation, with occasional ones in landscape. If using a 70-200 lens, be warned, there is a lot of zooming in and out involved (one of the reasons I prefer to shoot this sport with a fixed lens).
When the game ends, and before switching seats, take a quick shot of the scoreboard. Since a Volleyball match is as many as five games (first team to win three games is the winner), this is a quick reference shot to use between games.
Shooting Volleyball with the Nikon D810
The D810, like the D3S, has a native ISO range up to 12,800. For testing I restricted myself to ISO 3,200. Test shots were done with the 85mm f/1.8. I shot some at 1/640th, and some at 1/800th, of a second, and restricted the ISO range accordingly. In addition, I tested Single Point, 9 Point and Group Area AF.
In a quick review of the shots, I had a better hit ratio with Single Point Focus. Group Area AF was slightly lower, and 9 Point was awful. In Volleyball people are moving around too much, sometimes blocking the person you are trying to focus on. In my opinion the focus system, if not in Single Point, can get confused as to which player to put in focus.
The D810 worked fine for Volleyball, with the above caveat on focus. DxO has just updated their program to include processing for the D810, so I have included a sample shot above.