Wednesday, August 11, 2004

How to shoot volleyball

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Southlake Carroll's Dani Johnson (No. 11, left) hits past Flower Mound Marcus' Katherine Adams (No. 3, right) during a high school volleyball match at Flower Mound Marcus High School on Tuesday, October 14, 2003.

Since I don't have a lot of time today, I'll avoid talking about remote strobes. So, I'll assume we're shooting in a well-lit gym (Ba ha ha ... hold on, let me get back into my chair). OK. I'm better now.

Volleyball is the first official sport of the year at most high schools. As such, it is a fast way for editors to evaluate freelancers for the rest of the sports season. This sport will show a PJ’s technical weaknesses. If a Sports PJ can’t handle volleyball’s demands, s/he won't be of much use in the long run. S/he can always get a second chance, but if there are two people vying for the same slot, the one who comes back with publishable images wins the position.

Volleyball is a game of speed, strategy and timing. Advanced teams will distract opponents (and PJs) and send three hitters into the air early for an off-timed spike by yet another player. Fast, long glass is required as well as a monopod.

It is not a high-contact sport, so there is seldom a bone-crushing image. However, it's very fast. A normal spike will move in excess of 1/500th of a second off a hand. At the same time, it is often played in what can best be described as a barn (poor light, but not today, nope I won’t go there). At least the light is constant (if all the gym lights are working), so set the camera to manual mode metered for ambient light. Do whatever EV changes (aperture or iso) are required to get at least 1/250 shutter speed.

The game is played in a smaller section of a standard basketball gymnasium. The refs will let PJs stand/sit/crawl-on-their-belly-like-a-reptile as far as the bold exterior stripe of the basketball area. Going beyond this stripe might interfere with the game and/or injure the players (a liability issue).

Get the standard safe shots before the game begins.

With the new rally scoring system, matches tend to last a little longer, but they can still finish before the PJ is ready (if it's a mismatched game). So CYA, then go for harder shots.

For simplicity, we're going to only have one team from our readership playing this game. Shooting both sides limits time and this is not a sport with a lot of spare time. Therefore, I'll refer to the subject team as "home" and the opponents as "visitors."

For new PJs, the editor only wants shots with the focus on the home team unless otherwise stated. It doesn't matter how great the visitors are, focus on the home team. It's better if images show faces from both teams because one went to the net backwards, but get the home team’s faces first.

Start by working shots for publication. Often these will not be published because they are a stepped-up version of safe shots. Each sport will have its own variation of average shots (think a "C" on a college exam). These images might be great (someone could always spontaneously combust), but you are honestly covering your rump.

Go to baseline of the visitor’s side and center on the court. From a standing position with a 80~200mm lens and monopod, focus on the middle person in the front line of the home team. At this distance, most shots along the net should be nearly in focus. I normally shoot on manual focus for these and let my depth of field handle variances.

Get a few shots of some spikes and blocks along the net. Shutter timing is critical. At 1/250, there are 249 wrong times to shoot. There is only one right time to shoot. The PJ better get it because the ball is completely out of the frame in 3/250 seconds.

Get some shots of the coach giving instructions and teammates cheering.

After a few safe net shots are in the bag, move to the side of the court. Sit on the floor near the bleachers or guard wall. Align yourself between the two lines of players. From here, the PJ can get backline digs and frontline sets. These are the "B" grade shots.

At this point, it becomes important to understand the game. For time's sake, I'm going to give the suggestions without answering "why." Focus on the middle backline player while the visitors serve. If one of the outside backline is weak, focus on her instead because the visitor will already know the weakness and try to exploit her (volleyball is a girls-only high school sport in Texas). Get the dig.

If home is serving, get a few serve shots if the server is on a streak, otherwise it is just a waste of time. Instead, focus on the other backline girls for the return.

After a few digs, get some shots of the setter. The setter is often the most important team member because she makes the spike possible. An 8'2" player becomes an angry blocker if the setter sets the visitors.
Setters tend to be shorter than other players (this is why they specialized). This makes it easier to get a good shot from the ground. However, if the PJ can stand to shoot the setter, it will be a better shot because she tends to look up at the ball while setting.

Once these are accomplished, get the overhead view. These images depend on gym design. Some have catwalks (always leave camera vests/bags behind and tape the camera onto your hand with gaffer's tape). Some have observation decks over the basketball hoops (makes for great net shots). Most only have bleachers.

In some tournament situations, the bleachers are closed and moved to separate courts. These create a nice overhead view about 10 feet from the court over the ref's stand (not ideal for agoraphobics, since the bleachers must be climbed).

If assigned to get the setter, this is the best angle because the setter will be looking up at the ball (and the PJ). She will form a circle with her arms and have the ball at the end of her fingertips. The PJ gets the ball and the face of the subject in one frame.

Then stand behind the ref's stand with a 80~200mm autofocus (AF) and follow the ball for a while. The PJ might get lucky.

On important games, skip the last point and focus on the home sideline for the reaction.

These images are high risk. The likelihood of anything useful is minimal, but if it happens, won’t the PJ look brilliant at the editing desk. These are the "A" grade shots. Again I will stress not to try these until some publishable shots have already been accomplished.

Break out the 300mm or 400mm (if you’re freaking crazy). Sit on the visitor’s backline corner. Shoot for crosscourt outside-hitter spikes. Aim through the legs of the visitors to the backline of the home team and get the power digs.

Once the PJ's gotten a bag full of these, sit by the ref's stand. Switch to a 17mm or 14mm and try to get a front line dig. No problem? OK. Layer it. Oh, that's what I thought.

Go into the catwalk with long glass and see how tight you can get a pre-spike or set.

Next, try some of the "cool" things. Try a few panning blurs (synch them if you can, but I'm not going there). Look around for anything reflective for surreal shots. Try a slow-shutter, double-action zoom for a hit (if you pull this off, I hope you're in a different competition region).

Then, it's up to your imagination and technical prowess.

Enough for now,


Marie said...

Your blog is chocked full of useful info and I look forward to reading it each day. Thanks!

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thanks! I can't post every day, but I hope there is enough to keep you entertained when I get too busy.
P.S. Thanks for going through the additional trouble to post a comment. I do appreciate it.

Jayme said...

Thanks for posting this, I am by no means a photo pro but I am going to be taking some volleyball pictures of our team this year. This will really help. I look forward to checking out the rest of your blog.

PhotosGuy said...

Great thread! I'm way late to this thread, but would like to tell you that I've added a link in our Sports Shooting Tutorials and Advice thread:

Thanks for posting your knowledge! I SO hate typing this kind of stuff up. ;)

CAT in HAWAII said...

the best advice ive read on indoor sports pics... thanks!

steven said...

You should mention for the setter shots, to shoot from the left sideline. Almost all setters play the right side of the court and will face the left sideline when setting. Even if the pass is not perfect she will most likely move toward the left side to get to the ball.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thanks Steven,
Unless the setter is the subject of a particular feature story, the shot is considered a "safe shot" to most newspaper shooters. It's good to get a shot of the setter, but setter photos aren't very dramatic. Spikes and digs are far more likely to see print.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the tips. Will be trying them at next weekend's tournament.