Adventures in Sports Photography, Women’s Volleyball Edition

December 12, 2010 at 8:09 pm 6 comments


A friend and I went to Rec Hall last night to watch the Penn State women’s volleyball team beat Duke to win the NCAA regional tournament and advance to the national semifinals.

It was great, of course, to be part of the noisy and enthusiastic home crowd, and to see players like Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson for the last time in Rec Hall. But I also decided to bring my camera along and try my hand at photographing volleyball. And oh boy, was it challenging.

I’ll spare you the details of spending the first 10 or 15 minutes messing around with white balance (fluorescent turned out to be best), aperture (f5.6 or so), and ISO (I cranked it to 2500 at times). At one point I went over to talk to Mark Selders, who shoots for the athletic department—and who, I might add, has a much better camera and waaaaaaaay longer lenses than I do. He gave me a few tips: For example, when the ball is served, Mark focuses on the defensive player just on the other side of the net. That’s where the action eventually will be, and if you focus there, the photo has the best chance of being crisp.

Anyway, I cannot begin to tell you how many lousy shots I took last night. And I’m sure the pros took a lot of lousy shots, too, though surely not as many as I did. But that’s the thing about sports photography: You have to shoot a lot of images in order to get a few that are good. By the time you delete the ones that are out of focus, or where the key player’s face is blocked by someone else, or where you caught them in a goofy expression, or where you can’t see the ball, there aren’t too many left.

I took easily more than 400 photos last night, and looking at them on my computer last night was a mind-numbing experience. Many of them were so bad as to be almost humorous, like this one:

There are just so many things going wrong here, photographically speaking. No focal point—where is the eye supposed to go? Awkward posture on some of the players—I seem to have caught Penn State’s Ariel Scott (1) and Arielle Wilson (7) plus several Duke players in unflattering positions. And where the heck is the ball? Oh, there it is—up near the top of the frame, right by the photographer who happens not to be watching the action.

(Click on the photo to see it larger and you’ll see just how bad it is.)

A big challenge is in catching the action at just the right moment—like when one of the hitters is making contact with the ball. I’m lucky to have a camera (a Nikon D90) with a reasonably fast “burst rate,” that is, I can hold the shutter down and supposedly get off 4.5 frames per second. But even so, I was constantly missing the action. Four-and-a-half frames per second is not a lot when it comes to sports photography; I think the pros have cameras that shoot nine or more frames per second.

Eventually I caught on to the need to anticipate—to see a play developing, then to start shooting before the player goes up to hit the ball and not stop shooting until the play is over. So I’d hold the shutter down and fire off eight or 10 shots per play. And most of the time, I still missed the money shot. For example, here’s Blair Brown about to hit it:

And here is the very next frame, a split-second later—obviously it’s after she hit it.


So I came away from Rec Hall last night even more impressed with the pro photographers who shoot sports. It’s clear that getting the “money shot” is a combination of skill, equipment, experience, and a little bit of luck.

Below is probably the best shot I got last night, at least in terms of catching the right moment. It’s of freshman outside hitter Deja McClendon, who led the team with 20 kills, and who’s going to be a lot of fun to watch over the next three years.


Even that one has its limitations; if you click on it to view it larger, you’ll see. Mostly I don’t like the fact that your eye probably goes to Alyssa D’Errico (No. 12) first, then notices McClendon after that.

Clearly I’ll need to spend some more time in Rec Hall next season to work on this sort of thing.

In any case, the Penn State women—three-time defending national champs—now head to Kansas City for an NCAA semifinal match against Texas. Cal meets USC in the other semifinal. You should be able to see the matches on ESPN2.

Tina Hay, editor

P.S. One of our top five most popular blog posts of all time was this one featuring a short video clip from our photo shoot with the women’s volleyball team in early 2009; it was for our March-April 2009 cover story. Check it out if you haven’t already.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. R Thomas Berner  |  December 13, 2010 at 8:20 am

    If you process in Photoshop, it’s easier to correct the white balance there than try to figure out on a tiny camera monitor what’s best. While it’s nice to have a million options on your camera, some of them are, IMHO, better left to be dealt with in Photoshop.

  • 2. Danny  |  December 13, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Great insight & info.

  • […] tried photographing other sports before (including women’s volleyball back in December), but I had never shot wrestling. So, after securing a media pass for Sunday’s match, I […]

  • […] year I did a little shooting during an NCAA regional match in Rec Hall and wrote about how hard it is to shoot volleyball. It doesn’t appear to have gotten any easier since […]

  • […] other Penn State sports—I’ve written before about my forays into women’s volleyball (here and here) and wrestling—and I’ve been thinking about trying football for a while. So I […]

  • […] written before about the challenges and rewards in photographing volleyball, wrestling, and a football practice. But, except for one time in the late 1970s when I took my […]

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