I am frequently asked, "What's the most difficult sport you photograph?" Without question, it would be volleyball. Before I share my techniques for getting good shots, let me first review what my basic requirements are for a good sports action image. The image must include:
Ok. Now, on to photographing volleyball. Volleyball is very fast pace sport that is full of challenges most of which relate to lens focus. Obstructions like the net, players moving or diving in front of your subject, as well as a ball traveling at the speed of sound can throw off even the best camera auto-focusing systems which are programmed to focus on the nearest object in the scene. With volleyball, the athlete you are photographing is often the furthest object. So, how do you work around your auto focus?
Most DSLR cameras today allow you to move the auto focus function to a separate button other than the shutter release button. This allows the photographer the ability to start and stop the autofocus as needed rather than to have it on continuously while pressing the shutter release button. This is often referred to as "back-button" focusing. Once the photographer has the subject in focus, they release the assigned focus button just prior to pressing the shutter release. This keeps the auto focus from "hunting" for a subject to lock on to. It's not perfect but you will get a lot more shots in focus using back button focusing.
So, how do you obtain focus of your subject shooting through the net or other moving players? The first technique I use is by sitting on the floor and focusing on the legs of the athlete (below the net) I want to photograph. When the ball is passed to her, I stop my auto focus, frame the shot upward, and then hit my shutter release. The image above on the left is the result of using this technique.
Another way is to go up as high in the bleachers as possible and shoot at a 45 degree angle to the net. When the athlete you want to photograph jumps up and rises above the net you lock focus, stop the auto-focus, and then begin releasing your shutter. The image above on the right is the result using this technique.
Photographing any sport is not a perfect science. It's a process of trial and error and many years of experience. Don't give up and most of all be patient!