November 2014 | Issue no.8 | by mark shaiken

Welcome to do :: or :: diso, a monthly sports photography ezine. do :: or :: diso will address issues particular to sports photography in a format that is to the point and easy to understand. This month, one of the more raucous sports to shoot – Volleyball.

A Little History: Volleyball was invented by William G. Morgan, an instructor at the YMCA in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1895 as a blend of basketball, baseball, tennis, and handball.  It is a truly an international sport, immensely popular in many countries. The action begins with set plays called by hand signals, much like a third base coach relays signs to a batter.



The Filipinos are credited with introducing the modern system of high ball sets followed by a spike, or kill shot. Today, the kill shot travels at speeds of 60-80 miles per hour.


The Olympics designated Volleyball an Olympic sport in 1957 and its first Olympic competition was in Tokyo in 1964. It tests your photography skills to adjust quickly to an ever-changing competition landscape as the ball moves unpredictably at ridiculous speeds, and is passed, dinked, spiked, and digged by players with incredible vertical leaps.

Strategies for Shooting Volleyball:

Settings: To get a good volleyball image in a typical gym, you have to give in to high ISO – 2500, 3200, and 4000. I usually try for the middle ground of ISO 3200 and shoot in aperture priority with the aperture wide open – f / 2.8 if you have it. That should yield shutter speeds of at least 1/500 second, and hopefully, closer to 1/1000 second. You will need that to freeze the players’ arms as they go in for the kill shot, a motion where the hand is the hammer at the end of the sledge (the arm) that collides with the ball at the moment of maximum speed. The floor is quite reflective and the gyms can be older with lighting that can wreak havoc with white balance. With so much frenzy unfolding at breakneck speed, I want to focus on the action, so I use the automatic white balance setting and let the camera adjust to subtle changes in light temperature.


Sit on the floor as close as the officials will allow you. Try near the net:


and in the middle between the net and the end line.


Try at the top of the bleachers shooting along the line of the net.

rockhurst tour9614D4 300-454


Follow the Action?  I would be lying if I said I did not try to follow the ball as it rockets around the court.  Trying to frame and focus on players as the ball moves from one side of the court to another at warp speed is irresistible . . .  but it is often unsatisfying.  The reality is that the better shots employ the “wait for it” mentality. To wait for it, I try to follow one player for a few minutes. By doing so, I can usually get a block at the net,


a dig,


a return at the right moment,

rockhurst tour9614D4 70-200-548-2

rockhurst tour9614D4 70-200-685

or my favorite – the incredible emotion of the players after each point, like on the cover shot or in these images.  It is so very contagious:

rockhurst tour9614D4 70-200-989

rockhurst tour9614D4 70-200-789



Lenses: I shoot most of my shots with a 70-200mm f / 2.8 lens. I also go wide (24-70mm f / 2.8 lens) to accentuate just how high off the ground the game is played.


From above, I have used a 300mm f / 2.8 lens,

KSU UT D700 10612-282-2-2

or a wide angle shot . . .

KSU UT D800 10612-248-2-2


Noise is the bane of high ISO photography. It is similar to grain in film photography. If there is enough of it, the image lacks crucial detail. The amount of noise a sports photographer can tolerate is a matter of personal taste, but even then, everyone agrees that the less noise, the better.

Technical Mumbo Jumbo that is Important: The amount of noise is affected not only by how high you crank the ISO, but also by the size of the sensor.  Why?  In a 2009 article by Matthew Gore, he said “using a high ISO setting on a digital camera allows extra power to the sensor to increase its sensitivity, but also increases the amount of heat, and consequently, the number of misfires in receptors.” (Light and Matter, Noise Reduction by Matthew Gore 9/’09).  With all that heat, pixel density matters. The more pixels that are packed on the sensor, the smaller the size of each pixel, the hotter they each get, and the quicker you may reach unacceptable noise levels as you increase ISO. Thus, a larger sensor (think full-sized sensors) means more room for pixels, less heat among the pixels, and as a result, the camera can better manage the levels of noise as ISO increases. So, a 16 megapixel point and shoot camera with a tiny sensor yields more noisy images than a Nikon D4 which distributes its 16 megapixels onto a large full-sized sensor.  Shorthand:  Think of a small sensor as urban living for pixels – there are more pixel residents packed into small quarters and therefore, more noise (like an apartment building), and a larger sensor as rural living for pixels – lots of real estate on which to spread out and less noise (like two farmhouses acres apart).  Makes sense?  Sure thing.

The two kinds of noise are color noise and luminance noise. Color noise introduces color pixels into the image and causes color shifts and loss of saturation that appear as annoying color speckles. Luminance noise is the grainy patterning caused by different tones in an area.

Post Processing Noise Management:  Noise at ISO 3200 is inevitable.  To manage noise, you must turn to post-processing. The trick is to reduce noise while retaining as much sharpness and detail as possible.  There are many noise reduction software products on the market (some I do not use are Noise Ninja, Topaz DeNoise, Neat Image and Imagenomic Noiseware). I am sure they all work to different degrees, many are excellent, and a number have a dizzying amount of sliders for precise adjustments and controls. If you are shooting lots of images, however, software that is quick, accurate, and does not turn the image to plastic, is the best. I alternate the use of two products:  Nik Dfine and Lightroom.  Nik Dfine is a plugin (you can access it in Lightroom or Photoshop) that is a wonderful quick fix – it has an automatic mode that whizzes through the picture and makes the noise reduction adjustment in a wink.


Lightroom is almost as quick but has sliders in the Development mode that allow you to adjust the image,


and see the effects in real time (Dfine has a mode to adjust select areas of the photo for even more control, but I find that mode takes longer than Lightroom). In Lightroom, I tend to start with settings for color and luminance at the image’s ISO minus the zeroes. So, if I shoot at 3200 ISO, I set the sliders to 32, and adjust from there.

Next Month

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