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I play volleyball. I would like to take pictures of my team during practice and games.

I have an iPhone 7 which is quite good for slo-mo and burst photography, but I am thinking about getting an actual camera.

What specs should I worry about for sports photography?

Can I ask here if a certain make/model (like Nikon COOLPIX L820) would be appropriate, or would that not fit the group description?

Thanks.

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Shooting indoor volleyball is one of the most difficult assignments even an experienced sports photographer can draw.

I know plenty of folks who get paid to shoot sports as part of their jobs as photojournalists. They do very good work shooting basketball, football (outdoors, but still under lights), baseball (even night games), tennis, etc., but many of them struggle with volleyball more than any other sport they are asked to shoot.

For the most part, those folks are shooting with some pretty sophisticated, well specced-out equipment such as Canon 1D X series or Nikon D5/D4/D3 cameras and fast 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms, faster prime (single focal length) lenses such as a 135mm f/2 or 200mm f/2, or even very expensive longer focal length lenses with f/2.8 apertures (300mm f/2.8).

That's not to say that one can't get some pretty good volleyball shots with something like a APS-C Canon 7D Mark II, 90D, or Nikon D500 and an 85mm f/1.8, 100mm f/2, 135mm f/2, 200mm f/2.8, or 70-200mm f/2.8. But as the gear becomes more limited, so do your options for what shots can and cannot be captured consistently.

Even with the best of gear, the difficulties include:

  • Poor lighting in most gyms. The best are a little dark. The worst are impossibly dark. Most are somewhere in between.
  • The net is often between the camera position and the intended subject and can "distract" the camera's autofocus system.
  • Ball speeds are very fast compared to many other sports, especially relative to the size of the ball in the frame. A pass or even kick in football doesn't travel near as fast as a hard spike in volleyball does, and the passed/kicked football is usually smaller in the frame than a good volleyball spike shot. The best basketball shots are when the player is holding, passing, or shooting the ball just before the ball leaves the player's hands, or during a dribble when the ball is frozen in that instant between going up and going back down as it is hit by the player's hand. Similarly, with tennis the best shots are when the ball is in contact with the racquet in that instant when it is reversing course. With volleyball, we often want the ball to be between the hitter/spiker on one side of the net and the bumper(s) on the other. And we want to freeze the ball or reduce the amount of blur from the speed of the ball as much as we can. That requires "fast" (wide aperture) lenses and cameras with good image quality at very high ISO settings.
  • If such a spot is even available, there tends to be fairly long distances in most gyms from positions where the photographer can shoot from above the net and behind the service line, which is from where many of the best volleyball shots can be made. You're almost always shooting the team on the other side of the net from such a position because they are the players facing you.

Even if you've got a large enough budget to match what the pros are using (a couple of f/2.8 telephoto primes and two pro sports body can be worth more than the car the pro uses to get to the game), you're going to be limited by your gear to one degree or another, no matter what you buy.

Unless you've got the time (years) and motivation to learn how to shoot in such difficult environments as well as the pros, you're going to be even more limited by your knowledge and experience.

So what's a volleyball player or other mere mortal to do?

Use the best gear you can afford in terms of fast aperture lenses (lenses with the lowest f-numbers) and larger sensors on cameras that have fast, responsive autofocus.

Even if you're looking at cameras with non-interchangeable lenses, look at the ones with wider apertures (lowest f-number) at their longest focal length compared to other cameras at a similar longest focal length. Most zoom lenses are described by their focal length range and then by the widest aperture at the extremes of that focal length range. Something like 35mm "equivalent" 24-200mm f/2.8-4 means the focal length ranges from 24mm at f/2.8 to 200mm at f/4. The lens will be fastest (lower f-number) at the shortest focal length and slower (higher f-number) at the longest focal length. For volleyball, you're probably more interested in using the longer focal lengths to get closeups of individual players. But don't sacrifice a faster f-number or larger sensor to get the absolute most "zoom" available. Such cameras, like the Nikon CoolPix L820 you mentioned, usually have smaller sensors and narrower apertures in order to be able to offer such "superzoom" focal length ranges. Instead of a "30X zoom" with a 35mm focal length equivalent of 22.5-675mm f/3-5.8 and a 1/2.3" (6.16x4.62mm) sensor that maxes out at ISO 3200, look for something with a long end around 200-300mm (35mm equivalent) or so. That will be enough "zoom" and will often allow for a wider maximum aperture and larger sensor in a similar price range. The Sony RX10, for example, has a 1" (13.2x8.8mm - roughly four times the area of the L820) sensor that goes to ISO 12800 behind a 35mm equivalent 24-200mm f/2.8 lens.

Shoot the kinds of shots that don't require the highest level of photo gear. Even the best photo gear has limits. Great photographers acknowledge those limits and find ways to get shots that work within the limitations of their gear.

  • You might not be able to get a clean shot of that killer spike that broke the tiebreaker in the final set. But you should be able to get a shot of your teammates reactions following such a play that puts your opponent away.
  • Shoot servers from down low behind the official's stand and time your shots just before they strike the ball. Depending on what level of play you're shooting, the servers are probably not moving from behind the line towards the net at very high speed.
  • Get shots of teammates encouraging each other before volleys or after a decisive point has been made.
  • Get shots of bumpers/setters waiting to see where the ball will be hit by the other team. Again, these can be taken pretty well from down low on the side of the court.
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    wow, Michael. Thank you SO much for your very detailed explanation. That's exactly what I was hoping for but didn't think people would be willing to spend time on. I'd send a dozen cookies if I could.... – Zonker.in.Geneva Jan 25 at 1:07
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What specs should I worry about for sports photography?

Really depends on the sport and the lighting and how close you can be to the action.

Photographing beach volleyball during the day: pretty easy, really. Your phone will work for wide angle shots and just about any camera with a longer lens attached (or lots of zoom) will get you into people's faces for close ups.

Photographing gymnasium volleyball: this is akin to shooting anything in a gym (wrestling, basketball, etc) and it's one of the hardest things to shoot. The reason for this is that gyms are basically dark caves and flash is not often allowed.

In these cases, you need a camera that either has a lens with a very wide open aperture (these are expensive in the longer focal ranges and/or with zooms) and a camera that has superb high ISO performance (newer is better here).

Those are some general guidelines. If you can whittle down from these into selecting exact gear and/or exact types of images you are trying to get and where, then this answer can get more specific.

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  • thanks, Hueco. Very good short summary. I have a lot to think about. – Zonker.in.Geneva Jan 25 at 1:09

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