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Sports Photography in an Indoor School Gym

My son just entered high school this school year (2023-2024). He has been super happy to be on the Junior Varsity volleyball team. And as a proud photographic father, of course, I want to be at all his games, shooting photos and videos.

In this article, I will document everything I knew and everything I learned while making picture memories of these games. I will start with the equipment, move into proper settings, and finally thoughts on creating art.

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Bring whatever camera you have on hand. Even a SmartPhone is better than nothing. If you have several, pick one similar to the camera I recommend below. Or if you need a reason to buy a new camera, you got it here. The following is my recommendation.

My camera choice is the Canon EOS Rebel T3i digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) camera. This digital camera is very sophisticated for a consumer camera; it's got many professional level features. And with a wide array of Canon lenses--consumer and professional level--to support, you can use it for almost any situation.

The Canon T3i has a APS-C CMOS sensor which has a 1.6x magnification compared to a standard 35mm full-frame camera. The 1.6x magnification is very helpful getting closer to the action.

You can create videos with the Canon T3i. Therefore, it acts a video camera for you to capture the action. The camera supports 1080P HD resolution at 30 frames-per-second (FPS).

It also has a flip-out screen, that is very useful for making various angle shots. For example, you can get next to the court, put it down close to the floor and get a shot of the action from down below.

The Canon T3i is several generations old now. A good camera practically last forever (unless you use it professionally). You can find more recent versions of it on Amazon (see "Related Links" section below) and other retailers.

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If you are bringing a camera with a built-in lens, such as a SmartPhone, a camcorder, or a point-and-shoot camera, you can pretty much skip this section. But if you are bringing a single-lens-reflex SLR camera, then you have a huge selection of lenses.

The general rule for most sporting events is to bring the longest focal length lens with the largest aperture. The reason is because the spectators are generally quite a distance from the players. And the events are usually indoors or at night. That's why you'll see professional photographers with huge telephoto lenses--300mm or even 600mm--at football games, soccer games, and other sporting events.

The high school gym is much smaller than a large scale sporting event. And they vary in size. I've been to smaller gyms where the bleachers are only three rows next to the volleyball court. And I've been to larger gyms where there are twenty rows of bleachers reaching two stories high. So you may not need a super long telephoto lens, but you'd still want a lens that can reach out and photograph someone.

I have found my trusty Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX APO HSM zoom lens to be the best lens for this purpose. It's a professional-grade lens that's over 20 years old. I have bought it used and it has been flawless. The 70mm range allows me to group shots from a distance, while the 200mm range allows me to focus in on individual players, coaches, and other spectators. The f-stop is low enough to get high shutter speed and minimize the ISO speed. More on these settings in the "Exposure" section below. There are new iterations of this lens. I'll provide links to it in the "Related Links" section below.

I have not brought my shorter zoom lens, because I record video of the entire game with a wide-angle action cam. Keeping up with the action with one camera and one lens is busy enough. But if you have the aptitude to provide more coverage, you might consider bringing a second camera with a shorter lens.

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Monopod or Tripod

Sporting events are usually rather long, lasting hours with potentially non-stop action. Hand-holding your camera rig is possible, but is generally tiring after a while. Monopod is consider the best for sports photography, because it provides enough fluidity similar to handhold and is less intrusive than a tripod for moving around. But a tripod can be a huge relief for all day events.

My default monopod is a Adorama Podmatic, which is a clone of the Linhof Monomatic. Both are now discontinued. It's not the easiest monopod to set-up, because it doesn't have individual segment length control, so I have to fudge it. But I like it because it's very small--barely taller than my backpack when collapsed--and very light.

My girlfriend has a full-size Vanguard VEO 2 GO 265CB tripod. It's a super-small (when collapsed) and a super lightweight (carbon fiber) tripod. Great for traveling. I could see it being very useful for sports events as well. The newer version of it has detachable legs that can turn into a monopod. I'll provide links in the "Related Links" section below.

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Exposure can be tricky in automatic mode. The player's jersey's are usually in contrasting colors. So a darker shirt will cause your camera to overexpose, while a lighter shirt will cause it to underexpose. Luckily school gyms are designed to provide even lighting throughout. I've been to several games now and a tournament. All of them occurred at various schools in our region. Turns out the lighting at all the gyms are set-up the same, no matter how big or small. I have used the same exposure in manual mode at all the gyms and the exposure is perfect every time. So a camera with manual exposure will be very helpful.

I use the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX APO HSM zoom lens either handheld or on a monopod. And I never use flash, preferring existing light. The photography rule-of-thumb for sharp photographs is to use the same shutter speed as the focal length. That means I have to shoot at 1/200 of a second or higher. After metering the scene, I have found the perfect exposure setting is 1/250 of a second at f/2.8 aperture at ISO 1600 film speed.

Of course, you can keep the exposure the same by adjusting these three values. For example, with a 100mm f/5.6 lens, you can set the them to 1/60, f/5.6, ISO 1600. And you can adjust the f-stop up and down to suit your own personal taste in exposure. A thorough explanation of f-stop is too much for this article; please refer to online articles and photography books.

Let me know if the same exposure settings work for you. And whether you try it at other gyms, such as college gyms or commercial gyms.

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Freeze Motion

The shutter speed isn't only used for proper exposure. It's also a method for your to express yourself as a photographer. With a fast shutter speed, you can freeze object in motion. Take the photograph below for example, the ball is obviously moving. But it's frozen in motion to tell a story.

The photo below serve as another good example of the action being frozen in motion. This time, not only is the ball frozen, but the jumping blockers on the right side are also frozen in the air.

Both of these photos are shot with the 1/250 shutter speed mentioned in the "Exposure" section above, which is quick enough to freeze most motions in sports.

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Motion Blur

Freezing the ball in motion isn't the only fun thing you can do with shutter speed. In fact, another way to show motion is with motion blur. The photo below demonstrated the ball and the arms in motion with blurring effects.

This motion blur isn't being done in post-processing. Rather it's done in camera during the moment of action. This photograph is also taken with 1/250 shutter speed. So why is there motion blur in this photographs and not in the previous photographs? The answer is that the ball and arms are moving much faster than in the previous photos. Hence they are blurred even with high shutter speed.

You can't control the speed of action, but you can control your shutter speed. To guarantee motion blur, use a slower shutter speed. A shutter speed of 1/60 of a second is guaranteed to get some motion blurs in sports. Play around with the shutter speed to find the most optimal effect.

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Team Comes Together

Almost all sports involve a team. And team moments are abundant in volleyball. Even the individualistic sports like baseball has moments where the team comes together. And pure individual sports like tennis involves coach and other team members. Capture the moments when team members come together for a magical expression.

Even in a game of golf, the individual players would interact with each other, congratulating each on a good play, or even vent frustrations. Look for these moments and attempt to capture them when the opportunity arises.

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Sports are about people. Otherwise, we'd have robots playing sports. But that doesn't mean you should only focus on people. Look around, there could be interesting artwork, significant symbols, and mind-boggling abstractions. Take pictures and have a good time showing them off later.

Even people can be abstracted. You don't always have to show the people and their facial expressions. Sometime sees parts of their body and their equipment says something about their actions as well.

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