The Grace of the Human Body
Even the best players are occasional klutzes, and I threw away perhaps 29 out of every 30 pictures that I took, but when a skill is executed correctly, the natural grace and beauty of the human form becomes apparent. No skill demonstrates this more than the jump serve, three examples of which are shown below.
Notice that in the first picture, the woman is playing with flip-flops. Most people played outdoor volleyball either bare foot, or with special shoes that had cleats on them. Traction is so important that this is the only time I ever saw someone wearing this kind of foot gear. To make this even more astonishing, she was playing doubles, and in one of the largest Open tournaments I ever saw. She was a very highly skilled player. I have no idea why she liked this gear, that no one else would even consider.
This guy's facial expression and colorful sun glasses also help make this shot special, along with his lean and muscular body.
Stopping Action, Timing Shots
It took me months of practice to get to the point where I could take a picture exactly when the ball contacted the person's body. To put this skill into perspective, if you take a video/movie of someone playing volleyball, and go through it frame by frame, you often will see the ball approaching the player, and then moving away from the player: even taking some 30 images a second, often the actual impact is missed. I figure that I had to get the timing accurate to something like 1/200 second to get the following pictures. When I was doing this a lot, I could expect to get a picture like this out of each 36 exposure roll of film, which I thought was pretty amazing.
To add to the difficulty of the task, the photographer has to compose a picture that is pleasing to the eye. Getting the ball clearly on a person's hands is not important if their back is to you, if someone is obscuring their body or expression, or if the picture is blurry or out of focus. The trick to this is to pre-conceive of the picture that you want, taking the player's habits, clothing, hair, and sunglasses into account, along with the habits of their opponents. Then, having tried to predict what you hope will happen, you sit there and accept whatever happens, trying to see a moment of drama in the split-second you have before it actually occurs.
If you time it just right, you can see the ball deformed by the player's hands, sometimes to an astonishing degree.
This picture combines effort, a graceful pose, and hands deforming the ball.
Her facial expression, her hair, the deformed ball, the extension, and the clarity of the seams of the ball all contribute to this picture.
The thing that always surprises me about this picture is how such a small and slender woman could crush that poor volleyball!
The posture is perfect, as is her grip on the ball. Her eyes may be closed because she is playing on a sand court, and sand may have dropped from the ball every time she set it. The facial expressions of her opponents contribute to the sense of urgency.
I like this one because of the arch of her body, her fist dug deep inside the ball, and the fact that she is playing the ball in a deceptive manner. The blocker is up in front of her, and she is pushing the ball over her back, towards the opponent who should have been blocking, but rather is standing.
This picture shows the hitter hitting off the block. You can see his hand curled to the outside, cutting the shot across and off the blocker. The blocker's hands are in the right place, but they are flat, rather than cupped to force the ball down and inside. The ball has already moved off of the blocker's hands to the outside, where it will quite likely go out of bounds, giving the point to the attacker. This is known as "tooling" in the game, where the attacker uses the defender like a "tool".
This is probably the best photograph I've ever taken. The story is a bit long, but bear with me.
I often went to weekend-long tournaments, and would agree to photograph players for a fee. At one of the Ivy League Championships, I was scurrying around when a man approached me and asked if I would photograph his daughter. I said that I would, and asked him to write down the name of her team, her jersey number, and his address. When he was finished, I turned to go to the next match, assuming that I would get to her sometime during the weekend.
He stopped me and said that I had to go photograph her immediately. When I asked what the rush was, he explained that she was the backup setter for her team, and that she was playing right then: it was unlikely that she would get to play again during the tournament.
Understanding the situation, I immediately set up to photograph her. I took this picture during the two games that she played. In this moment, she had received a bad pass, and had jumped up to prevent the ball from crossing over the net and giving the opponents a chance to pound it down. Too close to the net to set the ball in the normal fashion, she executed a perfect one-handed set, something that one might see once in 20 or 30 games.
I was very excited at the time, precisely because I didn't see the actual contact with the ball. This meant that I might have taken the picture during the ball contact. As you can see, the picture is perfect. It was a high point in my career as a sports photographer. The fact that the hitter is clearly on her way in to hit the set, combined with the fierce expression on the setter's face, all contribute to a great photo. If I do say so myself!
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