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The finite dimension of the incident beam used to read out volume holographic gratings has interesting effects on their filtering properties. As the readout beam gets narrower, there is more deviation from the ideal response predicted for monochromatic plane waves. In this paper we experimentally explore beam-width-dependent phenomena such as wavelength selectivities, angular selectivities, and diffracted beam profiles. Volume gratings in both reflection and transmission geometries are investigated near 1550 nm. Numerical simulations utilizing the technique of Fourier decomposition provide a satisfactory explanation and confirm that the spread of spatial harmonics is the main contributing factor. © 2006 Optical Society of America.