My first exposure to women’s flat track roller derby was a magazine cover featuring Atlanta Roller Girl star Demi Gore. As a budding photographer, I (rightly) thought that heading to a roller derby bout would present me with some unique and exciting photo opportunities; unfortunately, even though I was an experienced photographer, my first few attempts to photograph the bouts were miserable failures. Since that time, however, I have become a better photographer – so much so, that I have been the official bout photographer for the Atlanta Roller Girls for four seasons – and I can now recognize the newbie errors I made during those first bouts. You will get the benefit of my errors.
The first thing you really need to know before you start taking pictures at roller derby is your camera. You need to understand ISO (“film speed”), and the relationship of aperture to shutter. You need to understand the limits of your flash, and the limits of your camera’s lens. While your iPhone will capture acceptable pictures of your friends doing the duck face, it really isn’t the best tool for photographing the action of roller derby.
Most derby arenas are poorly lit. Your camera will need to be able to work well in low light situations, so crank up that ISO to 1600 or better.
You can also, and should, open up your aperture as wide open as it will go – usually between f2.8 and f5.6. The lower the number, the more light your camera’s lens will let in.
Roller derby is an action sport, and action needs fast shutter speeds. Set your camera’s shutter to 125 or faster, but remember the relationship of shutter to aperture.
Take a few test shots and adjust your ISO or shutter. You will rarely need to adjust your aperture.
I know, that was too techie. All you want to do is take pictures of the action on the track! Okay. Simply crank up your camera’s ISO, set the shutter speed to 125, and put your camera on S mode (shutter priority). That will give you the best chance to get good “out of the box” action photos.
If you have a point and shoot camera, it has limited zoom capability. Even if you have a mid-range DSLR, most standard zooms (under 100) aren’t going to help you if you sit in the bleachers 25 feet or more from the action. Sit close. Really close. On the floor close. Next to the caution line close. That’s where you will need to be to make the most use of your camera’s abilities. I suggest you sit at turn one or turn three where you can see the faces of the skaters as they come towards you. Otherwise you’re going to be shooting a lot of bout panties.
Now about that flash. Your camera’s built in flash is only going to effective from 4-15 feet. Anything beyond that, and you will just be lighting up the backs of the heads of the people in front of you and wasting battery power. Try to resist the urge to photograph anything beyond the limits of your flash. If you have an off camera speed light, you will be able to get some more power from it, but you will still be better off not trying to photograph anything beyond 25 feet from your seat.
After you get to know your camera, you need to get to know the game itself. You need to know where to watch, where the action will happen, who the key players are during a jam, what the definition of “jam” is. While it is tempting at your first bout to take a lot of pictures of the action on the floor, try to resist that temptation and just watch the game. Read the program where the basic rules and game-play are described. Ask questions of other fans or skaters. Get to know the game first.
In my early days, I would pick a few skaters and follow them around the track (my derby crush on Forniskate was very obvious during those first few seasons of roller derby). If you can pick out one or two players and just photograph them, you can spend the next jam or two watching and learning more about the game. After awhile you’ll know what players do what on the track and be able to almost predict the action in your corner.
After you’ve shot a bout, go home and look through your photos. Don’t be tempted to post/show everything. At an average bout I shoot more than 900 photos, but only 50-75 make it to the public. Be very picky about what you show, and don’t be ashamed to admit to yourself that a shot is too underexposed, or out of focus, or just plain sucks. Be your own worst critic and editor. Show only the best of your best shots.
And of course, share those photos! Put them on Facebook and tag the skaters. Add them to Flickr. Send them to the league. You won’t get paid, but you will get the thanks of derby girls, and if you’re really lucky maybe even a few derby girl hugs. Those make it all worthwhile.