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How To Guide: Roller Derby Photos by Mike Margol (Part 1)

October 2, 2009

How To Guide: Shooting Roller Derby Photos by Mike Margol (Part 3)

Hello and happy Friday to you, PhotoEdit blog readers! Thank you for choosing to spend a bit of time with us today. Before we get into today’s new feature, I just want to mention that PhotoEdit is now on Facebook! Yes, it’s true: we have embraced social media! If it would make you happy to do so, please take a moment to visit our page at facebook.com/PhotoEditInc where you can befriend us and join a growing network of photographers and models. Even if you are not an official PhotoEdit photographer, we invite you to participate (and no, we will not be posting quizzes about which Disney character our company is most like). Alternately, if you hate text links with the fiery passion of 1,000 flaming suns, you can click this highly attractive logo that Raquel made:

Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Anyway, now that our shameless self-promotion is over, let’s get down to business. To commemorate today’s release of the roller derby film Whip It! starring Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page, Juliette Lewis, and Zoe Bell, I thought I would make a timely post about how to shoot roller derby photos. Roller skates! Amazing puns! Face paint! More violent than my guide on shooting band photos! Yes! Here we go.

Earlier this year I became one of the photographers for my local roller derby league: the OC Roller Girls. If you like derby, you may have heard of them or some of the squads they frequently compete against: the LA Derby Dolls, Prison City Derby Dames, etc. I had become a bit burnt out on the band photo scene, so I was looking for a new challenge, and I found it with derby. Sports photography offered me a new set of challenges completely foreign from those posed in the band realm: extremely fast action, subjects moving through multiple depths of field simultaneously, and atrocious fluorescent lighting (if you’re lucky; if not, you get a roller rink lit very much like a 70′s disco).

I struggled at first to adapt to these conditions. Sports photography is certainly no easy feat and I was unprepared in terms of equipment and technique to make an instant transition from my prior specialty. Making things more difficult is the fact that there appears to be no consensus on the best way to take derby photos: some photographers use no flash (my preferred method), some use externals bounced off the ceiling, and still others use intricate slaved flashes perched at various points around the rink to give a feeling of an all-encompassing lighting situation. As with band photos, I set out to find the best method for me personally; as such, the advice I give here might not be tailored to your specific shooting preferences, so don’t be afraid to try out your own methods!

To shoot derby, first of all, you are probably going to have to invest in a new lens (but when isn’t the case?). If you don’t want to drop $2,000 on something that is just a hobby for you, investigate stores that rent lenses, which is what I did. Like the flash situation, every derby photographer seems to have a different lens preference, but all of the photos on this page were taken with a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR. This is a beast of a lens and it is quite heavy–very few derby photographers use monopods or tripods so you will probably end up holding your equipment for an hour and a half–but it is exceptionally fast in terms of focus and holds a nice f-stop throughout its entire focal range. Having a lens that can’t hit a constant f-stop is asking for trouble, as I discovered early on; you’ll have to compensate by increasing your ISO to insane levels, which in turn will just create more noise that you will have to try to cancel out with your internal noise reduction software.

Vibration reduction is not a necessity when shooting a moving subject, because it is assumed you’ll probably be moving the camera to track the subject anyway, but it can come in handy when you want to take a shot of a girl standing at the side of the track or getting ready to go on a jam, so if your lens can implement VR or the Canon equivalent, all the better (as a reminder, I shoot with a Nikon D300 and I only use Nikon lenses). You can always switch it off, after all, so why not have it just in case? But I would say the most important thing is to get a lens, regardless of brand, that can hit the constant aperture; the action happens so fast and you will be zooming in and out so frequently that trying to compensate for a shifting aperture is going to cause you nothing but headaches (and possible death!). You can trust me on this, because I know from experience.

So now you have your lens and you have your camera and you are ready to roll, except for one thing: you need to make some derby contacts! This is a lot easier than trying to build band contacts for a couple reasons. First, derby is still trying to regain the popularity it once had, although I imagine Whip It! may help with that, so there aren’t legions and legions of photographers vying for the same spot. It’s normal to have more than one photographer per squad, but generally it’s more of a collaborative effort than any kind of competition, unlike with bands, where the mood has never been what I would call “friendly.” Secondly, each derby squad has many members, so it’s easier to talk to them either in person or online and let them know you’d like to help as a photographer. All derby leagues cut it pretty close in terms of their money; the cash they make goes into making merch, renting practice facilities, and so forth, so any help is usually appreciated. Find your local team’s website and usually there will be contact information on there that you can use to get in touch.

Once you have approval to help with photos, get out to the track and go for it! I should mention that photographers do get pretty close to the action and do get hit from time to time when skaters come careening out of a corner, so be safe: if you see someone flying at you, tuck your camera to your body to prevent an injury to the skater (and your equipment) and just take the hit instead of trying to scurry away like a coward! The crowd will love you and the announcer will commend you for being brave and not foolishly attempting to escape your fate; trying to outrun a girl on roller skates isn’t going to work anyway, according to my college physics textbook. And don’t worry: should you receive a concussion or suffer a broken bone, the EMTs are always standing by to help you. Right?

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Next time in this series I’ll talk about focus issues and getting accurate results when dealing with action that crosses multiple depths of field, but I hope all of you potential derby photographers found this first installment somewhat interesting. I highly recommend derby photography, as it is a challenge and will improve your skill set in many other areas behind the lens. If you’d like further help or advice regarding derby, email me and we can talk it out, or just comment this thread and I’ll get back to you. Have a blog idea you’d like to discuss? Want to become a PhotoEdit photographer and make some money selling your work? Email me with those questions, too, but no, I will not be answering any messages claiming that Winger is the greatest band of all time. And of course, if you’d like to see more of my work on my personal portfolio, let me know. Until next time!

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