On Saturday night I headed to my first ever roller derby bout, armed with a media pass from The Victorian Roller Derby League and got some of the best photos I’ve ever taken. So I thought I’d spend this blog talking about some of the things that worked…and of course a few of the things that didn’t.
Get good talent
I’m a great believer that you can take a great photo of anyone, it’s just that some people need a little more coaxing and effort before you can get a good shot. Of course the flipside to this is that some people are just naturally outgoing, naturally engaging and generally up for anything…a number of these people play Roller Derby.
I was pretty keen on getting some shots that actually reflected their personalities, so I literally just gave them the chalkboard prop, told them to write their name and then just let them do whatever they wanted. Sometimes this sort of lack of direction drives people back into their shell ‘But what do you want me to do?’…I was blown away at how quickly the players adopted a range of poses I would never have thought to have asked them to strike.
Have a plan
I knew that I wanted to have a consistent background for the photos, but not knowing what the venue was like I didn’t want to be reliant on finding something that would work. So I decided I would use a big roll of white paper I had used a couple of times as a background. I also knew that the players all had awesome roller derby names (‘Pony Slaystation’, ‘Mon U Mental’, ‘Calamity Maim’ etc) so I thought it would be cool to have them write their name on a small blackboard and then have them hold it so that the photo was somewhere between a mugshot and a school photo. The final part of my plan was to shoot a wide shot and a close up and convert them all to black and white.
I think that going in with a vision was great as there are basically hundreds of ways I could have shot them, but when you only have a person for a minute or two, you need to know exactly what you are after. To once again quote General George S Patton ‘A good plan executed violently now is better than a perfect plan executed next week’.
Of course you also need some leeway, and when I started working on the shots in Lightroom I realised that a lot of them looked a lot better in colour.
Take a risk
A couple of years ago Veeral Patel quit his comfortable IT job and decided to go and photograph the Tour de France. It was a massive risk and I really admired his dedication. Since then he has won awards and his photography has gone from strength to strength. Clearly going to take photos of roller derby players isn’t in the same league as throwing in your job to follow your dream, but this was the first time I had decided to call myself a photographer and put all the focus on just my photos (rather than having them as an incidental part of a video).
The risk certainly wasn’t huge. If the photos had been appalling, there probably would have been a few people who were annoyed that I had wasted their time, and the person who helped organise everything (Monica Campo) would probably have been annoyed that she’d wasted her efforts.
But it was still a big step up on the previous level of risk, which was ‘Nan doesn’t like the photos’.
You can see all of the photos here
But what didn’t work?
Without a flash it was always going to be difficult getting good action shots at the speeds they were travelling. This was one of the best action shots I got, and that’s just because someone else’s flash went off just as I took the photo.
Also, not knowing anything about the sport meant that I was always just off with my timing or I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I tried to make up for this by taking a number of photos of things that weren’t moving. But this lead to my second problem.
I had no idea when I would get access to the players, so I just headed around taking photos of the games and the audience…for 4 hours. So suddenly after the second game when a whole lot of players came over to have their photo taken, the battery light on the camera was flashing furiously. Which meant I rushed the photos of the last few players, which meant I didn’t get the shots I was after.
I know this is going to make any real photographers reading this throw their hands up in the air, but I find the LCD screen on the back of the camera a lot better to use than the actual viewfinder. But the LCD screen also chews through the batteries a lot quicker. So when I switched to just using the viewfinder for the last couple of shots to preserve the batteries…I ended up with shots that were at best ‘soft’ and at worst, out of focus.
But ultimately if you can come away from an experience like this with some photos that you are really happy with and a few lessons learnt…then you can chalk it up as a success!
So a big thanks to my Dad for coming along and being my camera assistant. An even bigger thanks to Monica for giving me the opportunity. And my biggest thanks to the players from the Dolls of Hazzard, the Toxic Avengers, the Rock Mobsters and my team the Dead Ringer Rosies for taking the time, and being so damned photogenic on and off the track.
The VRDL Grand final is coming up on Nov. 24, I suggest you be there!