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Roller Derby Photography – what and where to shoot

Previously I’ve posted Roller Derby photography articles about colour, equipment and camera settings, as those are subjects close to my heart and easy for a huge camera geek like me to write about, but I really should address the mechanics of and etiquette of shooting roller derby, so here it is.

Game Basics

A (very) basic introduction to the sport.

DerbyTrackDerby is played on an oval track, see rubbish drawing to the left (I’m a photographer, sorry), usually laid out on a standard sized sports hall. Each team consists of up to 14 players, with 5 on track at any one time – a jammer (the points scorer) and 4 blockers. A game consists of two 30 minute periods, split into plays called jams that last up to 2 minutes.

At the start of a jam the jammers (star on their helmet) line up on the jam line, and the blockers (the pack) take up a position anywhere between the jam line and the pivot line. The Pivot (stripe on their helmet) has special rules relating to the pivot line, but that’s rarely a factor in the modern game.

When the whistle is blown, everyone moves. The first jammer to legally clear the pack becomes the lead jammer and can stop the jam at any time by touching their hips.

On lapping the pack, a jammer will score 1 point for every opposing player they pass. Opposing players can stop this by physically blocking the jammer. Read more ›

Flash Controller

Odin2Well, Phottix have finally released the Odin 2 flash controller with a more sensible button layout, a wheel controller and support for up to 5 flash channels when using the new receivers. With my old Odin 1 receivers I can still only run 3 channels, but that’s all I need for Granite, Bruiser and Fierce, and I don’t plan on increasing my battery management woes by adding any more flashes. I seem to be having some minor compatibility problems with the flash test button and getting it to recognise the Odin 1 receivers when powered on, but hopefully firmware updates will resolve those. Time will tell, once I’ve used it in anger.

Roller Derby Camera Settings

When I started shooting Roller Derby I was a studio photographer with studio equipment and experience. I almost never shot moving subjects and rarely shot without a tripod. The next couple of years were spent climbing a steep sports learning curve. Five years on and I kinda feel like I know what I’m doing with derby, so I decided to write some of it down in the hope of saving others some time and pain. I’m going to cover camera settings, shooting rules and etiquette, and the shooting locations and angles that I like to use. I’ve already written about colour and the equipment I use.

First up, camera gear and settings.

Basic Terminology

I’m going to assume that you might be unfamiliar with some of the basics, so if you know your way around a DSLR in manual mode you might want to skip ahead a bit.

Exposure: This is basically how bright an image is. If it’s too dark and the shadows are blocked up it’s under exposed (not enough light). If it’s too bright and the highlights are blown, it’s over exposed (too much light).

Exposure is a combination of 3 things, how much light gets through the lens (the aperture), for how long (the shutter speed) and how sensitive the camera is to that light (the ISO).  Increase one of those and you have to compensate by decreasing one of the others to keep the same exposure.

Aperture: Also called an F-Stop or a Stop. This is a variable sized hole in the lens that lets the light through at known levels. It’s like the iris in your eye. Look at your eye in a mirror and then shine a light in it. You’ll see the iris close. That’s an aperture.

ApertureThe full stops include: 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22, with each bigger number letting through half the light of the previous one. As you stop down the depth of focus increases, but you pay for that with less light. If your camera is working in 3rds of a stop there will be intermediate values between those, but the main stops are the ones we remember. They were etched onto film camera lens barrels. They’ll be on a screen somewhere on a modern camera.

Read more ›

Roller Derby Photography – Don’t be a dick.

BoutDay GearEarlier this week Jason Ruffell wrote a blog piece about professionalism in roller derby photography – don’t be a dick. Quite rightly encouraging more professionalism among derby photographers in the hope that those of us with cameras will then be treated with less suspicion. While I do agree, I have a slightly different take on that argument, but I’d recommend you go read his first.

Roller derby photography is difficult. It takes a lot of time and effort, the equipment is spectacularly expensive and there’s no money in it. None. We do this for the love of the sport.

Read more ›

Roller Derby Colour

Back when I started using flash to shoot Roller Derby (in an attempt to get sharper blocker shots for GRG bout programme covers) I had huge colour balance problems.

A quick colour 101 for non-photographers. Colour is said to have a temperature, because it’s defined as the colour that would be produced if an ideal black-body radiator is heated to that temperature. Heat a piece of iron to 900 Celsius and it’ll glow red hot. Heat it to 5778 Kelvin (5504 C) and, assuming it hasn’t vaporised, it’ll glow the colour of the sun. 5778 K is really hot. Digital cameras expect daylight to be 6500 K. Confusingly, what we refer to as warmer light (more orange) is produced by cooler temperatures.

So the problem is that usually the hall lights are warmer (more orange) than the flashes, so the closer a skater is to a flash the colder (bluer) the light on her will appear. At worst, skaters close to a flash will be lit with more cold light, and at the same time skaters further from the flash will be lit with more warm light, so it’s impossible to get everything the same colour when editing. As well as making the editing much more complex this annoys me more than a little.

Now I know that most people probably wouldn’t notice as what they’re looking at is the gameplay in the image, but I’m a photographer. We worry about these things. And as anyone who had a good giggle and my reaction to them opening the Berlin Arena skylight in the middle of a game will tell you, I’m kinda picky about colour calibration.

BoutDay GelsThe solution is to add colour correcting gel filters to the flashes, and these are readily available in different strengths – most commonly full CTO (convert to orange), ½ CTO and ¼ CTO. The problem is trying to figure out which filter, or combination of filters is needed for an unfamiliar hall. It’s difficult to eyeball this as your eye tends to compensate for the colour of the ambient light, and after a while you just stop seeing it. Then you look at a correctly balanced image on a camera screen and it looks too blue.
Read more ›

Roller Derby Photography

Last year, while I was in Dallas shooting the World Cup, there was some talk of writing something about Roller Derby photography. At that point I didn’t really have the time, but now that I’m loitering around airports a lot waiting for domestic flights, time isn’t as much of an issue. So here goes.

I got involved with Roller Derby in 2010 when my friends Sarah and Jen started skating for the Glasgow Roller Girls (as they were then), and asked me to come along and shoot some bouts. I had never photographed sport of any description before, but I gave it a go and I’ve been shooting Roller Derby ever since. Now, 4 years, 3 World Cups, 160 bouts and 26,000 posted photographs later (more or less), I’m still doing it. So, equipment first.

Equipment

BoutDay GearFor the most part, camera equipment doesn’t really matter that much. You can take great photographs with a Box Brownie. But in sport photography it really does. Especially when working in poorly lit sports halls trying to get sharp shots of fast moving athletes.

This is the current contents of my camera bag when it’s in Derby mode: 2 camera bodies with vertical grips, 4 lenses, 8 camera batteries (3 in the cameras), 12 memory cards and a belt system to carry it all around.


BoutDay-LenszillaMy main lens is Lenszilla. A Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM to give him his full title. This is a staple of the Derby photography world, and I bought mine when I signed on to shoot the first World Cup in Toronto with Team Scotland in 2011.

I don’t use him for anything else because he’s just too big and heavy, but he lets in a lot of light, tracks focus on moving subjects really well, and is sharp as a tack and tough as old boots. He’s usually attached to my Canon 5D Mk3.

My Canon 7D with a wide zoom, usually the Canon 24-105 f/4, is on my other hip for general team shots and centre track stuff.

You can certainly shoot with a lot less. You really don’t need 2 cameras and I know several photographers who use only one, but I’m paranoid about equipment failure and have accumulated this stuff over a number of years, so it’s a setup that works for me.

Flash

At the World Cup in 2011 I saw that most of the Canadian and American photographers were using off-camera flash to cut through the bad lighting and freeze the action. So with the help and advice of Joe Rollerfan (thanks Joe) I set about assembling mine. It’s been through several upgrades and changes since then, but this is the current iteration:


BoutDay Flash

  • 3 Nissin MG-8000 heavy-duty flashguns (Granite, Bruiser and Fierce);
  • 3 Godox Propac power supplies;
  • A Phottix Odin wireless trigger system;
  • 32 rechargeable AA batteries + a few sets of spares to power the gun electronics and the triggers.

With this system in place I can pretty much ignore the ambient lighting and get consistent results, and they’re on very low power, so the players and refs generally don’t notice them.

Granite sits on a stand at turn 2, Fierce is on a stand at turn 4 and Bruiser is clamped up somewhere near turn 1. All well above eye height. They all point more or less at the Jam Line and are fitted with orange CTO filters to match the ambient lighting. I use them in ETTL mode so they handle their own power levels for different skater distances, and the Phottix trigger let’s me control them remotely and turn them off when they are in my line of sight. It’s not a perfect system and can be confused by flickery hall lighting, but most of the time it’s close enough.

Shooting

My main objective is to document the event without getting in the way. Preferably without being seen. I know some leagues use high-vis vests for photographers, but if I’m doing my job properly the refs and skaters shouldn’t need to see me. I should be no more a hazard than a bench manager or an NSO.

I shoot in RAW mode to allow me to compensate for variable hall lighting later, and on the Canon 5D3 I write the files to 2 memory cards at the same time. That way if I have a card failure I won’t lose a whole bout. Paranoid again.


BoutDay ColourI set the camera colour balance manually for each hall – the Glasgow Caledonian Arc is 4200 Kelvin +6 magenta, more or less. Hall lights change colour as they warm up and each camera model has a slightly different colour response anyway. I calibrate initially with a Color Checker Passport.

I shoot about 1000 frames per bout. 900 on the 5D3 and 100 on the 7D. I can usually fill a 32GB card for each one. This stuff creates a lot of data.

Editing

BoutDay LightroomEditing happens in Adobe Lightroom on my MacBook Pro, taking around 6 hours per bout, and is powered largely by green tea and rock music.


BoutDay DrivesThe RAW files are copied from the cards onto a mirrored pair of 2TB hard drives (I’m on my 2nd pair of those now) and imported into Lightroom – 30 minutes to an hour.

I make basic colour balance and exposure adjustments to a typical image, and then paste those settings to all of the images in the set. I favour a neutral (perhaps slightly cold) image tone with fairly high contrast and the more saturated colours that come with that – 5 minutes.

I then run through all of the images and assess them. Those that make the cut are tagged, cropped, and fine adjustments made to colour and exposure. Borderline images are tagged red and reassessed when I’m finished – about 4 hours for 1000 images.


BoutDay GalleryOnce the initial selection is made I filter down to just those tagged shots, usually around 200, and check them again. I untag any weak, usually red tagged, images and export them as JPGs – 30 minutes.


BoutDayAfter one last check of the exported files they’re uploaded. Initially to Facebook and later to Google Plus and BoutDay.com – 30 minutes.

Care and Feeding 

Mostly derby photographers don’t need a lot of looking after.  At single bouts and double headers in small halls, I just need a corner to stash my bags and occasionally a power socket to charge my phone. At tournaments and larger venues I really need somewhere secure (that the public can’t just wander into) to charge batteries and download full cards to my laptop. In Dallas there was a dedicated media room, but at other events I’ve had to hijack a corner of the NSO room or team area, which is only feasible if I’m allowed access. Otherwise I have to carry everything that I don’t want to turn my back on around with me all day.

In general we’re a pretty dedicated bunch. Like most of Derby, it’s a reasonably expensive thing to do, is quite time consuming, and there’s absolutely no money in it. There’s just no market for Roller Derby photographs, so anyone who is doing this regularly is doing it for the love of the sport. Or like me, for the afterparties and the hugs.

DaveMc, Feb 2015

Travel Tip

Dallas1A technology tip for those planning a trip to somewhere far away and unfamiliar. Grab some offline map data on WiFi before you go, and you’ll be able to use that map when you have data turned off on your phone.

You are going to remember to turn background data off before you leave, aren’t you?

On and Android device, find the place you want in Maps, for example (totally at random) Dallas. You may also be able to do this on a fruit based device, but I don’t have one so I’ll have to leave that as an exercise for the reader.


Dallas2
Tap on the search box and you’ll get a menu with ‘Save map to use offline’ at the bottom. Tap on this.


Dallas3Select the area you want – anything up to 50km square – and click Save. You’ll now have that map available for use offline. You won’t be able to search for places or calculate a route as you need a data connection for that, but you will be able to use it as an old school map.

Adderby Family

Adderby FamilyEvery year at Halloween, Glasgow Roller Derby play Rainy City Roller Girls. This year the fine people at GRD decided that a suitably spooky Halloween photo was needed for the bout poster, so after much plotting and scheming it was decided that the Addams Family was the way to go. I think the idea of me as Cousin It was the clincher here, but I could be wrong.

Roles were bagsied and assigned, costumes were arranged and costructed, and a location was found. The following week we all arrived at Titan Props in Glasgow and raided the weapons, stuffed animals and electric char departments for suitable accessories. These shots were the results. I’m really rather proud of them, even if I am in one two of them.

The Halloween bout is on Saturday the 26th of October 2013 at the Glasgow Caledonian ARC. There will be flat track roller derby, cake and Halloween costumery. Tickets can be purchased on the door or in advance here.

Featuring Beav, Gill.I.Am, Prawn, Meg, Hazard, Studley and Habs. Guest starring Submarine and yours truly. Additional spooky support by Maul.

Gifs

Boogie2A few things are pretty much guaranteed at Roller Derby bouts: wheels, hits, action and dancing. Now there are usually people around with video cameras, but somehow the low tech approach with DSLR shooting a few frames per second seems to fit. Wobbly jerky fun.

Packing for Toronto

World Cup Gear

On Thursday morning I leave for Toronto to shoot the first Roller Derby World Cup with Team Scotland. Weight is an issue, so I have to travel light.

Yea, right.

It’s not just camera and film any more. These days there’s also the laptop and the graphics tablet and the image viewer and the hard drives and the batteries and the memory cards. And don’t forget the chargers. And all of the cables.

I did stick a light meter in there as well, just for the sheer nostalgia of it.

Really looking forward to seeing so many teams in such a shot space of time. Lots to shoot, edit and post while I’m there. Possibly not a lot of time for sleep.

If you’re there and you see an excited and slightly overwhelmed Scottish photographer please give him a wave and say Hi.

DaveMc