Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby: A Photographer’s Perspective

I photographed my first women’s flat track roller derby bout in 2012 at The Rink in Sacramento, California. The Sac City Rollers were the home team. Back then, I knew almost nothing about the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association (WFTDA) and nothing at all about present-day women’s roller derby. I had a faint memory of watching roller derby years ago on TV. Back then I was a big fan of the San Francisco Bay Bombers even if I did live in Virginia.

Today’s women’s flat track roller derby is nothing like it was when I watched it on my family’s black & white TV.

The first thing that I noticed about women’s flat track roller derby was the tremendous overall accessibility everyone enjoyed; fans, skating officials, NSOs and skaters alike. Time and time again, I returned to photograph a bout and witnessed fabulous ongoing social interactions all around me.

My second observation was the remarkable individuality team members enjoyed. Perhaps in no other sport was a team composed of such a diverse population of individuals. It was this diversity that first struck me as a documentary photographer. On more than one occasion, I thought how I would love to setup a small on-location portrait studio to photograph the assembled collection of distinctive personalities.

Before a roller derby bout can ever begin (at least at The Rink) there were numerous pre-bout preparations that needed to be accomplished. Laying the physical dimensions of the track was perhaps the most critical and time-consuming job. While the track dimensions were being marked and defined with rope and gaffers tape, others were busy setting up chairs, team benches, the bar area, and establishing the VIP spectator space.

During the pre-bout activities, as a roller derby photographer, I concentrated on finding ways to document it all. What worked well for me and my roller derby photography was a return to fundamental candid styled photography. Since nearly everyone was actively participating in their assigned pre-bout setup duties, my candid styled photographic approach went unnoticed. Mentally, I worked hard to pre-visualize successful photographs. Where did I need to position myself? What activities were interesting photographically? I watched to see what group of individuals were interacting well? Photographing individuals in their more candid moments, without their knowledge, was a very rewarding endeavor for me. I regarded my candid photography as a refreshing alternative to the static nature of all most all posed photography.

Once the bout began, my photographic attention centered on skater activity. The challenges were many as I attempted to capture and document roller derby action.

It was important for me to address the problem of blocking skaters looking to the back of the pack. I obsessed over the fact that roller derby skaters positioned in the blocking pack were looking backwards maybe 95% of the time. Their skater bodies were skating forward but their heads were almost always turned to the side. Or, skater bodies were turned completely around and were actually slowly skating backwards around the track. Not a good posture or body language for me as a roller derby photographer! I wanted to see faces. I wanted to capture outstanding facial expressions including pain, shock, surprise and joy. I believed successful roller derby photography, to a large extent, was dependent on the facial expressions of skaters during jams. As I reviewed my photos on my camera’s LCD screen, I found photos that had great documentary potential only to be destroyed by a turned head and/or a face not visible to the camera lens.

The Rink in Sacramento was always a dark place to photograph in. Used as an everyday roller skating rink for the general public, the prevailing semi-darkness was probably a good thing. Maybe general public skaters considered it romantic? But, for the roller derby photographer the building’s semi-darkness was an unwelcomed fact of reality.

 

To be successful, I needed a lighting solution. The easiest fix was to bring in some sort of additional supplemental lighting. I did. Initially, I brought with me a large studio type flash unit combined with several smaller off camera flash units. However, I quickly discovered a lighting problem. My large studio type flash, used to light the sizable roller rink floor, created hard dark shadows. When I reviewed my images, hard dark shadows were very visible. Far more harsh and visible than I wanted.  The harsh shadows situation had to be corrected. I determined that the elimination of these harsh shadows needed to be addressed technically. The answer was to locate my smaller flash units in positions that acted as flash-fill units and not as a main light source. After several tests and placement in different locations, the harsh shadows were successfully reduced. Over the years, I employed subtle variations to this combination of a main studio flash and smaller flash-fill units. 

However, in October at the end of the 2017 women’s flat track roller derby season, I altered my lighting solution at The Rink. I replaced the multiple flash arrangement completely. My new answer was a simple combination of one small on camera flash unit with a dialed up higher ISO setting on my camera. I used no additional lighting units. My new lighting solution was how I photographed all of the images in my recent publication, Roller Derby Pictured. In my opinion, this photographic technique worked well and one that I plan to use moving forward during the 2018 Sacramento roller derby season.

The physical dimensions of the roller derby track presented its own quandary of problems that I needed to consider. I did not setup a remote-controlled camera location. Therefore, I could only be in one shooting location at a time. I positioned myself at one end of the roller derby track. Sometimes the action was in front of my camera lens. But, there were many instances where the bout action was at the far end of the track. This was an unpleasant dilemma and it limited the success of my roller derby photography.

As a photographer, I wanted the most dramatic roller derby action to always be in front of my camera lens. My frustration level ran high when the roller derby action was not in front of my lens. As I sat at my location at one end of the track, I could only wait for the action to come towards me. In these situations, I needed a good amount of patience to endure the wait. The only solution available to me was to wait. The roller derby action needed to move closer to the camera. As I waited, I knew that I probably missed one or more fantastic action shots because the action was at the far end of the roller derby track.

What if I told you that the relationship between my camera lens and the position of bout officials (i.e., roller derby referees) was an ongoing battle, would you believe me? Yes, bout officials presented a constant visual problem. I had the photograph that I wanted in my camera’s viewfinder. I pushed the camera release button – only to immediately notice that one or more of the roller derby officials skated in front of my lens. I said to myself, “Expletive deleted.” In women’s flat track roller derby, there could be as many as six officials/referees skating around the outside and inside of the roller derby track. I know the disappointment, the irritation, the agony of officials unintentionally blocking my action photographs. It was a fact of roller derby photography.

In the rule book, each roller derby team was allowed three one-minute time outs per game. It was important for me to consider my photographic options during these stops in the action. I generally attempted to photograph close-ups of individual skaters. During time outs, teams often huddled around their coach in an area near their bench. These strategy sessions played an important part in the team’s attempt to win the bout. Skaters and the coaching staff communicated ideas and offered suggestions towards winning the bout. Also, skaters used the time out as an opportunity to catch their breath. The coach communicated the game plan to win the bout. I was challenged to somehow visually depict this interaction between teammates and their coach. I constantly looked for the facial expressions that need to be photographed. I looked for skater emotional clues communicated through their body language. I needed to remain vigilant during team time outs. I never wanted to waste a one-minute time out. Good visually descriptive photographs were there and I was desperate to uncover them.

The roller derby jam began. The moment when the Lead Jammer pulled away from the pack of Blockers, I got serious. I desired to visually communicate the speed of the Lead Jammer. My past roller derby experience told me that these were the only occasions where I could photograph roller derby skating speed. In combination with the speed of the roller derby skater, it was also a chance to photograph a solitary roller derby skater (i.e., the Lead Jammer). My brain’s mental image was that of the Lead Jammer alone, speed skating, out in front of the blocking pack. No matter the score of the bout nor the time remaining in the jam, I wanted that shot of the speeding Lead Jammer a good distance away from the blocking pack.

For me, my most used and favorite photographic technique to portray speed in a still photograph was to employ a small amount of subject blur. I knew the everyday general-purpose photographer has experienced subject blur at one time or another. In the vast majority of these photographs, the subject blur was never planned. It was, simply, a photographer’s mistake. An error made.

The blur that I utilized was purposed. It was planned. My use of subject blur was intended. There were specific bout situations when I photographed expecting a limited amount of subject blur. Sometimes, I adjusted my camera settings for less blur. At times, I adjusted my camera settings for more blur. But, I did so because I wanted some level of subject blur in my photographs. I engaged the photo techniques of camera panning and slow shutter speed to guarantee subject blur. As a roller derby photographer, I often desired the visual value and the understated effect of confined subject blur in my documentary photographs.

During the roller derby halftime (i.e., between periods 1 and 2), I continued to photograph all around the track area. It was important for me to actively seek out photographic opportunities during halftime. My personal preference was to continue to photograph and not walk over to the snack bar at The Rink. The culture of women’s flat track roller derby needed to be observed and photographed. I knew that if I kept my eyes wide open then roller derby heritage was present. It needed to be photographed. I found roller derby halftime a favorable time to photograph a collection of posed groups and posed individuals. Individuals and groups that wanted their picture taken. I found a parallel increase of those individuals willing to pose to have their picture with the growth of the internet selfie.

It took me years to jettison the negative context I associated with photographing posed individuals or groups. Did I think that my posed photos were in some way inferior to everything that I photographed non-posed? Maybe? I have since altered my photographic perspective on posed photos. I rethought my position. In my head, I substituted the word model for the word pose. I successfully ended my own personal stigma about the word posed. I simply changed my perspective. Now, people who posed in front of my camera have actually modeled for me.

When the roller derby bout ended, I made one final assignment for myself. The tradition with the Sac City Rollers at The Rink was one final skate. Team members skated once around on the outside edge of the roller derby track to say thank you to their fans. This last skate was the final interaction between teammates and the fans who purchased tickets to watch their bout. Win, lose or draw, I looked for and photographed facial expressions once again. I photographed the verbal and non-verbal communication between fans and skaters.

I described myself as a women’s flat track roller derby photographer. My photographing experience at The Rink was instrumental in my continued development as a successful sports photographer. My personal growth in the sphere of documentary still photography expanded as a result of my roller derby assignments. My camera abilities when involved in candid photography multiplied as a result of attending the bouts of the Sac City Rollers.

My first involvement with women’s flat track roller derby was in 2012.

I considered roller derby an athletic event and I was a sports photographer.  Sacramento had two team at that time, the Sacred City Derby Girls and the Sac City Rollers. My involvement began when I emailed the Marketing Director for the Sac City Rollers asking for Media Credentials to photograph their upcoming bout at The Rink. Since that time, I have photographed Sac City Roller bouts at The Rink on a regular schedule. In December of 2017, the Sacred City Derby Girls and the Sac City Rollers announced that they will be unifying in 2018. The name for the new combined team is Sacramento Roller Derby.

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