Central City Roller Derby – Sports Photography

I had the great pleasure of being invited to a Roller Derby match at the weekend by my good friend Vee, or as her team mates know her, ‘Bunny Massacre’. I hasten to add that Vee is one of the nicest people you could ever meet and her love for bunnies certainly negates any assumptions you may have based on her Roller Derby name; but when she’s skating round the track with the Central City Roller Derby, well, that’s a whole different ball game, actually it’s not a ball game at all, let me elaborate.I must say the whole sport has intrigued me for years, I’ve seen the odd snippet here and there of the American version on television, and will admit it totally baffled me as to what the rules were and how anyone won in what seems a chaotic and highly physical sport. You wouldn’t believe the number of videos there are on YouTube explaining the ins and outs, the tactics and the team interactions. Roller Derby is most certainly not something you simply pick up over night and there is far more to it than meets the eye. Forearmed with a very basic understanding how it’s played, I thought I’d be prepared to capture some of the more dynamic parts and hopefully come away with a number of great shots. I think the saying goes, “learn to walk before you can run”, I certainly didn’t expect it to be that difficult to get a shot.

Turning up at the venue I was already prepared for certain lighting conditions, as is usual with many indoor sports, it may seem bright to the human eye, but to a camera with a fast shutter speed to capture the action, it’s almost pitch black. I started off with a shutter speed of 1/1000th, thinking this would be great to freeze at least 95% of the action without any motion blur; but then I was left with an f-stop of about f/2.8, which is a nightmare to get anything in focus that’s fast moving. Tracking technology aside, which wasn’t always helpful, you really have to push the envelope to get anything of great quality out of settings like that, especially with an ISO of 3200 to try and get enough light in. I chatted with an awesome photographer there, Floyd King, who is a well experienced Roller Derby photographer, and he suggested lower the shutter speed to about 1/500th, this helped a great deal with the quality of the image, as I could then drop my ISO down to something that produced less digital noise. Granted you risk more motion blur with very fast moving objects, but it was either that or have every photo look like you’d shot it through a frost coated lens.

If you ever get the chance to meet Floyd, do so, he’s a great guy, super helpful and easy to get on with. He showed me his setup, which I have to admit was a genius way to freeze the action, keep the quality and not have to push your cameras limits to the max. Granted this can’t be done with all indoor sports, and Floyd did say that not all venues or events allow him to do it. He had a three point lighting setup with flashes positioned high up on lighting poles, so the flash went off overhead preventing any real distractions for the skaters; to be honest I didn’t notice myself most of the time when they triggered. The flashes were positioned strategically to cover key parts of the track, this is when experience and understanding of the game come in to play. The power from the flashes were enough to freeze the action without having to have crazy high shutter speed, thus allowing the ISO to be very low and also for the f-stop to be greater, giving more flexibility in focusing.

At first I just shot frames like a mad man, with a hope that I got something, but I soon realised that this was a bit of a naive way to go about it. Because it’s so fast paced, stopping and starting, you think you’d have to just shoot anything and hope for the best, it’s a natural urge, however I soon realised that it’s the opposite. It’s more about quality, not quantity, trust me, after looking through over a thousand photos the next day, you finally understand this. I watched Floyd and a couple of other photographers there, and they sat and watched a lot of the game play without taking a shot, I see it more akin to wildlife photography, you wait for the moment, and you’re ready to take the shot instead of being in a panic like I was. Once you see the game play out for a few minutes, you start to understand where certain parts of the action repeatedly happen, so you can prepare yourself for next time if you miss the first attempt.

Once I’d settled and trusted in my location and the settings I had, I found it much more enjoyable. Yes I didn’t get every shot, hell, I missed many, but it’s all experience at the end of the day and it was great fun. You’ll not regret it if you ever get chance to go to a Roller Derby match, the event is full of colourful and friendly people, all there to have a good time and cheer on their team. It’s a very physical game, but I never noticed any dirty play or attitude from players, it has an air of respect about it, similar to Rugby in that sense. I’d happily suggest it to adults and children alike, for a thoroughly entertaining time.

Tips I took away from the whole experience:

  • take a deep breath, relax and don’t panic. Take in the action for a few minutes and then start shooting.
  • try and get a happy medium between freezing the action and quality. I wish I’d changed my settings sooner, I’d rather have mild motion blur on bits, than a soft, grainy looking image.
  • take small bursts, try not to rattle off hundreds of frames in a hope one may work. it’s easier to try multiple times for the same shot, than it is to fire off thirty or so frames on just one attempt.
  • watch for patterns of action, if they keep occurring in a different spot to where you are, move there for a better chance of a good image.
  • talk to the referees before the game starts. They often mark out specific spots to allow photographers different angles on the game. Once you know these, stick to them and never cross the track while the game is in play. Don’t forget, the game is the most important thing, not your photograph.

Photos from: 7th July, British Championships T2W, Birmingham. North Wales Roller Derby v Wiltshire Roller Derby and Central City Roller Derby B v Furness Firecrackers

6 responses to “Central City Roller Derby – Sports Photography”

    • Hi Rachel, thank you. It took me about two days to look through all the photos to pick out the good ones, lesson learnt there lol. The time flew past on the day and it’s certainly something I’d love to go to again, even if it’s just to watch. So many things going on in life that often just pass you by without you realising, I’m glad this wasn’t one of them. 🙂


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