Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, a certain subject eludes you.
I had read about the Woman’s Flat Track Roller Derby via some postings by M.D. Welsh about his work with the Reno, Nevada team. He had produced a great series of images with the co-operation of the roller girls and recommended looking up the local team for my area, which I did. My local group, the Garden State Roller Girls, was made up of two teams, the Ironbound Maidens and the Brick City Bruisers. These are amateur teams; the ladies pay to play and really love the competition, which is fierce. I contacted them and asked if I could come to their practice sessions to get an idea of what they did and to…well, practice.
The practice session had the intensity of a football team readying for a big game. There was nothing ‘girly’ about these women. Stretching, calisthenics, running on their toes in their skates, skating forwards, skating backwards, skating in pairs, jumping ropes, knocking each other down and expressing their feelings in no uncertain terms! Each had a unique derby persona, with names like ‘Bone Saw’, ‘Captain Jack Peril’ and ‘Lady Vengeance’ and attitude to match on the track.
My practice, on the other hand, was showing me how far from being up to the task it was. I found that the skills required to get meaningful shots that conveyed the action were going to require far more work than I expected and my results from the initial practice session were relatively bland. I had seen the types of shots that the photographers who were dedicated to roller derby work were getting. Some of it was innovative and well beyond the more prevalent flash-in-the-face stuff. I wanted to produce work that stood at least with the better examples.
The team was going to practice again at another venue, this one far less well lit and would require my using small flash. I studied the kinds of set-ups that were used in the shots that I liked and we went to the second practice. This rink was so dark that my autofocus couldn’t hope to autofocus and I wasn’t able to manually track the rapid motion and keep the skaters in focus. Trying to find good light positions and then triggering them reliably was a fail. We were struggling with too many variables and were not in control at all. The number of in-focus shots were abysmally small and the lighting in those was far more miss than hit.
The next practice was back at the better lit rink and with the lessons learned from trying to use flash, we did better. Not very good, but better. And this was still a practice, where the action was less than competitively fierce and I had the luxury of picking my and the light’s location, something I would not be able to do at an actual event.
Then they had a practice skirmish with another group, the Psycho 78′s. This again at the dark venue. Chaos, absolute chaos. It seemed that the lights and camera were never pointing anywhere that action was taking place. I have some well lit shots of the skaters having passed by and many unlit shots of “I don’t know what was going on.” It couldn’t have been worse if I were on skates in the middle of the action; in fact, I probably was more capable of skating and falling than I was of capturing the action.
It was looking like the amount of time I would need to spend to become proficient at this was going to require a far more serious commitment on my part than I felt I was able to give. After each practice I was aching, both artistically and physically and it didn’t look like I was going to get it. I felt badly about making the decision to ‘give up’, but as a wise man once said, I think it was Clint Eastwood, “a man’s got to know his limitations”. I feel that I am closer to knowing mine.
The shot above was taken during a moment at practice when the team was gathered around for stretching and discussions. The subject matter was closer to a still life, being still, something that was more like other stuff that I had done. I had a 70-200mm lens on the camera and was shooting fairly wide open and f/5.0 so I tried focus bracketing to get sufficient depth of focus for this shot to succeed. Focus bracketing is similar to any other type of photographic bracketing in that a series of shots are taken, each with a different setting; in this case, the focus point. But with focus bracketing, rather than selecting the one with the best focus, the series is loaded into a stack in Photoshop and processed to combine the sharpest areas of each image into one where there is the appearance of continuous focus. This is just an appearance of depth of field however. This shot used 4 images for the focus stack. Through subsequent study, I’ve learned that the more images, the better the end results. I’ve downloaded a trial of Helicon Focus which promises to take this technique to the next level. I’ll do some experimentation and post the results.
As for results. Here, hidden at the bottom of this post, are a few of the better shots from my attempts to cover the Roller Girls in action.
During the scrimmage with Psycho 78s: