Roller Derby photography: First attempt lessons, thoughts, and tips


Mu-43 Regular
Mar 5, 2019
Two weekends ago I had the opportunity to take my new Oly E-M5 Mk2 over to Vertiport here in Chicago and capture images of Windy City Rollers' double header bout with Ann Arbor Roller Derby. The Windy City B and C teams, Second Wind and Third Coast respectively, squared off against Ann Arbor's B and C teams, the Arbor Bruising Co and the Ypsilanti Vigilantes, in two great games. This was basically my first time shooting indoors, my first time shooting roller derby, and my first time shooting sports of any kind; so I went in prepared for struggles and a learning curve. I've had time since to edit and share my shots with the skaters; and also to reflect on the entire experience and process so I thought I'd share my favorite images, the full albums for anyone interested, and my thoughts and experiences after a demanding, but fun, shoot.

I was not able to secure a spot (really, I didn't push very hard as I know most of the league members and how hard they work to accommodate so many different needs on bout days from safety of fans to vendors to videographers and photographers...sometimes even local news!) on the list of official photographers as it filled up with our league's usual suspects and some visiting togs from Ann Arbor; but as I don't have flashes or speedlights anyway, all this meant was that I was restricted to the fan seating areas (wasn't an issue until I was evicted from my PRIME seat in turn 1 after half of the venue was full of fans and had to improvise), I wouldn't have access to stand in the infield of the track (most of my shooting was standing/crouching right at the tape line indicating how close to the track fans are allowed to sit), and that I couldn't use a tri/mono-pod.

My shots from the second bout were definitely better as I had the whole first bout to learn a lot about how the camera acts in low light, fast action situations; but I got a number of shots I'm very happy with from both bouts. My editing skillset was very basic when I edited these shots, basically little more than cropping and exposure compensation, so some of these could probably be improved even just by utilizing high/mid/shadow adjustments as I have begun doing more regularly. All suggestions/criticism/feedback is welcome. Also hoping to have the Oly75mm f/1.8 by that second bout as I found that even if my 14-150mm zoom was fast enough, I would basically only need 45mm and 75mm focal lengths for most of the good vantage points and angles I liked around the track.

I also found that shooting from normal or low angles, looking up slightly at the skaters made them appear more imposing and powerful, and I definitely recommend this especially if shooting women's derby. This was based on something I learned about how male and female models have typically, historically, been framed in fashion photography to make them look more masculine or feminine, and I think in this setting the technique can be used to great effect.

Based on shooting these two bouts, I would recommend to anyone looking to try their hand at derby photography that the 12-40mm Pro f/2.8 (which I don't own, just taking a guess here based on focal length range and speed of aperture) with the pair of 45mm and 75mm f/1.8 primes should be everything you could want or need as far as fast lenses across a wide array of focal lengths. Wide angles are useful for shooting from inside the track or for crowd shots, but beyond that the 45mm is great for shooting while situated in the even numbered turns (this allows you to look at the apex of the turn with skaters coming towards you during play without being too tight an angle) while the 75mm would be ideal for shooting from the odd numbered corners (shooting from these spots allows images to be framed nicely down the length of the straightaway on the track). I shot the entire day in manual mode with ISO on auto, but I regularly checked the ISOs my camera was choosing and adjusted my shutter speed accordingly, always aiming to be at 1/125 or faster. Shooting wide open at 1.8 gave nice, sharp results with a reasonable depth of field; but bear in mind that this venue was fairly well lit compared to many venues. Shooting fast action up to f/2.8 with my 45mm was more than acceptable in terms of ISO ranges used (usually 1000 or under). I didn't venture to any smaller apertures with the 45mm, but even the f/4.0 of my zoom required shutter speeds too slow for action shots, so I would expect f/2.8-3.5 to be the upper maximum of viable apertures for action shots without some sort of external lighting.

I did experience the 'trademark' E-M5 CAF tracking wander issue, but after playing around with AF settings I was able to find that single point (the smaller targets of the two single target options on the E-M5, not sure what it is technically called) with face priority off seemed to work the best for tracking skaters at speed, and if not for a black glass door in the background of many of my shots confusing the camera when tracking black-clad skaters, I didn't struggle too mightily to get reliable AF and a hit rate of about 15% keepers when shooting in low speed burst mode. I'm sure there are more settings for the CAF that I need to look into before drawing too many conclusions on how effective the CAF with tracking is on the E-M5; but overall I certainly wasn't disappointed or frustrated with the performance.

All in all, I had a great time with my little camera and cannot wait for the next chance I get to photograph this amazing sport. If you have decently fast glass and an opportunity to take your m43 kit to a roller derby bout, I highly recommend taking it. Below are my absolute favorite 5 star exported images (starting with my single favorite image from my camera to date), all post processed very lightly in Olympus Workspace, followed by links to Imgur albums for anyone who wants to see the rest of my keepers. All critiques are more than welcome, especially with regards to editing. I have started utilizing the histogram and high/mid/shadow adjustments in Oly Workspace a lot more this week, but these images were all exported before I started doing so, so all of these are merely given a little bit of EV compensation, slight rotations and crops, and a few were made monochrome.

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Full Album: Second Wind vs Arbor Bruising Co: 03-16-19 WCR Second Wind vs Ann Arbor Bruising Co. Roller Derby

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Full Album: Third Coast vs Ypsilanti Vigilantes: 03-16-19 WCR Third Coast vs Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Vigilantes

Thanks for taking the time, hope you enjoyed these as much as I enjoyed producing them and I'll be back soon and all summer with more derby photography! I'm by no means an expert at anything photography, but feel free to ask any questions and I'll do my best to share my thoughts and experiences to help you out!

On a slightly separate note: I know that I was spoiled by about as good of lighting as one could expect for indoor sports; but in general I was really happy with the results I got (my ISO very rarely went above 1000 while using my fast glass) and was proud to, in my own small way, prove the m43 nay-sayers wrong. Throughout my camera research process I was told I would be disappointed with specifically the sports photography performance of any m43 camera, but especially the E-M5; and that FF or at least APS-C or a maybe an E-M1.2 was the ONLY way to get usable results consistently. After these were edited and posted, multiple skaters (and these are NOT the kind of people to just say things to be polite) went out of their way to tell me or my wife that my photos were their favorite of all the photogs there that day; and every single one of the rest of them had massive telephotos on full frame or APS-C Canikons with big flashes and speedlights and the whole getup. By no means am I saying that m43, or the E-M5.2 for that matter, is ideal for indoor sports photography; nor do I seek to pat myself on the back and say I'm the greatest derby photog ever (far from it, I've got TONS to learn and tons of respect for the togs who have been doing this for years, they're super talented and I admire many of them): my point is to not listen to the nay-sayers with their big sensor obsessions. Buy what you like, shoot whenever you have the chance, and if you have enough drive and passion you'll find a way to get great images!


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