Words and photos by Ctein
This column will be filled with much name-dropping and external linking. There's a reason.
About two weeks before my just-completed trip to Minneapolis, DDB (a.k.a. David Dyer-Bennet) mentioned in an email, "I've got a crazy photo project coming up, but shortly after you've left I think: 22-Oct. Shooting the Fabulous Lorraine's roller derby team in a match. Should be fun...."
Well, Lorraine is indeed Fabulous, and a friend of mine, too, and I wasn't leaving until the 24th, so I asked DDB to ask her if I could join the fun. I kinda knew what the answer would be, but it's always polite to ask.
Mind you, I haven't done any sports photography for 40 years, and DDB's got even less experience than me, but that's never stopped either of us. He's good and he's a fast learner, and I figured I'd get my chops back pretty fast. Right on both counts.
So, last Saturday DDB, Lydy, and I drove out to Eau Claire for the match.
I haven't seen roller derby since it was on TV as a kid. I loved it. I didn't like watching any other sports, still don't. I think it was the combination of skill, chaos and mayhem combined with getting to see women actually do something real and physical. A novelty when I was young, but still a delight. And still too rare. This match, in fact, was a charity bout raising money for Girls on the Run.
This is what the arena looks like. No banks, so no one is gonna go up and over the rail. The photographer in me says, "Dang." The blue tape marks the outer bounds of the skating zone. It's a permeable boundary. Note DDB, left of center, there. Made with the Olympus 12mm ƒ/2 lens.
Turns out flat tracks are now the norm, not the banked ones of my youth. OK, so maybe not quite as much mayhem as I remember. We got ourselves situated in the suicide zone, which is the area just outside the blue zone the skaters are supposed to stay in. Note the phrase "supposed to"; that's why they call it the suicide zone. Hah, the closest any skater came to colliding with me, she was a good two feet away.
But first there was the pre-game entertainment and, to our delight and surprise it was Lojo! Formerly of Minneapolis, now living in Iowa with her partner Susan, I haven't see Lojo in some years. Multi/megatalented singer, guitarist and songwriter. When she'd sit in with The Flash Girls, the Fabulous Lorraine's old group, it was something incredible. As a solo act, she's still incredible. She can rock down a house all by herself without breaking a sweat. In an alternate reality, she's a major star, I'm sure. She performed pregame and during the intermission.
Finally we got to the match; it was the Chippawa Valley Roller Girls ("our" team, in black) vs. the Harbor City Roller Dames (in white). I'll spare you the suspense—our team got trounced. CVRG was good, but HCRD was a lot better. Such is life.
For me and DDB, though, it was about making photos. DDB went the auto route, hoping and trusting that his Nikon kit's fast and predictive autofocus was up to the task (it was). He jammed away at ISO 3200 with a relatively slow ƒ/2.8 telephoto, and it worked fine. He got lots of good photos. For a first-timer, he got hella-lots of good photos.
I went in a different direction. I held my Olympus Pen down to ISO 800, where the image quality is damn good. Armed with a quartet of ƒ/2 and faster primes I didn't feel a lot of need for higher ISO. I worked a bit with the 45mm ƒ/1.8 and the autofocus worked better than I expected, but mostly I went with the Rokinon 85mm ƒ/1.4 lens I reviewed here a couple of weeks back, used wide open. That got me the same 1/400th–1/500th of a second as DDB. But not predictive autofocus, pure manual.
Well, I grew up with manual-focus sports photography. With practice, you can get really good at follow-focusing, especially when the motion is kind of predictable, as it is in a roller derby course. I'm way out of practice, so I fell back on a much safer technique. You pick your spot. Then you pick a spot on the field (track in this case) and prefocus there. Fix that point in your mind. Ignore what's happening everywhere else.
As a photographically-promising player approaches that mark, keep the shutter half pressed to minimize lag. Just before they hit the mark, hit the shutter. Pretty quickly you'll internalize the lag time of your camera and be able to nail it almost every time. Didn't take me even a half dozen photos before I'd got that down. Instant feedback is a big help, and chimping is my bosom buddy. Despite the razor-thin focus zone of the 85mm at ƒ/1.4, I was good most frames.
(I'm starting to really, really like this lens, bunches.)
Of course, you miss a lot of the action that way. Furthermore, only a small percentage of those frames will actually have good action. You can't predict that, and you're still composing on the fly. A high success rate simply will not happen. But you get to put all the technical stuff out of your head and you will get enough good action photos to make you (and the team) happy.
Well I did, anyway. DDB got a lot more than me, because he wasn't locked down the same way (and because he is damn good). But I got enough.
Then came the after-game photos.
Did I mention that the Fabulous Lorraine is also assistant to Neil Gaiman? Now I have. In fact, Neil flew in our mutual friend Kyle Cassidy, whose work has been featured on TOP previously to photograph the CVRG's first match. So, Neil was at the game, too, and we finally got properly introduced instead of just circling each other at parties as we have for years (we have approximately 2,000 very close friends in common). There was a certain amount of after-game excitement when people discovered they had a modest celebrity in their midst, resulting in some of my favorite photos from the whole session. The Fabulous Lorraine loves this one, I love this one, and Neil loves this one. Gotta call it a win, I suppose.
We hung around for the after-game party a bit, to get time to chat with Lojo and Lorraine (who wasn't skating this time, sad to say, but being very busy with organizing and managing stuff). Plus I had a big hug to deliver to her. Y'see, about a week before I left I was having diner with a very close friend, Marilyn Krieger. Marilyn's a world-expert cat behaviorist and trainer. I don't mean exotic entertainment and stunt cats; we're talking housecats?
You don't think your housecat can be trained to do just about anything you'd like (or broken of just about any bad habit)? Buy Marilyn's book and learn how.
I mentioned in passing the upcoming roller derby business and, whaddaya know, she and Lorraine are really good friends, too. Because, along with everything else, The Fabulous Lorraine does Bengal Cat rescue. And, I think maybe there's some connection between Marilyn and Neil, maybe, maybe. Don't ask me how cat behavior and Neil come together, but anything's possible, as Neil's interests are almost as far-flung and wide-ranging as the Fabulous Lorraine's connections.
This column isn't really primarily about photography. It's about these song lyrics from thirty years ago:
Most of us don't believe in what we cannot see,
but there's more to living than photography.
All the threads that link us eternally,
think of electricity.
Ctein's regular weekly column on TOP appears on Wednesdays, if it doesn't get bumped outside the blue line.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Chris Norris: "I shot roller derby for a few years and recently sludged through my thousands of photographs to put together something I'm proud of. It's a bit more art than sports photography, but it represents a lot of sweat and work."
Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "I think lots of guys secretly like tough women but won't admit it. This column was from way out in left field, I smiled all the way through. Merci beaucoup."