John Hesse - Photos From Inside The Track... My Angle

European Roller Derby may still be considered an underground sport, however as we all know there has been a global explosion in participation. I started photographing roller derby when my wife Beachy Headcase began playing. Although I didn’t have a clue what was happening on the track I loved the spirit and I immediately related to the sport. 

Max Rees - LRG Rec League Coach

As a life long skateboarder, roller-skating based sports were completely off my radar, suddenly here was one that seemed to embody the original skateboard culture I loved. I felt I needed to find out more and maybe get involved. I got myself down to the scrims where my local league – the ‘Bourne Bombshells’ were participating and started taking photos.

Daisy Juke – Portsmouth Roller Wenches

All leagues generally have their own ‘in house’ photographer whose responsibility it is to produce a decent set of photographs for their team’s bouts.  They also produce headshots for match programs and other publicity shots used by the team or sponsors. I currently shoot for my local leagues The Bourne Bombshells and Brighton Rockers Roller Derby. I live in a derby mad house so when we travel around to watch other teams in the area I always pack my camera.

Chariot Sophia – Brighton Rockers Roller Derby

Modern day roller derby has known nothing other than the internet and I believe the sport’s rise has been helped by the speed in which information is spread and the ease the skating community feel working online. The net is widely used by derby photographers who share info and advice in many social media groups particularly on Facebook including ‘f2.8 fast glass around the derby track’ and  ‘UK roller derby photographers’. 

Rebelle De Jour - London Brawling

The American model of derby photography often involves the use of flash.  Speedlights are fixed strategically around the track and triggered remotely to enhance available light often producing a beautifully lit ‘freeze frame’.  Skaters caught mid air jumping the apex is the money shot, these dramatic captures are prized and soon shared online.

Lil’ Bow Creep - London Rollergirls: Rec League vs Batter C Power

A few weeks ago I photographed Team England vs Team Wales in Birmingham. Talk amongst photographers soon turned to the ‘Americans’. In the same way their skaters arrival for the forthcoming men’s world cup event is much anticipated so too is the arrival of their photographers and their use of speedlights.  
Ballistic Whistle – Team England at the Futsal, Birmingham

The Futsal arena in Birmingham will host the Men’s World Cup and the lighting inside is a challenge.  The natural light that pours in from one glazed side and above via sky lights is unpredictable and fast changing.  This natural light is supplemented by intermittent fluorescent roof lighting units, which leave half the track in near darkness.  One British photographer used flash during the bout and this may represent a sea change to the way British and European photographers approach roller derby.

Ref – Noise Tank vs Rainy City Roller Girls

On the whole British derby photographers have adopted the traditional approach to indoor sports photography, utilising the classic 70-200 f2.8 stationed strategically and slightly remote with a wide aperture and high ISO they catch the action, pin sharp athletes with a bokeh background.  At times these stunning images of skaters frozen in time are near as damn perfect. Although I often use my 70-200mm for outside track shots it’s as a back up to my core set up inside the track.

Jack Attack – London Rockin' Rollers

I try to catch the diy spirit first found in Texas back in 2002 and carried through the sport worldwide. The ‘punk rock’ influence remains even as the sport has matured and become way more athletic and ‘serious’.  In my opinion, there is an edge to the sport that’s imbedded in its very fabric.  It’s more than tattoos and dyed hair, there is an attitude which is inclusive and fun but at the same time flicks the bird at authority and there’s the colour… and the speed….  It’s for these reasons that I cannot sit for long aloof from the action firing my D800 through 200mm, it’s why I have to shoot the majority of my shots in the centre of the track with a D4 / 24-70 up close and personal. 

Ref – Meg Le Maniac

Standing alongside the non skating officials (NSOs) and the skating refs in the centre of the track it takes a while to build an awareness of what’s around you and what’s about to inadvertently skate into you.  It’s a battle at first to compose shots but soon enough you find your space and zone in…once your there everything kinda falls into place, you can ebb and flow with the bout, choose your moments to leave the inside to take a few from another perspective.  Soon enough though I’m back inside track.
Hell Block H – Bourne Bombshells

I’m interested in capturing the speed of the skaters so I shoot at a relatively low 1/80th, this allows ambient light in but more importantly for panning which is vital to communicate my view of the sport by capturing the motion. I also want to show the spirit, working in lightroom I like to saturate certain colours to form a unique pallet for each bout.  Each shot I produce I hope is able to stand on its own as an individual image but it is also vital that it is recognisable as part of a set, part of a story about the team I’m shooting and how damn awesome they were on that day. 
London Rollergirls (Brawling) vs Tiger Bay Brawlers

Application of style is the same for me as it is for any event photographer.  Whether I am photographing team England, my local league, a live band or a boxing match, I am 100% focused on producing a great set of images.  PP is an important place for me and I’m quite fussy, a lot of images are discarded due to composition issues, I may stand alone in my thoughts that blurs fine but bad composition is not – but for me that’s the way it is.  I am always up late after a bout on the mac cursing missing boots, hands and heads.
Billie Pistol – Tiger Bay Brawlers

This year is a world cup year for both men and women.  The women’s Blood and Thunder Roller Derby World Cup is in a sense a home coming for the sport showcasing in Texas during December.  I am hoping to be among the chosen photographers recording the event. 
Ankefar – Malmo Crime City Rollers

Before then 14th-16th of March the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup will be held in Birmingham.  This is a fantastic opportunity to check out the world’s best men’s teams battling it out in the UK.… look out for me I’ll be in the centre of the track having my own personal flash free battle with the light.
Hooks Linger – Southern Discomfort Roller Derby

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About The Author

DOB: 4/22/2014

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