Blog, through the viewfinder

So, you want to be a roller derby photographer?

text and photos by Marko Niemelä

When I pick up the ideas for the quarterly column, we usually chat with What A Bout’s Tom about the ideas. I’m good with writing when I get things rolling, but I usually need a good push to get moving – and that’s when Tom steps in. He gives me an idea, motivation and (gently) kicks me off. It has worked well and it worked this time too – although when he suggested that I might take a glance at the past and my road as a photographer, I was honestly daunted by the task. Soon I have been taking roller derby photos for 10 years, and in that time you get a lot of memories even if you live a “normal” life – but being part of the fast growing, fast paced sports that evolves all the time – it’s a completely new thing. So many games, events, people, countries and venues that I don’t know even where to begin with. But like all journeys, this story gets forward with the first step.

I started my journey with roller derby late 2009. At that point I was a self-learning beginner photographer, mostly taking pics of nature and urban findings and learning how my camera works. Then a friend of mine had just started a freshmeat period with Helsinki Roller Derby and all I heard her talk about was how cool all of it was – the people, the gear, the sports – just something completely different from all the things she has seen before. At that point, HRD already had a photographer but he turned out to be referee for the team, and as my friend knew that I was taking some sorts of snaps, she asked me to come into a training session with my camera and take few photos and see what I like. Í had this very cheap basic Canon and a kit lens and it wasn’t suitable for anything else than taking stills of flowers, but when I got back from the first training session I had captured and saw the photos, I was electrified. By the standards I have now I would thrash most of the stuff that I took that day, but back then.. man oh man, all the action, colours, face paints and excitement just came through the screen. I saw something new and explosive and it took me with a sweep like a tsunami and that’s where I’ve been ever since, riding the waves. And the parties! Oh my these people knew how to party! In the early stages, we partied after every Friday scrimmage – after final whistle we packed into a local karaoke joint and sang and drank all the way through, all with the same enthusiasm as they practiced and played and I took photos. Maybe that’s why post-production is still my least favorite thing to do as I equate it with hangover…
At this point it would be a good thing to point out that you CAN take roller derby photos with pretty much any camera. Modern phones and their amazing cameras work too on some occasions! You can do wonders with a cheap-o camera and a kit lens, but at least for me at some point I noticed that if I wanted to improve myself to a direction I wanted to be, I needed better equipment. Following a fast sport, I needed a camera with a good autofocus system. Then I wanted to get closer and see better, so I needed lenses with better quality and larger zooms. Then I wanted more light, so after few years I bought flashes, and the more you get photos you need a good platform to post-process so new laptop with good programs is a must go. Basically on the day you decide to be a roller derby photographer, you start shoveling money in to a bonfire – it’s just never ending.

One of the succesful photos from the first WFTDA playoffs I attended – Falcon Punch from Montreal

Pretty early on I knew that this is the thing I wanted to do. Roller derby photography gave me a sense of belonging and a way to express myself artistically, a thing that I have struggled with most of my life before that. And I got so many chances to travel! Sweden, UK, Scotland, Denmark, Germany, Canada, USA – countries just kept piling up the more i got involved. So many weird venues come to my mind, I remember taking photos in a cold venue up on a mountain in a rural village in Tenerife, the whole place smelled of cow poo and we were freezing our butts off – but it was so much fun! Or that time when we traveled to Edinburgh and the whole venue had this weird orange hue to it which made all the photos look terrible. Or that time in Stockholm where the venue was a ice hockey hall and the floor was so slippery of the dust that the crew there decided to pour some Dr Pepper on the floor to make it more sticky… Just to make the dust to form a sticky mess that stuck on the skaters wheels. I was also so drunk taking photos that time that afterwards I didn’t even remember what I was doing. Or the horror on my first WFTDA playoffs when I noticed that something in the venue was causing troubles to my flashes and they fired only half of the time. Half of the shots were just simply bad and unusable.

Of course it hasn’t been a trip of horrors all the time. By far the good experiences have overlapped the bad ones – like the whole Roller Derby World Cup-experience where me and Vinciane got to be co-head photographers for the whole thing. The atmosphere and the crew was just amazing the whole way through. And I can’t forget the magic of my first Champs where I worked as WFTDA’s contracted photographer. Victoria won the whole thing, I saw Rose City’s intro for the first time and the quality of derby was just through the roof. I also have to mention the time when HRD All Stars traveled to their first playoffs in Omaha, USA, and won their first playoff-game in the last jam of the game. I totally forgot to take photos for the last 3 minutes of the game.  I always do when the game gets too exciting, which kinda makes me not the best derby photographer on those occasions…

Anyway, results and the photos I’m now taking don’t come easy. As I am a photographer who learned all by itself, I needed repetition to exhaustion. I took photos at most of training sessions, scrimmages, games home and abroad. I took photos at the after parties, street skates, I took (and take) player portraits and I shoot just about everything you can shoot when it comes to roller derby. By now I have taken hundreds of thousands of photos and I have learned a bit photo by photo, understanding what I want my pics to express and how to get there. I understand that some people are natural or they have more experience and things come easier for them, but I had to take the long route. But it doesn’t matter, cause I have loved the journey and I loved how I have learned to be the photographer I am today. I can be proud of what I achieved and say from each photo “Hey, I took that” with a bit of pride and confidence in my voice.

Loren Mutch from the Rose City during their intro at the 2017 WFTDA Champs.

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