One of the major parts of prepping for a new season of roller derby is getting refreshed head shots for all of the skaters. This is met with both extremes of reactions from the skaters: Some are barely tolerant of the idea of having their photos taken; others turn this into a major team-bonding event. In both cases, my job is to get a nice photo of each skater that can be used in the bout programs and on the website.
For Jet City Rollergirls’ season 10 photos, we set up shop in the lobby at Skate Deck in Everett, WA, on a couple of league practice nights. It’s not ideal for me to be working during a practice, but it’s really the only opportunity to get most of the skaters to show up. Because everyone has lives outside of derby, it can be a scheduling nightmare to get upwards of 80 people gathered in one location for any amount of time.
There are several challenges that come along with shooting a large volume of head shots:
- I want one lighting setup that will work for all of the portraits.
- I want the ability to tweak the lighting setup slightly as needed.
- I want consistent framing and styling but allow for individual personalities.
- I want to work as quickly as possible to prevent people from waiting too long.
- I want to recreate the same setup with similar results on different days.
I opted for a modified clamshell lighting setup for the head shots. This gets me clean, simple lighting that is flattering for everyone. It is also incredibly easy to setup and reproduce later, even if I forgot to take a setup shot or jot down notes.
The key light is a Cactus RF60 at 1/8 power in a 60″ silver umbrella (Softlighter without the diffuser) situated up high and angled down about 45°. This creates a big broad slightly feathered light source that lets me work with skaters of varying heights. It also creates nice shadows under the jawlines to provide definition.
The fill light is another Cactus RF60 at 1/128 power in a 43″ shoot-through umbrella positioned just below the camera. It provides just enough light to fill shadows and create nice catchlights in the eyes. I moved this light up and down as needed for different skater heights.
Camera exposure was 1/200 at f/4 and ISO 640. 1/200 was the max sync speed for my Nikon D600. Shooting at f/4 gave me enough depth of field to keep the eyes and face in focus and allow me to work with lower-powered lights. ISO 640 to my flash power lower, so the lights wouldn’t have to work so hard.
I placed the skaters about a foot or two in front of the backdrop. I wasn’t going for a seamless background, so I was fine with cast shadows. I actually like the shadows on the background, because they provide some grounding in an environment.
Setting up the lights was the easy part. The real work happened when skaters were in front of the camera. Because these were “just” head shots, posing was fairly straight forward, but there would be more emphasis on the eyes and facial expressions.
For speed and flexibility, I opted to shoot with my Nikon D600 and the 24–70/2.8. As much as I love my Fujifilm X100T, it’s just not a very fast camera. I needed to be able to work quickly for these head shots. Often the best facial expressions come between poses, and being able to react instantaneously to those moments is absolutely key.
The 24–70/2.8 gave me the option of bouncing between 50-70mm depending on the pose and the subject. Sometimes 50mm looks good. Sometimes 70mm looks good. I also wanted to ability to quickly zoom out to 24mm for outtakes and behind-the-scenes photos.
In general, I spent no more than 2–3 minutes with each skater. Long enough to get a range of poses and expressions. Quick enough that no one gets restless or impatient. Most skaters had poses and expressions prepared, and that helped move things along. For the skaters who didn’t know what to do, I ran through my standard poses, i.e. hands-on-hips with serious face, turn shoulders 30–45° to one side, chin out and down, etc.
I took similar approach in editing as I did with the Jet City Bombers head shots from a few weeks back. I wanted a slightly different look to the new photos but still feel like they came from the same photographer.
The original RAW files were shot fairly flat and neutral to give me more dynamic range to work with in post. I started with a modified version of one of my favorite VSCO Film 06 presets (Portra 160+) to get a good color and contrast baseline and then started adjusting settings for each team.
First up was getting good skin tones. My preset does a nice job right off the bat of getting pleasing skin tones with nice contrast and saturation. I just needed to make sure there wasn’t too much orange or red in the faces. The neutral backdrop helped with color balance, but I did allow some of the uniform color casts to remain.
Once the skin tones looked good, I tweaked color adjustments to ensure the teams’ uniforms were correct. Sometimes the more saturated purples and pinks get skewed to blue and red respectively when I’m working with my presets. A bit of hue and saturation adjustment usually takes care of the problems.
The final editing pass was cropping to a 4×5 ratio. I normally leave my portraits as 2×3, but I felt that 4×5 would look good for this series. I shot everything very loose to give me options for cropping in post. And, with a 24 MP file, I had plenty of cropping space.
Outtakes and other silliness.
When you get a bunch of derby people in front of a camera, hijinks will ensue. Here are a few outtakes from the two nights of shooting:
Gear and Things.
To wrap things up, here is a list of all of the tools I used for the head shots:
- Nikon D600.
- Nikkor 24–70mm f/2.8.
- Photek 60″ Softlighter (minus the diffuser).
- Westcott 43″ shoot-through umbrella.
- Cactus RF60 speedlights.
- Cactus V6 wireless transceiver.
- Manfrotto and LumoPro light stands.
- Impact 5′ x 7′ collapsible and reversible black/white backdrop.
- Manfrotto 175F Justin Clamps to hold the backdrop to the stands.
- A cheapo Nike baseball bag to hold the stands and modifiers.
- Think Tank Photo Speed Racer to carry camera gear and lights.
- Photo Mechanic for editing and metadata.
- Lightroom CC for post-processing.
One more thing.
As expected, most of the photos I shoot in these sessions end up being relatively standard derby head shots (for me, at least). Every once in a while, though, I get to shoot portraits like the one above of Chic-Lets Rock. Rocky was out for most of the last season with an injury, and fighting back has been a struggle. She is an amazing skater who is always fun to photograph on the track. I hope she is back on skates soon.
You can see the rest of the photos from the head shot sessions here: http://photography.dannyngan.com/jcrg-season10.
The Jet City Rollergirls kick off their 10th season this fall. Check out their website for the latest updates on their season 10 schedule.