Skater portraits for the Jet City Bombers

Nasty Nikki Nightsticks, Cia Woodnwanna-Bia, Beethoven’s Fist, I’llah Smashya.

The Jet City Rollergirls are one of the many local roller derby leagues that I have the pleasure of photographing on a regular basis. I was excited when the league asked me to photograph new portraits for the Bombers, their all-star team. As much as I enjoy photographing the action on the track, I especially have fun with the creative and technical challenges that come with skater portraits.

The only requirement I was given was the photos needed to be on a plain background for use on profile pages and bout programs. The rest was entirely up to me.

One of the challenges of shooting multiple portraits in a single session is finding a lighting setup that I can set-and-forget and that is flattering for everyone. My usual go-to is one giant soft light source up high (usually a 60" Softlighter) and then a couple of lights on the background.

I wanted to change things up and to keep it simpler this time around. I didn’t want to fuss with balancing the subject light versus the background light and then keeping light from spilling onto the subject. I also wanted to setup and break down my gear as quickly as possible.

Lighting setup for the Bombers portraits in the middle of the lobby at Skate Deck.

The Setup

My lighting setup was very simple. It was essentially a traditional clamshell lighting configuration that is flattering for just about everyone.

The key light was a Cactus RF60 in a 43" shoot-through umbrella situated up high on the camera axis and angled down about 45 degrees. Fairly standard key light position.

The fill light was a second Cactus RF60 also in a 43" shoot-through umbrella set just below camera height and on the camera axis. The fill light was about 2–1/2 stops below the key to fill the shadows just enough so they didn’t read as completely black.

All lights were roughly 10' away from the backdrop. I placed the skaters about half-way between the lights and the background to keep the lights soft and still cast some shadow.

I set the overall exposure to keep the brightest part of the backdrop at approximately 85% intensity. With the key light up high and a low fill light, I was able to get nice smooth gradation from top-down on the background.

The thing I liked about this setup was that it was easy to adjust on the fly. I could shift the key light to either side to find better angles on the skaters’ faces. I could quickly adjust the height for taller or shorter people. I could move the skater closer or further from the background to get nicer shadows. This is definitely a benefit of shooting with small flashes and small modifiers.

Whoa Nellie!, The Mexorcist, Killer Tofu, Shock Stopher.

The Camera Stuff

In terms of camera gear, I shot everything with my Fujifilm X100T and the TCL-X100 tele-converter lens. 33mm (50mm FF equivalent) was the perfect focal length for medium portraits. Wide enough to get mid-body photos at close range. Long enough to not have any crazy distortions.

Exposure was f/4, 1/200, ISO 500. At those settings, everything in the frame was completely black without my flashes, which allowed me to adjust the flash ratios without worrying about ambient light. I intentionally bumped up the ISO, so my flashes wouldn’t have to work as hard (i.e. faster recycle times, less battery drain).

I really didn’t spend much time with the lighting setup. It took me maybe 15 minutes to setup everything and do my lighting tests. I took 5–10 shots per skater to ensure I had a good range of serious and smiley faces. I couldn’t spend too much time with each skater, because the entire shoot happened during a practice. The skaters had more important things to do — such as preparing for playoffs — than get their photos taken.

Three phases of Cia Woodnwann-Bia: SOOC, white balance fix, and final image with retouching and toning.

Post Production

Retouching and toning was all done in Lightroom CC. Nothing terribly complex here. Cropping, white balance correction, image adjustments for contrast, color toning for personal taste.

You can see from the images above that the SOOC image on the left isn’t bad at all. It’s just a little too blue. The image in the middle with the corrected white balance would have been perfectly usable for profile pictures and programs, but it was too neutral and flat for my tastes. I wanted more punch and contrast, so I continued editing to get the final result you see on the right side.

Because I shot everything with the same lighting setup and exposure settings, I could retouch a couple of key images and then copy-paste the settings across all images. I then tweaked slightly per image. For example, I needed to do some brush adjustments to bring back highlights in dark hair as well as tone down highlights on faces.

Wrap Up

Overall, this was a relatively easy and straightforward shoot. A simple lighting configuration allowed me to set up my gear and do lighting tests very quickly. That same simple setup gave me the flexibility tweak my key light position as well as fine-tune my fill light.

Since I didn’t have to fuss with the lights too much, I was able to concentrate on photographing the skaters and capturing their personalities. Familiarity and a good rapport definitely helped keep the shoot loose and not-very-serious. Most importantly, we all had a lot of fun.

You can see the rest of the photos from the session on my website: http://photography.dannyngan.com/jcrg-bombers-2016


The Bombers are heading to Wichita, KS, during mid-August to compete in the WFTDA D2 Playoff Tournament to determine which teams will go to champs in November. Check out the live streams to see them in action!