Sure, there are obvious differences between picking up a camera and playing a full contact sport on roller skates. Though you’re probably less likely to break your wrist taking pictures, the guiding principles of learning any new skill apply to photography just as much as roller derby. Trust me, I’ve started at the very bottom in both disciplines – I have literally been there and gotten the t-shirt. So many t-shirts.
As I head for the golden pastures where retired derby skaters go, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the journey. Whether you’re fresh meat (that’s a real derby thing) or just a newbie photographer figuring out what PASM means, I think these basic principles apply.
You will be really, really bad for a while
When you’re new at skating, just staying upright is hard. You can see me demonstrating this point above at one of my earlier scrimmages.
Photo by Robert T. Bakie
With very few exceptions, everybody starts off bad. Like, really bad. In roller derby you’re a hot mess for a while until you learn how to move with eight wheels strapped to your feet. While it might be less obvious to a casual observer, starting out in photography is kind of similar. Until you get the basic principles in hand, there’s really no way around messing up a lot of shots. Don’t let it get you down.
Practice makes perfect, or at least better
By all means, read up on the fundamentals. Study the work of your heroes. But there’s no substitute for getting out there and getting dirty. As a beginning photographer, the more challenging situations you try to photograph, the more you’ll learn what does and doesn’t work. It’s the same in roller derby – you just need to log a lot of hours on the rink.
You’ll probably think you’re better than you are for a while
|This is a photo of a telephone pole I took in 2009. It is Not Good. I thought it was something really special at the time.|
The Dunning-Kruger effect – a surge of self-confidence that causes beginners to think they’re better than they are – is just as real in derby as it is in photography. Once you start seeing your skills improve, you’ll lack the frame of reference to know how truly bad you still are. And usually, someone or something will bring you back down to earth pretty quickly (refer to the photo at the top of the page for a diagram of what that can look like). That’s okay, it’s just another reason why the next tidbit is so important.
Seeking out feedback will help you see what you can’t
As humans we’re not great at spotting our own weaknesses, so seeking out someone more experienced in your field for some critique is invaluable. Listen and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Roll with people who are better than you are (you know, physically roll, or just go on a photo walk). Pay attention to what they do, but don’t stress out if you can’t quite keep up yet. You will eventually.
Once you master the basics, you’ll find your style
|I’m still working on it but at least I’ve graduated from telephone poles.|
We aren’t all an Ansel Adams, and we certainly can’t all be a Missile America. Some skaters, like yours truly, are wiry, bony types who look more at home at a Scrabble tournament than on the track. When you have good command of basic skills, you’ll start to see where your strengths are.
Similarly, with the nuts and bolts of exposure under your belt, a beginning photographer can start playing with different styles and subject matter. Pay attention to what you find you’re drawn to and build on your strengths.
Setting realistic goals will help you keep growing
Without goals, you’re just going in circles – aside from the literal circles that you roll in when you play derby. For best results, make your goals specific, realistic and achievable (you know, SMART) and find someone who can help keep you accountable for working toward them. Assign yourself a photo project and set deadlines for yourself, rather than sit at home worrying that you’re not shooting enough.
Don’t give in to Gear Addiction Syndrome
Gear Addiction Syndrome is real and it’s not just a problem for photographers. Many derby skaters can hold in-depth conversations about their preferences in knee pads and the secret sauce that is their wheel setup. Skating requires a certain level of gear smarts, but just as it is in photography, you can get too carried away making adjustments, particularly when you’re starting out.
In either case, experiment, find what feels like a good fit, and then embrace getting the most you can out of your kit before you start trying to upgrade everything in your (skate or photo) bag.
It will all start clicking and that’s when the fun really starts
This is what it feels like when things finally go right. There’s just a lot of actual blood, sweat and tears leading up to that moment.
Photo by Danny Ngan
The absolute best moments I’ve experienced playing roller derby and taking photos have been when instinct kicked in and I stopped thinking. I’ll turn a corner and see the best shot of my day materialize right in front of me, and I’ll have the right lens and the right settings to capture it. Or I’ll suddenly put a skill I’ve practiced for hours to use in a game.
Nothing beats that moment. Savor it.