Beginner’s Guide To Photographing Drummers

The Winery Dogs, Live at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia.

When I first started photographing bands in clubs, one of the biggest challenges that I had was shooting drummers. They were the furthest away from the front of the stage; the other band members would get in the way; and in most clubs the drum riser was very dark because it wasn’t under the stage lights. In addition, I was only using a 50mm lens and couldn’t get close enough. But, after purchasing a good f2.8 75 – 200mm zoom, I made a concerted effort to get better at shooting drummers. Here is a list of what I learned along the way:

1. Shoot To Thrill
Yes, the first and most important tip to remember is to SHOOT THE DRUMMER! They’re easily passed over considering that they are behind not only the rest of the band, but also a huge mountain of metal. But, they are a member of the band and they deserve as much love as the other members. Look at it this way: If you were photographing  the band RUSH, would you not be absolutely certain to get shots of Neil Peart? Sure you would. Treat all drummers like you would Neil Peart.

Fozzy, Live at Wild Bill's in Duluth, Georgia.

2. The “Point” is…
A drum set can be very challenging to shoot through. Sight lines can be very small, sometimes non-existent. To combat digging your way through all of this hardware, put your autofocus setting on “Single Point” and be sure you focus right on the drummer’s eyes. Compose your shot, lock the focus and then just work on your timing to fire off shots when their face is visible. You may end up with a few shots that were accidentally focused on one of the drums instead of the drummer. Sometimes those shots look pretty cool, but it’s more important to concentrate on the person. I will often refocus after every tenth shot or so, just to be sure I’m capturing what I want. Oh yeah, shoot a LOT. You’ll be amazed at how often you will catch the drummer with their eyes closed or your shot will have an unacceptable amount of blur.

Styx, Live at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta, GA.

3. Slow and Easy
To add some interest in your drummer photos, slow down your shutter to 1/160 or below to get some serious blur in the movement of the drum sticks. I’ve read several differing viewpoints on this with many photographers choosing to shoot at a high enough shutter speed to freeze the sticks, but for me, slow is the way to go. It’s a tricky balance to find a shutter speed that will blur the sticks, but keep the rest of the drummer sharp. Experiment. Try different settings. If you’re shooting in Manual Mode (and you should be) you may need to adjust your exposure and/or ISO to compensate for the slower shutter.

REO Speedwagon, Live at The Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta, GA.

4. Stick It
Once you have your sight line, and you have achieved focus on the drummer (and not the kit), time your shots to capture some of the stick action. Without the sticks in frame, it’s just a person sitting behind some drums, and that’s not very compelling. The best time to catch the sticks in frame is usually during the transition in a song between a verse and a chorus. Many times drummers will change up the beat, and add a roll or hit the cymbals to add interest in the song. Song endings are usually great for catching a drummer with both hands in the air, preparing to slam them down for that one last “final hit” of a song’s end. Get them on the “wind up” and not the “slam down” to reduce the chance for blur.

Ted Nugent, Live at The Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta, GA.

5. Whole Lotta Love
It’s also a good idea to zoom out and photograph the entire drum kit. Some of these kits are real works of art, and they look phenomenal under the proper lighting. Be sure to maintain your sight line and try to get the drummer’s face in your shot.

Journey, live at Aaron's Amphitheater at Lakewood in Atlanta, Georgia.

6. People Get Ready
If you study drummers (or any musician for that matter) you’ll notice that they have certain unique characteristics and physical nuances to their playing. For example, some drummers will hit their snare and then point the drum stick straight up in the air to add a little showmanship. Some will do a lot of stick twirls. Watch closely or research how they play by checking out the band’s music videos (if they have some) or live footage posted on YouTube. Know before you get to the venue what you want to capture.

7. Up Close And Personal
One of the things that I noticed right away when I started shooting drummers in larger venues was that when it came time to edit my photos I was constantly cropping in closer because my subject wasn’t large enough in my frame. Don’t be afraid to get up close and personal, and really zoom in on their face. Don’t get too close though. You’ll want to establish the fact that this person is in fact playing the drums, so it helps to show a little bit of the kit. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that their face is one of, if not the largest object on the photo. That’s all the closer you’ll need to be (IMHO).

Steel Panther, Live at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, Georgia.

8. Side Views
When angles from the front of the stage aren’t available, it’s also very interesting to shoot from either the left or right hand side of the drummer’s kit. Some drummers will turn slightly to the left or right as they play, so that’s the side that I try to go to, to get more of their face or body in my shot.

You can achieve some really great results with the combination of a wide or super-wide lens shoved up under a cymbal or in the opening of a kit. If you’re shooting at a local club and have built up a relationship with the band, ask them if they wouldn’t mind if you came up on stage during their performance to get seriously close to the drummer.  If shooting onstage during a performance isn’t possible, how about during the band’s sound check? Not only could you shoot right in front of the kit, the house lights would probably be on and that would take care of the typically dark drum riser issue.

The Six Shot Revival, Live at Wild Bill's in Duluth, GA.

10. Might As Well Face It…
Let’s face it…drums are probably the most physically demanding instrument that there is to play. Considering the amount of effort that most drummers put into their playing, it’s a pretty common occurrence for that effort to show on their face. I’ve taken shots of drummers with their faces contorted into all kinds of strange shapes. I’ve seen tongues hanging out, eyes bulging, spit and snot flying…you name it. I even saw (and shot) one unfortunate guy who was a little under the weather and vomited all over himself mid-song. Be kind to the drummers out there who work hard behind the kit and don’t post unflattering shots of them in action.

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