Tips – How to Photograph Drummers (And not suck at it)

Coheed & Cambria at The Paramount

This shot is awesome! Well… except for one minor detail…

You know that guy or gal, sitting down, with all those circular things around them?  Yeah – that’s the drummer.  You shouldn’t forget about them.  They like it when photographers get photos of them too.  “But they’re so far away!” You may say. “I can’t get a good shot of them!” You may think.  But that’s why you’ve landed here; and I’m here to help you figure out how to photographs drummers.  Because hey, who doesn’t want to get good shots of the backbone of just about any live band…

How to Photograph Drummers, a Step by Step guide (to not sucking at it.)

Step 1.) Don’t forget to shoot the drummer

Hey guys, don't forget about me!  I sing too sometimes!

Hey guys, don’t forget about me! I’m the dude in the back!  I sing too sometimes!

Seems like an obvious one, right? Well, when you actually think about it, most photographers tend to just straight up just not shoot the drummer.  If they’re only using a 50mm lens, and don’t have stage access for instance, they may just say, “bah, forget them.”

But wait!  If you’re in that scenario, don’t fret!  You can still get something cool, and it’s better to get SOMETHING than NOTHING.

Step 2.) Positioning

Shooting Off Stage Without a Pit

The hardest scenario for shooting a drummer, and the one where it’s OK to say, “hey, I tried, but it was just not possible.”

Sometimes, this is the best spot you can get.  In this case, sorry drummer, but today is not your day.

Sometimes, this is the best spot you can get. In this case, sorry drummer, but today is not your day.

If this is your scenario, a few ideas you can try:
-Shooting the kit before the band starts or takes the stage (looks great if the bass drum or even the entire kit is customized in some way)
-Shoot the drummer first or as soon as they get on the stage (drummers tend to be the first ones on stage, and will often put their fist in the air to the crowd)
-Shoot from far back with an extra long lens (not really ideal, since the shot will look very flat, and lack a dynamic feel to it.)
-Shoot the drummer for a higher position

Does the venue have a higher position you can get to above the stage?  Try shooting down at the drummer!

Does the venue have a higher position you can get to above the stage? Try shooting down at the drummer!

It’s always typically a good idea to get to a venue earlier, just in case there is the possibility that there is no pit.  You can move around a bit easier and scout out the best possible angle before things get crowded.  And if there is someone in your way?  Just simply ask them nicely to move, showing that you’re a photographer.  If you ask nicely “hey, can I stand where you are for a minute and just get a quick few photos of the band?” 9 out of 10 times, people will kindly oblige.

 

Shooting from the Pit

The most common scenario you will run in to, at least at venues of 400+ capacity.  For three songs, the pit in front of the stage is your office, and you’ll be sharing it with other photographers and security, so make that time worth it.  The best part about the pit is that many drummers will notice you shooting them and make some eye contact.

Hey, you there in the photo pit – I see you shooting me!

Or, some tongue contact.

Or, some tongue contact.

If you’re free to move around the entire pit, then use that space to your advantage.  Before a band starts, take the time to scout the best position to shoot the drummer from.  This may not be 100% accurate because the drummer may move or drum in a way that a cymbal blocks their face, but it will at least help give you a good idea.  Use the space to your advantage; move left, move right, and if possible, get to the sides.  You are never sure what may work best if you don’t look and try.

The only downside to shooting from the pit is that your options can be limited.  Because you’re essentially straight in front of the drummer, if there are any other photographers shooting the drummer, your shots are likely to look very much the same.  (But then again, they probably aren’t shooting the drummer anyway, which puts you up one already!)

 

Shooting from the Stage

You did it! You made friends with a band, or their manager, and now you’re shooting from the stage. Now there are all kind of options at your disposal. For starters, you no longer need a long zoom to shoot the drummer.

Well, you don't HAVE to use a long zoom, but sometimes, it still works nicely to.

Well, you don’t HAVE to use a long zoom, but sometimes, it still works nicely to.

Get up close to them, but let them keep that personal space. Even though a drummer is sitting in one spot, they still need a fair bit of space around them. Imagine a bubble is surrounding the drummer – don’t get in to that bubble. If you do, you may risk getting smacked in the face with a drum stick (which could in turn throw off the drummer, and then the rest of the band.)

If you’re friends with the drummer, let them know you’re there – either between songs, or between a simple part of the song. Direct eye contact with a drummer is a rare thing, so seize that opportunity.

Get that eye contact!

Get that eye contact!

And last two tips for shooting on stage; don’t be that guy or girl that just walks slowly around the stage like you own the place. Keep low, hidden, and out of sight.  The audience should be watching the performers, not you.  And since you’re extra close to the person banging away and making loud noises, wear earplugs.  You should be wearing earplugs no matter where you’re shooting from, but when on stage, it becomes extra important.

Step 3.) Lenses

I shoot 98% of my drummer shots with my 80-200 2.8 lens.  It most scenarios, this allows me to get a nice and tight shot of the drummer, making their face and actions the main subject of the photo.  For some drummers that are surrounded by their kit, a long zoom is essentially necessary.

Paul Bostaph is there... somewhere.

Paul Bostaph of Slayer is there… somewhere.

 

However, as I mentioned above, you can get by with a shorter lens.  While you won’t be able to showcase the energy as well, you can still tell a story with the shorter lens.

This shot shows the full context of the drummer, the backdrop, his kit, and the friends and family on stage.

This shot shows the full context of the drummer, the backdrop, his kit, and the friends and family on stage.

 

Or, you can fill the frame easily with a shorter lens if you’re shooting on stage.

This was shot at 60mm, but would have looked just fine at 50mm.

This was shot at 60mm, but would have looked just fine at 50mm.

Keep in mind; many newer DSLR camera bodies have a ton of megapixels.  Many that you don’t even need.  While it’s always better to fill the frame, and get things right in camera, if you don’t quite have the best equipment yet, don’t be afraid to crop an image when editing it.  If its sharp and you’ve got a good action, bring it in tighter when you edit it!

Step 4.) Settings

I spent a lot of time at Warped Tour this year trying to figure this one out. My personal opinion is this: drumstick motion blur is where its at. You can set your shutter speed to over 500/s and lock in a sharp shot – but it takes away at lot of the feeling. Because of that, I’ve experimented and come to this conclusion: shoot a drummer at either 1/125/s or 1/160/s.  Depending on how fast the drummer is going, you may be able to get motion blur at as high as 1/320/s.

Sometimes, other factors require a high shutter speed in favor of hand/stick motion blur.  Like Katie's hair, which was blowing everywhere.  I just wanted a clear shot of her face. :3

Sometimes, other factors require a high shutter speed in favor of hand/stick motion blur. Like Katie’s hair, which was blowing everywhere. I just wanted a clear shot of her face. :3

 

For ISO and Aperture, use your best judgement based on the shooting conditions.  If I’m shooting outside during the day from the pit, I may use an aperture of f/4 and ISO of 800 along with the shutter speed choice.  If I’m indoors shooting a poorly lit stage, its essentially ISO 6400 and f/ 2.8.

For focus – try to focus on the drummer’s face.  If you’re in a low light condition, especially one with smoke adding to the stage ambiance, your best bet may be to focus manually.

When I’m indoors, I tend to shoot on continuous high, and outdoors – continuous low.  The reason for this is because if there is strobe lighting or constantly changing lighting conditions, I want to get the best combination of  lighting and composition.  Continuous high helps narrow the gap of getting “the” shot.

Step 5.) Composition

Unless you’re taking a shot from behind the drummer, to show the audience from the drummer’s point of view, the face (especially the eyes) should be sharp.  Think about it; when your mom looks at pictures of you, what does she look at first?  Your face!  What is the most important thing to be sharp?  The face!

A perfect shot will have all of the following elements clearly visible: 2 eyes, 2 drumsticks, 2 hands, 1 nose, and 1 mouth.  Unless you’re shooting Rick Allen of Def Leppard, you should look for all these in your shot.

And now some bad examples – shots I’ve taken that are no good:

Bad:

Cymbal Face is bad.  In this scenario, try moving to the right, or wait until the drummer hits the cymbal, causing it to shake and temporarily give a clear line of sight.

Cymbal Face is bad. In this scenario, try moving to the right, or wait until the drummer hits the cymbal, causing it to shake and temporarily give a clear line of sight.

 

Sharp!  Two eyes (sort of)!  Motion blur in... one hand?  Where is the left hand?  WHERE IS IT?!?!

Sharp! Two eyes (sort of)! Motion blur in… one hand? Where is the left hand? WHERE IS IT?!?!

 

Sticks?  Hands?  Where you go??

Sticks? Hands? Where you go??

 

The dreaded stick face, cymbal forehead and all around sharp, but boring.

The dreaded stick face, cymbal forehead and all around sharp, but boring.  And left hands, where you go?

 

And some solid ones (maybe not perfect, but close):

Good:

Sharp face, two visible eyes (albeit closed), two visible hands, two visible sticks, motion blur in the hands/sticks.  This is a near perfect drummer shot.  The only thing that would make this better is a more interesting face.

Sharp face, two visible eyes (albeit closed), two visible hands, two visible sticks, motion blur in the hands/sticks. This is a near perfect drummer shot. The only thing that would make this better is a more interesting face.

 

All of the above, and a unique angle.  One of the positives if a drummer is a bit closer to the front of the stage.

All of the above, and a unique angle. One of the positives if a drummer is a bit closer to the front of the stage.

 

RARWW I LOVE DRUMMING

RARWW I LOVE DRUMMING

Last But Not Least:

Keep in mind; none of these are rules, just foundations to a gnarly drummer photo.  In some situations, you’ll need to stretch outside these ideas.

Ryan Leger of Every Time I Die at Warped Tour 2014

Ryan of ETID pounds the skins FAST. This was shot at 1/1000/s, and it STILL has some motion blur in the sticks.

If you're on stage and behind the drummer, throw most of the ideas out the window.

If you’re on stage and behind the drummer, throw most of the ideas out the window.

So in conclusion:

Step 1 – Shoot the drummer
Step 2 – Get the best positioning
Step 3 – Work within the boundaries of the lenses you have
Step 4 – For settings, start from 1/160/s.  Only go higher if the face isn’t sharp.
Step 5 – Get the face sharp, motion blur in the hands/sticks, and a clear view of both eyes, the mouth, and the nose.

With those steps in mind, you’ll be the one telling others how to photograph drummers!

And please, you can pass over the other steps if the situation needs, but never skip step 1.  If you don’t even try, then what’s the point of the other steps?

And lets not forget - drummers can make the most hilarious faces.

And lets not forget – drummers can make the most hilarious faces.

Comments or Feedback?

If you want to ask me a quick question, feel free to leave a message in the comments at the bottom of the post.  Or do you have a drummer shot you’re proud of, or want my opinion on?  Link it in the comments and I’ll check it out!

One Response to “Tips – How to Photograph Drummers (And not suck at it)”

  1. Tami Meske says:

    GREAT article! I’m vastly looking forward to trying out your suggestions. I NEED THE ASSISTANCE. Excellent shots you’ve taken and your writing is HILLARIOUS! I recently shot some bands & shoot EVERY single member before I call it a day. It’s always the drummers shots that I don’t nail – they look like they are in the middle of being in warp drive. Keep up the great articles.

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