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How to Photograph Drummers

Photos of The Dresden Dolls performing at the Pageant in St. Louis on November 16, 2010 (TODD OWYOUNG)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the very first pieces of music photography advice I ever received was simply, “Don’t forget the drummer.” It came not from another photographer, but from a guitarist in a band I’d befriended when I first started shooting concerts.

I was hanging out with the band in their dressing room before a gig, and the guitarist was noodling around on his guitar. Without looking up, he casually suggested, “Don’t forget the drummer. Photographers always forget the drummer.”

This piece of advice has always stuck with me, and to a certain extent, it’s become a small mantra of mine, as I think it can apply to any kind of situation. To me, it means not taking the easy way out – focusing on the less obvious solutions to a problem. To this end, I try my  best to never forget the drummer when I do a live music shoot.

Here are 6-tips for how to photograph drummers, one of the most challenging subjects on any stage.

Don’t Forget The Drummer

As I wrote in my 5 Tips For Better Concert Photography:

Nevermind that drummers are often poorly lit and trashing about behind a cage of obtrusive metal. When one can get over preening singers and over-socialized guitarists, some of the most dynamic rock images to be made are of a drummer in full swing, arms a-go-go.

Of course, this advice isn’t truly specific to just drummers, but applies to every band member beyond usual suspects. Deep coverage of the band, whether it’s a full-band shot or picking up individual members aside from the obvious targets can result in some of the most rewarding concert images.

6-Tips for Photographing Drummers:

  1. Use The Right Lenses
  2. Pick Your Angles Carefully
  3. High Shutter Speeds
  4. Compose for Movement
  5. Shoot The Drummer in Context
  6. Be Patient

Explanations below.

Drummer Lars Ulrich of pioneering heavy metal band Metallica photographed on November 17, 2008. (Todd Owyoung)

1) Use The Right Lenses

With most drummers set up at the back of the stage, shooting with a telephoto lens can be a necessity for closing the distance and bringing home compelling drummer shots. I favor a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens as my telephoto zoom of choice, which works well for all but the biggest arena setups.

By contrast, for those situations where distance isn’t a problem, go in for the kill with a wide-angle lens for a more unique perspective.

 (Todd Owyoung)

2) Pick Your Angles Carefully

With often massive drum kits in front of them, finding clean and clear angles can be a huge challenge in photographing drummers. Factor in other band members, mic stands, and monitors in between drummers and photographers, and the literal windows of opportunity are even more narrow.

Making successful photos of drummers often comes down to finding the right position and angle that gives a clear shot of their face, even if it means scoping out several spots. One trick I use is to use my time in the photo pit after the stage is set but before the band comes out to scope out sight lines for the band for all members, but especially for drummers.

 (Todd Owyoung)

3) High Shutter Speeds

With drummers often trashing away, arms a go-go, high shutter speeds are your best bet for clean drummer shots. At shutter speeds that are enough to freeze the action on other band members, the swinging arm and speeding drumsticks of percussionists need even faster shutter speeds to prevent blur, not to mention their often bobbing heads.

I prefer to shoot at 1/200 as a minimum, but 1/250 or even faster is preferable for the cleanest shots in my book.

The Dillinger Escape Plan performing at the Blue Note in Columbia, MO on March 16, 2010 in support of their fourth studio release, Option Paralysis. (TODD OWYOUNG)

4) Compose for Movement

One thing that’s different with drummers is that their range of motion is often greater than that of guitarists and singers. Sure, they’re seated, but playing and musical style can dictate a huge range arm motion for drummers. Add in drum sticks, and the arc of motion extends even farther.

Just as you need to choose your angles carefully for clear sight lines through a drum kit, lining up a frame with consideration for the full range of movement will help you plan for the kind of epic gestures and movements that can convey the power of percussion.

 (Todd Owyoung)

5) Shoot The Drummer in Context

One quick tip? Photograph the drummer in the context of the kit, band, and stage. While tight framing can often be the best show of the energy of a drummer, a wider shot that shows their entire kit can be just as impressive, especially for artists who have obviously designed their kit for visual performance as much as functionality.

 (Todd Owyoung)

6) Be Patient

The best advice I can give for photographing drummers is simply to have patience. Even with the right angle and technical details dialed in, nailing a killer drummer shot simply comes down to capturing a decisive moment. While this is really no different than any music photography, the myriad shooting issues surrounding drummers make having patience even more important.

Photo of Fabrizio Moretti of the band The Strokes performing at the Pageant in St. Louis on April 8, 2006. (Todd Owyoung)

Summary

 

  1. Use The Right Lenses
  2. Pick Your Angles Carefully
  3. High Shutter Speeds
  4. Compose for Movement
  5. Shoot The Drummer in Context
  6. Be Patient

There you go. 6-tips for shooting drummers. I’ll throw in a 7th tip for free: wear earplugs.

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There are 93 comments

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  1. ramin

    One issue that I’ve really noticed in shooting drummers (in addition to everything you wrote about) is that on a fairly low-lit stage the smoke will make getting anything decent of the drummer even harder.

    But then again, I also know how happy they are when you manage to get a good picture of them.

  2. Ian Mylam

    Killer tips, and some killer images, Todd. I particularly love the ‘Have a Coke and a smile’ shot… brilliant. As a drummer myself, it’s nice to know we are not forgotten :)

  3. HD

    Great tip! Ever since your last post on shooting drummers, I have paid extra consideration on trying to capture the drummer in action. Like you said, its going to take practice and patience.

  4. Avi

    Todd, great tips for a very common problem – thanks!

    One major issue I’ve faced while trying to capture drummers is focusing. Whenever I try to autofocus, my camera almost always catches some part of the drumkit or the background instead of the drummer. I’ve found it very hard to nail my focus, especially for drummers. What am I doing wrong? Any specific tips? Thanks =)

  5. lauren

    Great tips Todd! Totally agree with what you’ve said but what I like to do when shooting drummers is to get the drummer sharp and in focus while having a bit of motion blur on the actual drumsticks. The gig I did that at I was shooting at about 1/80 a @ f/2.8 I ththink. It also looks good when you have that rare opportunity to use flash and you have a reasonably slow shutter and a fast blink of flash looks nice too.

  6. Spike

    Tip Number 8 – use manual focus? Since you’re very often shooting wide open, you’ve got narrow depth of field. And I find my camera’s autofocus system almost always chooses a drum or a cymbal or a mike stand or anything other than the drummer’s face.

  7. Debi

    I always find drummers noticing you shooting them as if they are thinking “wow, they are actually pointing the camera in my direction – let’s go!”

  8. Sylvia Brogdon

    Great post and great tips! I’m scheduled to shoot a music festival soon and will keep all these things in mind. My daughter is a drummer/vocalist in her bands, and I’ve discovered a few of these things as well. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Venura herath

    Hi Todd,

    Great information as always.
    The Dresden Dolls drummer pic is the best! killer eyes!
    Did you use a flash @Questlove pic? i always get a bad red color cast. It really sucks.
    Thanks

    Venura

  10. Steve Pisano

    Todd,

    Thanks for the tips on shooting drummer. It will give me a starting place for my first shoot as a concert photographer. I will remember the shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/250 to get the hands to stop.

    I will not have access to the stage I will only be able to shoot from the front. I do have the 80-200 2:8 Nikon so I will be able to zoom in close.

    I only have the first three songs, but I will be able to scope the drum set out before the show starts.

    Later
    Steve Pisano

  11. Sian

    Hey Todd!

    I am fairly new to the music photography scene but absolutely love it… but I do have problems getting great shots of the drummer… things like the low light… smoke etc and fast movement..
    You mentioned a high shutter speed.. but how high would you go on the ISO if you’re shooting wide open 2.8 or something? Your images are so crisp and clean.. and where as some like the grain on images, Im not a fan.. any advice would be great!!

    Thankyou!!

    • Todd

      Hey Sian,

      I always recommend going as high on the ISO as needed. It all comes down to whether you’d prefer a grainy but technically sharp image, or something that may not be as sharp but is less grainy.

      Personally, I say go for the grain. As I always say, if your images being noisy is the worst thing someone can say about your work, it means you’ve done everything else right.


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