Concert Photography Lesson 5
Welcome to the 5 lessons in concert photography and today we are going to look at the all mighty drummer. Shooting the drummer is one of the most overlooked shots in music photography and we will look at the how and why of shooting them.
Starting off from the lesson, we will be looking at a single type of shot in each lesson and how to shoot it. In previous lessons, we focused on the technical aspects of shooting the complete shows, the exposure control, the composition, and the workflow but those lessons were rather long and time-consuming to create. The future lessons will be more compact and focused on one aspect at a time.
So let’s have a look at why many photographers skip the drummer at a show. The drummer is usually situated at the back of the stage, normally in the center of the stage, behind the lead singer. So they hard to shoot from head-on. You could try to shoot the drummer from the left or right of the stage but you could be obstructed by the bass or guitar player. Adding more misery to the situation, the drummer’s symbols may be blocking his face as well, so getting a clean shot is very difficult at times. But it gets even worse though because usually, the drummer will have terrible lighting on him, anywhere from 1 to 2 stops of light lower than the people in the front of the stage. Shooting the drummer can be a total nightmare for photographers, very time consuming, and if you only have three songs to shoot, then many photographers may make the decision to just skip the drummer and concentrate on the easier targets in front of them.
So this is how I shoot the drummers, maybe it is not the perfect way, but it the system that I have found that works for me over the years. Let’s start with the shutter speed needed to shoot drummers. Again this differs from the types of bands you will shoot, but as a rule of thumb, I like to keep my shutter speeds at around 1/640. This should be fast enough to freeze most drummers. Never ever underestimate how quickly a drummer can move. If you shoot them with a shutter speed of 1/320, I can guarantee you that you will be getting motion blur in your shoots. So shutter speed should always be quick and that is easy to remember but what about the exposure?
If you are shooting in the day time, it is easy, just remember that even in the day time, the drummer is at the back of the stage and he will still be about half a stop darker in exposure than the performers at the front of the stage. So just remember to make adjustments to your exposure for that. Light is not your friend when shooting a show at night. If you are shooting a performer at the front of the stage at ISO 4000, you will need to go one or two stops higher for the drummer to compensate for the lack of light reaching him and for the increase in a shutter speed that you will need to shoot him. So if I continue with the example of shooting a guitarist at iso 4000 and a shutter speed of 1/320. Then at most shows, I would need to gain one stop of light for the drummer and I would need more light for the increase in shutter speed. So I would have to increase my ISO to compensate for 1 and a half stops or two full stops of light, that would be that my ISO would between 8000 to 10000.
But for some cameras, this can make photos very noisy, or this is what many of my assistants keep telling me, and that is true. But you got to understand how noise works on a digital camera. On most digital cameras, the place was the noise is most prominent is in the dark areas and the out of focus areas of a shot. The in focus and well-exposed areas of a photo don’t have much noise. The key to shooting high ISO is that you got to nail your exposure. You cannot be off, or if you are off in any way, it is better to be slightly over than under. You can always recover a little from an overexposed image at high ISO but you cannot recover much detail from an underexposed shot. I guess a rule of thumb for shooting high ISO would be that you could drop the exposure down by half a stop at High ISO and be fine but you cannot go up by more than 1/10 of a stop at High ISO without completely destroying the image with noise.
The shot above was shot at 12500 on my Nikon D3s. That is the absolute limit that I would shoot that camera at, but I knew that if I nailed the exposure, then the noise would not be a problem but if I was off even just a little, the noise would be terrible. I always give my assistants this advice when shooting at higher ISO. The higher the ISO, the less margin for error. But even a noisy photo is not the end of the world. I have had very noisy photos of drummers before, and once I had the photo printed, most of the noise is gone. I have handed in many photos to my photo editor that was shot with some crazy ISO on my old Nikon D700, but my editors still used the photo, because they don’t pixel peep at 100%, they view the image and decide if it is usable or not. Pixel peeping is for photographers only. It is a bad habit that you got to break if you want to make progress in this industry. The only time you should ever be at 100% zoom on any photo is when you are doing some serious editing and manipulation of a photo. So don’t fear the grain, embrace the higher ISO as a tool that you can use in your photography.
Once you got the exposure portion of shooting the drummers down, next up is the composition and trying to get clean shots of the drummer. I consider there to be 9 to 10 different possible shots of a drummer. The first shot is the dead center shot. Like I have mentioned before, the drummer is usually behind the lead singers so you got to find a way to get a clear shot of the drummer. This is were your zoom lens is your friend. The best way I have found to shoot the drummer is to zoom right past the lead singers legs and wait for his legs to get out of the shoot. Now depending on the size of the stage, a 200mm lens might not be enough though. You got to work within the limits of your equipment and make the most out of it.
The next 6 shots depend entirely on how much stage access you have got and how much freedom the stage manager will give you. I always try to get to both sides of the stage and shoot the side shot of the drummer. These shots are great because you can get some great facial expressions from the drummer. Just timing the shot is the difficult part. You should try to get the shot while the drummer’s arms are coming down. I usually wait until I think the drummer’s arms are on the upswing and then click away. This is the only time where I will fire off a couple of shots as the drummers move so quickly on stage and you don’t want to get a shot of the drummer with their eyes closed. Always remember, if you cannot see their eyes, you have no shot.
Now if you can get onto stage then the next shot takes some practice but can be really cool. You got to get your widest lens you have on your camera, and you get right up close to the drummer, so close that he could hit you if you like and you shoot from there.
Even if the stage manager is cool with you being on stage, always clear it with the band as well. While they are playing, it is their stage and their rules. If they say no, then don’t go on stage. It is as simple as that. Always respect the artist and the people who are paying for the show. As the photographer, we are not there to be in the show, we are simply there to capture it to the best of our ability.
Now if you are this close to the drummer, the next shot I like to go for is over the head shot. What I do is unclip my camera off my black rapid camera strap, I get into position just behind the drummer and I will pre-focus my lens and make sure that the exposure is set right as you will only get one shot at this. Once everything is set up, as the drummer is in a position I like, I will stand up quickly with the camera above my head, as high as possible, pointing down towards the drummer and I will fire off a shot blind. I have the lens set to its widest possible focal range, around 15mm. If the shot goes right, it should shoot the entire drummer with all is gear and part of the stage.
The next type of composition that you can try to get is if you have access to backstage, then you can shoot from the back left or right of the drummer, but from below, so you are shooting up towards them. I love this type of shot and I go for it at every single show that I shoot. Just remember to keep the fast shutter speed.s
The last type of composition that I have been shooting lately is I get backstage but instead of shooting from one of the sides, I shoot straight onto the drummer. This shoot is a little more tricky though because you will have all the stage lights pointed directly at your lens. So you got to drop your ISO a lot. I am shooting at ISO 8000 for the side shot at the back of the stage, then for this shot, I would drop my ISO to around about 2000. Now, this is only a rough guest as each stage you will shoot at will be different, so you will have to judge this using your own eyes. Your camera meters will be useless for this. All those bright stage lights will throw the meter completely off.
I use this shot a lot here in China, particularly if the drummer does not look the part. I shoot a lot of metal bands but for some reason, a lot of the bands have drummers who look very geeky, which ruins the image of the band so this shot helps hide the drummers look if he does not really suit the band’s image too much.
There is one last type of composition that you can try, but I have never done it because I don’t have a fisheye lens. I have seen other photographers do this and it looks good. You have to have stage access to do this, but if you do, you get your fish-eye lens and camera on a monopod, get some kind of remote trigger set up with the camera and using the monopod, you lift the camera high above the drummer and you shoot down on the drummer and include the whole stage. These shoots can really be amazing but I don’t want to buy one lens for only one kind of shot, especially since the Nikon 16mm Fish-eye lens is not rated as a good lens and many people say it is soft. I cannot post an example of this type of shot as those images belong to other photographers. But look at the work of Adam Elmakias and you will see this shot used a lot by him.
I started this lesson by saying how much I love shooting drummers and I will end the lesson by saying, never forget them. They often get forgotten by photographers, so if you can give them some images, they will be grateful and they are usually the easiest person in the band to make friends with. I have gotten a lot of passes for shows over the years from drummers. The music world is small and everybody knows some someone who could sort you out with a pass. So never forget them and treat them well. That is it for this weeks lesson, next week we will look at the hair flick shot that is popular with rock and metal bands.
So until next week, happy shooting.