What’s Your Niche?: Drew “Rukes” Ressler, DJ Photographer

July 11, 2017

By David Walker

PDN: How did you get started?
Drew Ressler: When I moved out to LA from New York, a lot of DJs that I wanted to see performed every weekend at a club called Avalon in Hollywood: Hybrid, Sasha, Junkie XL. I loved their music. So I would hit up the artist’s management for a photo pass and they’d say, “Sure, we could use photos.” Looking back, I took some pretty bad pictures, but the DJs would look at my photos and say, “This one’s actually pretty good, you should make more of those.” And I would take a picture every once in a while and be amazed. I would look at the settings and ask myself: How could I re-create this all the time? I kept on tweaking my style, trying to get better photos.

PDN: How did you turn it into a living?
DR: I started taking pictures in clubs in 2005, and in 2006 Avalon hired me to come by every weekend. They were paying me the same amount I was making at my video game job, and I was not happy, so I decided to quit my job and go into the photography thing full time.

PDN: What was your video game job?
DR: I was a QA [quality assurance] tester.

PDN: What’s the story behind your nickname (Rukes)?
DR: Back in the mid ’90s when I was on AOL, I used to frequent the videogame chatroom. One time, someone made a typo and said “this game rukes!” instead of “rules.” So my friends and I adopted it into our internet slang. Later on, I decided I needed a new AOL screen name, so I started it with Rukes. From there, all my friends started to call me Rukes.

PDN: How long did you work for Avalon, and how did you segue to shooting for other clients?
DR: I worked for Avalon from 2006 to 2011. Around 2007, Insomniac [a festival promoter] started hiring me for all of their festivals. Around that same time, a friend at Pioneer offered to introduce me to DJ Aero and Tommy Lee, who had just started to DJ. They introduce me to their friend Deadmau5, who had his first LA show in late 2007. He’d heard about me, so we built a relationship. He invited me to the Winter Music Conference in Miami, then to Coachella, and it built up from there. So I was working three different angles: at clubs, at festivals, and for DJs on tour.

© Drew Ressler

Bassnectar, at the Klipsch Amphitheater in Miami in 2013. © Drew Ressler

PDN: Who do you make most of your income from now?
DR: I don’t do much club work anymore. I just do work for festivals [promoters] and work for DJs, and it’s mostly festivals these days.

PDN: Who are the promoters that hire you?
DR: Ultra will [book me] for a lot of their festivals. Disco Donnie will do the same, and Hard. Individual festivals will hit me up, too, such as the Jarkarta Warehouse Project last December, and Looptopia in Taiwan in early April.

PDN: How many festivals do you photograph every year? And where are there?
DR: They’re all over the world. Generally it’s one to two festivals a month.

PDN: Do you do any other types of photography? Or is this your only source of income?
DR: My entire income is based on music photography. I’d love to get into portrait work, but right now I have a lot of work already.

PDN: What’s the most appealing part of your job?
DR: One of them is definitely the travel. When I go to places, there’s sometimes free time to explore. I [recently went] to Tokyo with [DJ] Zedd, and it’s my favorite place in the world. The other thing I love to do is take great photos. I’ll look at a picture in the camera and think: Oh my god, this is the perfect photo. This sums up the entire night.

PDN: What’s a perfect photo? What are you trying to get?
DR: For me, 99 percent of it is symmetry. I just love symmetrical photographs. I like to capture the production and way it’s meant to be, in full force, either from behind the DJ or from the center looking on. It’s waiting for the right moment, when they turn all lights up on the stage, getting the right settings, getting everything perfect.

PDN: What keeps it new and interesting? How do you keep it fresh?
DR: It’s usually by meeting new DJs and making new friends. As new DJs come along, I have to learn their habits, what they like, and what their productions are. Festivals change up production, making things look different every year. And if I’m on tour with a DJ, it’s the same thing every night, but it’s in different venues, with new challenges, and new angles.

PDN: What gear do you use?
DR: I shoot with a Canon 1DX Mark II, and eight or nine lenses: a 24-70, 70-200, and a 16-35 are my main zoom lenses. I have a 35mm/f1.4 and an 85mm/f1.2 for low light stuff. I’ve got an 8-15mm fisheye for “rukes” shots—the wide-angle shots from behind the DJ that make everything look epic—and a 90mm tilt-shift lens which is one of those lenses I rarely use, but when I can, I’m lucky to have it.

PDN: What else? Any tripods or lights?
DR: I have a monopod and a remote shutter release, so I can get higher shots from behind the DJ. I have one Canon Speedlite, but I rarely use it, unless there’s no light, or I need a little bit of fill flash for daytime shadows.

PDN: How do you market yourself?
DR: At this point, it’s a lot of word of mouth. The most marketing I’ll do is look to see what gigs are coming up for artists that I know, and I’ll have my manager hit them up: Do you want me to shoot this gig?

PDN: How much do you get paid?
DR: I get a fee plus expenses—airfare and hotel. For festivals, it’s a day rate. When I’m working for a DJ, we work out a fee, so if it’s a longer tour I don’t charge the same day rate as I do for a one-off gig. I charge a good amount of money because of the high quality of the photos and the social media exposure they generate.

PDN: What’s the competition like?
DR: It’s difficult. There’s a lot of undercutting in this industry—a lot of photographers who are willing to shoot for DJs for free, and a lot of people offering to pay their own expenses [to shoot festivals]. They’re doing it for exposure, to get people to hire them. I’m still doing pretty well, and the undercutting is worrisome, but [most clients] still care about quality.

PDN: Is it forcing you to drop your rates?
DR: A little bit, but for the most part, people say: We want your quality, we want your brand, so we’ll pay your price.

PDN: What’s your advice for photographers trying to get into this niche?
DR: It’s a very crowded field, but there’s always room, and there’s always new photographers popping up doing amazing work. The best advice I would give is to figure out how you want your photos to look, don’t make your photos look the way you think someone else would want them to look. You should be able to look at them and say, These are my photos, and I like the way they look.

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