Drew Ressler, aka Rukes, is one of the most prominent DJ and dance music festival photographers and quite often the man literally behind DJs as they perform, and captures both sweeping, 180-degree views of gigantic arenas and the up-close-and-personal shots of the DJs backstage.
Ressler grew up in New York and seemed almost lured to L.A, where more than a decade ago he started turning his photography hobby into a side job. Spending time in clubs, he began taking pictures of the performers – first for his own blog, and soon, for them. The side job became a full-time occupation.
“I started in 2004 with my basic point-and-shoot taking pics of some DJs I liked while I lived in New York,” says Ressler. “When I moved to California later that year, I bought a basic DSLR and started doing the same thing at Avalon Hollywood.” That first point-and-shoot was a Canon G3, “a whopping four megapixels,” recalls Ressler. The DSLR was a Canon 20D that doubled his megapixel count to eight. In a year, Avalon had hired him as their in-house photographer.
Over his career, Ressler has worked with the likes of Steve Aoki, deadmau5, Zedd, Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia, and Dirty South and been an official photographer for events like the Ultra Music Festival and Electric Daisy Carnival.
In that time, he’s seen things evolutions in the club and DJ photography business. When he was first frequenting clubs, photographers focused on taking pictures of the revelers, which posed own challenges – like trying to avoid getting drinks spilled on the equipment – and generally resulted in photos only the people in them cared about. Ressler saw this and decided to photograph the performers instead.
Then came the touring trend. “There was a pretty big boom of touring with DJs as dance music got bigger and bigger,” says Ressler. “Now that things are slowing down, in recent years, it’s a bit harder to tour with a DJ, as often times they use friends or photographers willing to do work for well below what they are worth. On the flipside, there are more mega festivals, so I have been shooting more festivals than touring with artists.”
In the past year, Ressler has been all over the United States and all over the world, including Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Croatia, and Panama. He speaks highly of the relationships touring together fosters. Spending time with the artists, “you learn a whole lot more about them and it makes it a bit easier to shoot for them knowing what they like and don’t like,” he says.
Through all of this, the self-taught Ressler strives to capture the epic scenes that encapsulate the feeling of the show, all while dealing with the low light challenges of photographing DJs and festivals. “It’s a fine line of balance between the right shutter speed and the right ISO,” says Ressler. “I like to keep my photos very natural.” Even though it means carrying extra weight, Ressler brings all of his lenses with him anywhere he goes. “I never know if I can get away with using tilt-shift, if I need a low-light prime, or if I can use an ultra wide angle. I like the variety.”
He might shoot a few thousand images at any given festival, but he will be deleting extraneous photos from the collection as he goes along. “When I dump the photos to my computer, I end up with anywhere between 200 and 400 photos,” says Ressler, a number that he’ll trim further to around a 150 photos for the event, choosing the ones that he feels most capture the flavor of an event – while also managing a pleasing symmetry and keeping the key figures in focus. Often, the set will include his signature 180-degree views over the shoulder of the DJ, capturing the crowd amassed in the audience below.
Though Ressler usually spends no more than a couple of months out of the year on tour, though he may visit many countries in that time. He recalls one grueling six-week four-continent solo tour in particular: “I started by heading down to Australia for Stereosonic. After two weeks doing that, I headed to Manila for a charity gig with Zedd. Then a festival in Kuala Lumpur, followed by a festival in Jakarta right after. From there, I was planning on a week’s vacation in Tokyo, but Calvin Harris wanted me to do his UK/Ireland ‘Greater Than’ tour with Tiesto, so I headed right to Ireland to join up with the bus tour. After those dates, I took a fight to India to head to Goa for the Sunburn festival. After that was finished, I took many long flights back to L.A., where right after dropping by my place for an hour, I headed to the train station to take a train down to LED in San Diego for New Year’s. I was still (barely) able to photograph, but the weeks of jetlag made everyone think I was dying from how I looked.”
The well-traveled Ressler still has a few new locations he wants to visit. Next on his bucket list is Alfa Future in Russia. “The main stage looks amazing to photograph!” he says. Then there are the locations he loves enough to return to again and again. One of these is Japan. “I want to shoot as much as I can in Japan as possible, so I always look for ways to go over there.”