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Meet Drew 'Rukes' Ressler: Top Nightlife/DJ Photographer

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When globetrotting electronic dance music DJs come to town the energy is rock-show thick. The tough, loud music. The sparkling visuals along side layers of multicolored flashing lights. The rabid crowd. These elements unite, and fans are delivered something special. Drew “Rukes” Ressler’s job is to capture that nocturnal magic.

Long Island-native Drew Ressler, best known as Rukes (pronounced with a Roo) never planned on becoming a photographer for a living, much less America's top DJ photographer. He never planned on snapping shots of the DJs he used to pay to see at festivals and clubs across the country. He definitely didn’t plan on having his work in Vanity Fair, URB, or the Los Angeles Times. But that all happened.

Thanks to a natural eye for photography, perseverance, and a love of technology (past, present, future,) Rukes (Myspace) has become one busy guy with a funky work schedule. He sometimes doesn’t get home from gigs until it’s nearly light out. Instead of sleep he uploads his “pictures,” as he likes to call his work, to his popular website. When clubbers and DJs awake they’re greeted by evidence of a multi-sensory experience that’s rarely looks this good the day after. LAist sat down with Rukes to talk about how a guy who wanted to work in video games stumbled upon this amazing life.

Drew “Rukes” Ressler, Photographer
Rukes: My idea of photography is a mix of the past and present. Take Ansel Adams, he didn’t have Photoshop or airbrushing back in the day. If he took a bad picture he had to get rid of it. And the present, I like Annie Leibovitz (who I am often compared to) with her music industry work, and close collaboration with her subject background.

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On Shooting Nightclubs
If you used film/early digital, and you wanted to go out to the club, the technology wasn’t really there for Low Light photography. You had lots of blurry pictures. With some experimenting, I found the unique angle for Low Light and clarity at the same time. I could keep the lights of the club, and keep the DJ in focus so it would look natural, and not like a streaky mess. I definitely feel like I was in the right place at the right time with digital technology.

The Beginning
I used to work in the video game industry. I was lead tester at Acclaim in Long Island, New York. It was fun but I knew the company was going down. I jumped out right before they declared bankruptcy. Then I moved in with my cousin in the Valley, knowing there were a ton of video game companies in LA. I tried a few, and even though I had experience, they wanted me to start at the bottom and work my way back up again.

  • What’s your favorite restaurant in LA if you’re paying? It’s a tie. Matsuhisa for sushi. The Palm for steak and lobster. The Palm is a great standby because when I travel I can always find one somewhere.

A Boost From Hybrid
I used my camera as an excuse to get into clubs for free, get on stage, and to photograph the DJs I liked to listen to, like Hybrid -- they’re one of my favorites.

Mike Truman from Hybrid (Myspace) is also a good photographer in his own right. I’d show him my pictures (looking back, they are pretty crappy compared to what I do now.) He told me that I really had an eye for this, and that I should keep going. To hear someone who I really looked up to praise me for this thing I’m doing for fun made me think maybe I did have an eye for it.

The Hobby Becomes The Job
In the beginning of 2006 I was hired by Avalon in Hollywood. I was getting some magazine work here and there, too. By that time I was making the same amount of money for one night of work that I’d make for a 40 hour week as a basic video game tester. I quit that to do photography full time. Luckily my weekend hobby turned into my job.

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I had a basic Canon camera at first. I didn’t know what all the numbers meant, even aperture. I started experimenting with the flash, and the bounce card. I read up on diffusers. I even bought a little Omnibox for $20. It was taking pictures and instantly seeing what the results were (a huge plus for digital photography.) That’s how I’d learn what worked and what didn’t.

  • Why is LA the best place to a nightlife photographer? Every major DJ hits LA as a stop on their tour.

Technology, A Good Friend
I read on a photography forum that someone was making the ultimate diffusing tool for weddings. I wanted to try it in nightclubs. That was early 2005. The original version was gigantic and made of hard plastic. A few months later the same guy came out with the a clear vinyl-coated one. It’s the one I still use today.

Everyone in the club would ask what’s that? At first I wouldn't say what the diffuser was. I eventually told them all where to buy it online and it really started spreading. Every nightlife photographer in LA is now using it. When I go other places in the country, if I’m lucky I might see one. In New York maybe one or two, and they're usually fans I’ve helped.

  • Why is LA the worst place to be a nightlife photographer? A lot of people that want to be one, and are willing to work for free. A lot of clubs/promoters prefer the lesser photos of a free photographer instead of paying for good photography. To them it’s not good or bad exposure, it’s just exposure.

Tommy Lee (Yes, that Tommy Lee)
Carl from Pioneer introduced me to Tommy when Tommy played for Giant at Tentation in Orange Country. Instead of Tommy (Myspace) just being a celebrity DJ who is a lousy DJ, he actually makes a difference. With him and Aero together it’s a real DJ gig.

I began photographing him and Deadmau5 more. Tommy saw my stuff and said it was pretty good. He also saw that I wasn’t trying to take candid pictures and sell them to some magazine. He liked that I wasn’t trying to exploit him, and he liked my photography too. Tommy Lee joined up Steve Duda and Deadmau5 (Myspace) to make up WTF? (Myspace.) I’m sort of like their fifth member.

  • What’s your favorite restaurant in LA if Tommy Lee is paying? Urasawa. I went for my birthday two years ago. It was extremely expensive but extremely amazing.
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How is the rock world reacting to your work?
I haven’t really broken into rock yet. It’s always a goal though. But it’s really strict world too. Not so much with the DJ world, which is nowhere near that corporate. In my nightlife I can take a picture and do what I want with it. I don’t have to worry about as much.

Camera Lenses
I’ve pretty much got every type lens covered. I’ve gotten to the point where I have my final set of lenses to put in my bag for every gig. I have: the low-light, the zoom, the wide angle, the fisheye, the telephoto, and a tilt-shift.

Tilt-shift lenses are really specialized. I’ve been using them in clubs which I’d never heard of. Stuff like that is tough to get working right but when you do get it right you feel like a pioneer. I’m doing something no one’s ever done before and it’s actually working.

  • What do you think about the trend of low-fi nightlife photography? It’s just a flavor of the moment. With the hipster photographers, they take a basic camera, a basic flash and use auto settings. They won’t take a picture and say wow this is a beautiful picture. With my work, you get a beautiful picture and it really captures the moment.

What's up for 2009?
There’s been some interest from Tommy Lee, James Zabiela and Robbie Rivera on various projects. Plus there may be something in Japan and box art for a new DJ product. I’ll be doing a lot more touring too. I’m doing a North American tour with Deadmau5 over the summer. We’re getting a tourbus.

There’s also the launch of my poster site. When people want a poster of a rockstar they can go to a store and get one. When they want a poster of Sasha or Deadmau5 they’re out of luck. I’m now selling 20” x 30” shots of certain DJs like Christopher Lawrence (Myspace,) Deadmau5, Sasha (Myspace,) and Junkie XL (Myspace.)

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What advice do you have for young photographers who want to do what you do?
As long as you’re using digital you’ve got lots of opportunity to practice. You can take the picture, if it doesn’t work change something. Try out all of the camera’s settings. You can always delete and try again. It’s unlike the film days, where you’d have to wait and see.

Respect the DJs. If the picture looks good but the DJ has a weird face, delete it. If they say no flash or don’t get too close, don’t complain. I see too many photographers storm up on a stage like they own the place. It makes it easy to get banned quickly.

The Gear
I use a Mac on the road and Windows at home. My camera products are all Canon:

  • Canon 1Ds MkIII
  • Speedlite 580EX II w/ Lightsphere
  • Canon 85 f/1.2 II
  • Canon 24-70L f/2.8
  • Canon 16-35L II f/2.8
  • Canon 15mm Fisheye f/2.8
  • Canon 70-200L IS f/2.8
  • Canon 100mm Macro f/2.8
  • Canon 90mm Tilt-Shift f/2.8

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For a regularly updated calendar of Rukes’ upcoming gigs check out his website. View Rukes' portfolio here.