Behind the Lens with Heather Hawke

Located in Northwestern Nevada, Reno has been dubbed the littlest big city in the world and is known for their casinos and close proximity to ski resorts. But what about the music scene? For photographer Heather Hawke who grew up there, she would say there isn’t much of a scene at all. The lack of music scene has caused her to traverse the country in order to photograph some of her favorite artists but in turn she’s been able to photograph artists like Dua Lipa, Young the Giant, Local Natives and many more. Her creativity isn’t limited to photography as she also runs her own music publication Decorated Youth, which is quickly picking up attention across the country. 

When did you start to show an interest in photography? What was it about photography that drew you in? When, where and what was the first show that you photographed and what was that like?

As a child I never had intentions of doing photography for a career. On family vacations I was always documenting with either photography (went through a lot of disposable cameras), videos on my camcorder, or journaling. At this age, I wasn’t thinking about a career so it never crossed my mind that I’d be involved in the arts for a living. When I was old enough to start thinking about what my plan was after high school, the music industry was the only industry I could see myself in. I knew that I wanted to be involved with music; I just had to figure out a way to break into the field. In 2005, at the age of 16 and when Myspace was in full effect, I started to ‘friend’ people who worked in the music industry, focusing especially on record labels.

I realized the challenge early on. When you live in a small city that has no record labels, one alternative radio station (that’s now gone out of business for the second time in 5 years), about 3 legit music venues (that aren’t primarily bars), a recording studio or two, with minimal tours coming through (based on the fact that we’re way out of the way for most tour routings), and the two nearest big cities are located 132 miles (Sacramento) and 200 miles (San Francisco) away, it’s tough to get your foot in the door. I know a lot of people drive hours on end to go to shows, but I’ve always had anxiety about driving on highways and especially over Donner Pass (which often has very harsh driving conditions during the winter) so unless someone else is driving, I usually only fly.

From 2007 to 2011, I held various jobs in retail, studied a little bit of business management and culinary arts, but couldn’t get excited about either of those fields and really wanted to get back into the work force so I eventually dropped out. I didn’t start looking into internships until after I left college and that’s when I found out that a majority of them required college credit. When I first started my search it was to the local recording studios, radio station and various venues. Since responses never came, I started reaching out to national record labels and others in the music industry, to see if they needed any remote interns, and received little to no reply.

In September of 2011, a girl who ran her own online magazine posted that she was looking for journalists for her site and I rushed to apply. Even though I had zero experience, she gave me a chance to be a contributor. I posted music news, wrote “Band You Should Know” articles as well as album reviews.  Soon thereafter, I immersed myself with email and phone interviews with musicians. 

In March 2012 I requested to get a press ticket for a fun. concert and their publicist asked if I also wanted a photo pass, since I had a DSLR camera, I said yes. During this time, being in communication with a few of the photographers that worked for the site, I became aware that music photography was a feasible thing for other people, I just didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t know a single thing about shooting live music, how the settings work for shooting in manual, shooting RAW, ect. Unfortunately, I didn’t know of any music photographers, let alone photographers in general in my hometown in which I could seek advice. The photographers I knew online were stingy with sharing their knowledge, so I turned to blog posts and photography websites for education. 

There were two other shows I shot between then and August 2013, learning as much as I could but still not feeling confident enough to shoot using manual mode. That August, I went to another fun. show and from that point on that my passion for music photography was solidified. I started attending and shooting as many shows as I could.

Dua Lipa

Looking back, what advice would you give to your young concert photographer self?

I wish I started going to shows solo earlier on. Up until October 2013 I had never attended a concert by myself. I always felt I had to go with a friend and since a majority of my friends didn’t like the same genres as me I often missed out on a lot of shows or had to be able to get a plus one or pay for their tickets for them to come along. After I attended my first show solo I felt so proud of myself. It felt so great to not have to rely on whether or not someone could or would go with me to a show affect my decision on whether I could or couldn’t go to a show.


Out of all of the photos in your portfolio, which photo are you the proudest of and why? What is the story behind it?

I’m not going to lie I do have quite a few photos I’m proud of, but one of the most recent images is from the shoot I did with the band Local Natives down in Los Angeles.

Back in June I planned a short trip down to LA and I saw that one of my favorite bands didn’t have any tour dates so I figured, since they’re based in LA, they’d be in the city. I reached out to their manager to see about setting up a quick shoot for Decorated Youth. A week out, we agreed on a day and a location. The day before the scheduled shoot, I got word that I had to be somewhere (about 30 mins away) an hour after the shoot. I didn’t want to rush the shoot so I opened up Google Earth and scouted some locations closer to my next meeting. I found a beautiful cul de sac that had flowers lining the street that overlooked a view of downtown and instantly knew I wanted that to be one of the locations. From that Google Earth image, I imagined the shots I could take there and this one was the epitome of the vision.

This shoot will stay as one of my favorites because they walked in already (somewhat) knowing of me – since I’ve interviewed them and have been to a few shows beforehand – so we got to bond before the shoot even took place. Also, since the members showed up a bit staggered, I got the chance to have some short one on one conversations with each of them. Which if you’re a music photographer you know that it’s very rare to have time to get acquainted with musicians and have them get acquainted with you. The average amount of time I get for portrait shoots is somewhat between 5 – 20 mins, a couple times I’ve gotten about an hour, but usually it’s very speedy and you don’t have time to get comfortable with one another.

Local Natives

To get into gear a little bit, what is your typical shooting setup? What camera, lens, etc?

My go to shooting set up is very simple, 98% of the time I rely on my Nikon D600 and Nikon 24-70mm 2.8 lens. Other than my kit camera and lens (which I got back in December 2010 and used until late 2013), the only other pieces of gear I own are a 50mm 1.4 lens, a speed light, and a couple polaroid cameras. Since I often have to travel at least 200 miles (to San Francisco) – 800 miles (to Los Angeles) to shoot shows (since where I’m based doesn’t get too many tours rolling through) I prefer to spend my money on the travel, and renting needed gear, rather than buying new gear. Once I move down to Los Angeles, hopefully by the end of the year, I definitely would love to upgrade and expand my gear list.


In November 2012, you started your own publication Decorated Youth which features music, lifestyle, travel, etc. What inspired you to start that publication and what has that process been like over the past four and a half years? 

I started Decorated Youth as a way to break into and gain experience in the music industry while also supporting and getting to tell the stories of some of my favorite creatives. Up until 2015, when I started doing freelance work, Decorated Youth wasn’t really another avenue to share my work, it was the only way I could get the access and credentials to shoot stuff or even do interviews.

Nowadays, there are a lot of really amazing smaller online / print magazines like Decorated Youth, but when I started they were still pretty rare. I knew of a one but they were sort of the competition with the former magazine I was working with and I didn’t want to draw blood. Starting Decorated Youth was sort of my only option to keep gaining experience in music photography / the music industry.

Doing everything for Decorated Youth by myself for the first 2 and a half years was very tough, but in the summer of 2015 I started taking on some writer and photographer contributors (who are based all around the world) who I couldn’t be more grateful for. They’ve truly helped the magazine grow so much in such a short time by lending their talents and passion and I wouldn’t have gotten this far without them.

The process of growing this publication has been an uphill battle of sorts, but we’ve definitely had our wins. There are so many amazing musicians / and other creatives that I would love to interview / plan shoots of for Decorated Youth, but since we’re still a relatively small publication we still get turned down for stuff quite a bit. I’d love to see us be able to grow to a place where we can be given more time and access for some editorial style shoots and in person interviews.

Also, as of July this year we’ve started to once again run all photo gallery’s and select features on our site (we stopped in mid 2014 to solely focus on the issues). The decision to start posting on the site once more came around because as we’re getting bigger I want us to be able to release more features and photo galleries as they come in, instead of having everyone wait for the next issue to be released a few months down the line.

The Struts

How would you describe the music photography scene where you’re based in Northern Nevada/California?

I wouldn’t say there is a music photography “scene” in Northern Nevada, only because there’s hardly a music scene in my city. Up until November 2014 I didn’t even run into any other music photographer’s at shows in my area. Now I know of a handful of photographers that shoot at one of the local DIY venues in town, although I’ve only met 2 of them since our music tastes differ. I know of a couple other photographers who used to shoot at the bigger venues we have, when we get the national tours rolling through, but they’ve moved away since they were just going to college up here.

It’s when I lived in NYC for 5 months (for a photography internship) in the first half of 2015 when I met a majority of my, now, photographer friends and when I finally found that sense of community in the industry. That August I had the chance to shoot at Outside Lands in San Francisco where I then got to meet a few of the Los Angeles based photographers. Since then, I really owe it to the power of social media for helping me surround myself in this tight knit of community of photographers who I’m lucky to call my friends.

Zella Day

When looking at your Instagram feed as a whole, you tend to lean more towards warmer tones in your photos and there’s definitely a distinct aesthetic in your work. How would you describe your editing style and what is your vision for your photos?

I try to not focus on creating a specific aesthetic as much as I try and get the colors to be how they played out in my head when I saw them. As I’m sure anyone can tell when they look at my work, colors do play a huge part of my aesthetic – I love how using different tones can suggest thoughts of certain emotions. I know when shooting shows I’m naturally more drawn to the lights with warmer tones; the oranges, yellows, and reds. When I do portrait shoots, I’d much rather do them outside to make use of the natural light as that’s my ideal set up. I love using natural light because it gives off such a clean look and it allows you to play around with the colors. Unless it’s for creative expression, I try not to do too much altering / retouching to images in post as I want the image to be as authentic to the real thing as possible.

Cage The Elephant

Who has been your favorite artist to photograph and what bands/artists are still on your bucket list to photograph?

Musicians with a strong visual identity are my favorite to photograph so given that fact Tame Impala is very high on my list. The visuals and lighting that accompany their music are very mesmerizing and even if you’re super far away from the stage you get a sense of the emotions they’re trying to generate through their music. I also really love to photograph musicians who are very animated on stage like; Kehlani, Local Natives, Cage The Elephant, Alunageorge, St. Lucia, fun., Bleachers, Anderson .Paak, Diet Cig, Twin Peaks, Chrvches, Tory Lanez, Hinds, Miguel, and Jimmy Eat World.

I feel like I have so many artists on my bucket list some are; The Flaming Lips, Beyonce, Paramore, Lorde, Vampire Weekend, Tokyo Police Club, The Killers (if they ever allow photographers in the photo pit to shoot their set), Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sunflower Bean, Francis and The Lights, Dev Hynes, and Wolf Alice.

Tame Impala

What advice would you give to any up and coming photographers who are reading this article right now?

I’ve noticed now more than ever that photographers just starting out are mentioning on their social media “I can’t wait to get published in (some big name publication)” or “I just want to go out on tour with (some big name artist).” Don’t get me wrong, as long as you stay professional it’s more than ok to be excited about who you’re working with. In fact, I find I do my best work when I truly believe and support in the artists or clients I’m working with. However, the reason of working with an artist, brand, publication, etc. shouldn’t be because of what they can do for you. It should be what you can create together. Maybe social media has played a part of this. With photographers hoping the artists post the photos on their social media accounts so they can get likes / follows.

When you do shoots don’t think about what you’re going to get, besides the images, out of who you’re working with, think about what you’re creating and why you’ve chosen to work with them in the first place. Think about if you were actually to create those images with one of those bucket lists artists or clients, if those images were to never be published / get shared online, would you still want to create with said artist or client?

Young the Giant

Stay connected with Heather: Website // Twitter // Instagram // Facebook

Photo of Heather by Heather Hawke

Interview by Jess Williams

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