Brad Heaton is an Ohio-based concert photographer who has taken photos of some amazing artists, like Hoodie Allen, Twenty One Pilots and Beartooth. The first picture I saw of his was one of Josh Dun from Twenty One Pilots playing on his drum island, it was an aerial shot that has stuck with me since I first saw it, since then I’ve been seeing more and more of his amazing shots. He kindly took the time to answer some questions about his favourite project, how he got into photography and advice on getting the most out of your photos.
How did you ﬁrst get started in photography?
This is always a funny one to answer. When I was playing in baseball tournaments as a teen, there’d be photographers in our dugout taking shots of myself and teammates. I’d always end up watching them instead of our games. That sparked the interest. A few months later, my 10-year-old niece received a pretty neat camera for Christmas. It was so neat that I told my mother, ‘hey, I want something better than that’. It was partly out of jealous of my niece having a cooler toy than me. Luckily enough that ﬁrst camera would transition into a full-blown career.
What do you think is the most challenging part of photographing a live performance?
Probably a few things. Sometimes you’re provided limitations with artists like only getting the first three songs from the photo pit. So it’s always been in my interest to make my photographs different. There’s only so many factors in play that can allow you to differentiate your style when limited with the ﬁrst 3 in a pit. That’s why I prefer the idea of working with artists I’m close with that will allow me with full set, on-stage access. That makes things a lot more convenient.
You’ve started a project called Tourtraits, which I love, could you explain exactly what it is and why you started it?
Last year I was gifted the opportunity to tour with Hoodie Allen on the Boys of Zummer tour. He was opening for Wiz Khalifa and Fall Out Boy. A GINORMOUS tour for him and myself with a tremendous amount of opportunity to meet new friends and potential workmates. Opposed to getting in the same old routine of photographing Hoodie’s 30-minute set, edit, and go to bed, I needed to use said opportunity to meet everyone on this tour. Artist, backing bands, stage managers, tour managers, etc. I began brainstorming and developed the idea of Tourtraits. These very intimate, storytelling one-off shots of the talent on and off the stage. The idea was meant to give myself something to keep busy with and do more than just photograph some live shots. Sometimes live photography isn’t the best to outlet your own creative vision, so side projects and portraits are a lot of photographer’s outlets to make the most of their surroundings. Tourtraits was, and will continue to be, an outlet of mine.
Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on, or is it like asking you to choose your favourite child?
Last year some of my best buddies in Beartooth asked me to tag along on a house show run they were doing. I spent my ﬁrst few years of music photography shooting house shows and small venue shows where I’d have to body myself to the front of the crowd just to be able to photograph an artist. It was nice to be able to do that again. I’m blessed with a large enough stature that I can walk into a mosh pit with my camera, push some people off me if need be, and get a unique perspective. There was about 2 weeks with Beartooth where I did this every single day. 100 sweaty people in a living room, garage, backyard, bowling alley, all just sweating their faces off enjoying the music.
I love the pictures you’ve taken; what equipment do you recommend?
I recommend whatever works for you. Everyone has their personal preference. I typically stick with wide angle lenses because I like to photograph the environments and provide the perspective from a human eye as if the photograph I took was the exact way you’d see it in your pupils. Technically speaking, having gear capable of stopping action, shooting in RAW, and good in low light is perfect. 2.8 aperture or so on your lens, ISO 1250 or more on the camera, and a ﬂash.
What’s your personal opinion on watermarks?
I made the mistake of using a gaudy watermark in my early years. Completely distracting unless done right. See Dan Folger, Wiz Khalifa’s photographer, for watermarks done right.
There’s that aerial shot of Josh Dun from Twenty One Pilots playing in the crowd that’s become a real signature shot, and is 1000% my favourite ever concert photo. Why do you think that one in particular has become so popular?
Thank you! That’s one of my favourites as well. I feel like that photograph gained a large amount of attention simply because Josh’s drum island is iconic on its own, everyone likes to see Josh and the drums, but at the time the sheer scale and perspective of the photograph was unheard of. I sprinted up 15 ﬂights of stairs to a shaky catwalk to get that shot along with a few others from that vantage point and had the idea planned out for weeks because I had never seen anything like it before. I like to look at iconic photography over the decades, not even music photography, and put a bit of those ideas in a photograph. There’s an iconic photograph of Muhammad Ali from above by Neil Leifer, and that’s when the idea clicked that I should try and capture something similar.
You got to sell some of your prints from the ofﬁcial TOP store, and the fan reaction was pretty crazy, what’s it like seeing that response to your photos?
It’s always so heart-warming. It takes me back to the days I would post my photographs on Flickr and receive 10 likes and just be so happy. Like it was all worth it if my work is being seen. Whether it’s 100 or 100 thousand, getting your work seen and appreciated is one of the greatest feelings.
Is there a secret to getting such awesome shots, especially in a concert environment?
This goes back to some of the previous questions. I never have considered myself strictly a concert photographer. I think that may have something to do with it. I’ve been well-rounded with photography since the day I picked up a camera. I started with darkroom and ﬁlm photography, worked as a sports photographer, done studio work for some major brands, spent weeks studying light and compositions from ﬁlms, created conceptual stories and narrative tales through photographs. I like to treat every single concert like it’s a sporting event. The shots of the players standing around are cool, but the photographs of the player making a diving stop at third base and tossing out the runner at ﬁrst is the one that’s going to make the front page. I do my best to do something different every concert. The catwalk perspective was one of them. Last year with Twenty One Pilots I rented out a tilt-shift lens simply because I had never seen such a lens be used for concerts before. The more unique perspectives you’re able to tackle during a concert, the more your work is going to stand out.
You’ve had the pleasure of photographing some brilliant bands and artists, have you ever freaked out a little or got lost in the show rather than the job at hand?
I’ve always lived by the motto “you’re a photographer, not a fan” just so I don’t distract myself too much with celebrity status or anything with my artists. But the music is a different story entirely. Just as artists appreciate the photographs they’re in and the work it took to take said photograph, I appreciate the music while I’m working. I’ll keep an eye in my camera and whisper the lyrics to a song I know, if I’m walking to my next shot location I’ll sing along with the crowd. I’ll get lost in the environment of a concert, but still do my job. That’s why I’m there.
For you, what’s been the best moment in your journey so far?
Summer of 2009 was still one of the most deﬁning times of my life. This has nothing to do with music photography, but my personal beliefs. I received a National Scholastics Silver Portfolio while in high school and ﬂew to New York for my ﬁrst trip outside of Ohio to receive an award on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Just as I my ego began to inﬂate because of the glitz and glamour of NYC in the forefronts of my mind, I took a mission trip to Damascus, Syria. I was ﬂoored by the entire experience. The world was so much bigger to me now. Especially now considering how much Syria has been changed from those few weeks I spent there. The history, the hospitality, the culture. It altered the path I was on and I’ll never forget what that country taught me.
What are you looking forward to in 2016?
More growth. I tell myself every day, “don’t plateau, become greater”. Taking more risks for the greater good. I just took a trip to Texas not for a job or anything, but because there was a music festival I thought I could get some photographs at. Not to mention expansion of the Tourtraits series, touring with Twenty One Pilots, and getting this business venture I’ve been working on off the ground.
You’re touring with Twenty One Pilots later this year – how did that come about and how do you feel about it?
My buddy Mark Eshleman has spoiled me with opportunity. We ﬁrst met when I photographed TOP in Columbus of 2012 after speaking with Tyler Joseph about shooting the whole set for the ﬁrst time. Ha, those pictures were pretty bad. Luckily enough, I worked with Substream Magazine in January 2013 to shoot their ﬁrst magazine cover. Occasionally I’d shoot a show in Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Mark kept giving me more and more opportunities. After one show in 2014 Mark said “once we start doing arenas, we want to bring you out with us.” I would wait patiently for tour announcements just like the rest of the clique. In March of this year Mark gave me a call and my heart dropped. It was ﬁnally happening. I’m very excited about it. Working alongside Mark, Tyler, and Josh always happen to provide me with my best material. I love photographing them because before each show I feel as nervous as the ﬁrst time I shot them, yet somehow come away with better pictures each time.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start concert photography?
I’d say just don’t go into it thinking you’ll be photographing amphitheatres immediately. Make contacts with every person in the industry you can; big or small. Eventually the small bands are going to get bigger, that music manager that sent you event invites on Facebook is going to manage a huge artist and post a status saying “hey, I need a photographer for _______, who do I know?”. Learn your camera and capabilities, capture moments, be different. There are a million music photographers out there, but maybe less than 100 that stand out. Always have a contingency if music doesn’t work out. Shoot ﬁlm. Shooting ﬁlm will allow you to be patient and wait for that shot. Don’t be bummed if your shots don’t look too hot after a concert. I could easily show you 200,000 photographs over the past 8 years that are trash, but the 10 in my portfolio have made those shots worth it. Make friends, be patient, shoot, repeat.
With the Twenty One Pilots US arena tour coming up there’s going to be more amazing shots that you won’t want to miss, make sure you follow Brad on social media so you can see the best shots and follow the Tourtraits Instagram account to see his side project develop.
Check him out on social media:
Facebook: Brad Heaton
This interview took place on 27/3/16.
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