In 2011, Steve Thornton won Best of ASMP, a much sought-after competition among ASMP members from all parts of the country. That alone speaks volume of the work that Steve has produced since getting in the business of photography, 25 years ago. A self-described 6.6-foot tall American cowboy photographer, Steve is also known for his colorful imagery for fashion and advertising. We met Steve in between two trips, as this is usually the case for this world-wide traveler. The interview below is an updated and condensed version of the interview he gave to ASMP National, back in 2011.
What are your photographic specialties?
Cowboy, fashion and beauty, lifestyle, aviation and video, a lot more videos in the last few years. Video represents now almost 80% of my work, moneywise.
A quality that I’m known for is the speed at which I shoot. I can see what I want to do very quickly and normally get what I’m looking for within the first few minutes of a shot. This allows me to change my POV, lenses, change my directions to the models for them to change what they are doing. All of this allows me to get a large volume of different imagery on the same “look,” giving the client a wide range of selects to choose from.
With video, I have to stop and think. I have to make sure that the camera is on the right shutter speed, that I have the ISO correct, I have to make sure that the depth of field is not ludicrous. Motion means that the subject is moving but it can also mean that the camera is moving and if the camera moves, you almost always has a problem in there; you can have a shadow problem, the wind might be blowing, always things that we think of with stills but not to that degree with motion. And you have to preplan it.
How do you approach clients for video? Do you offer both stills and video combined?
Most of the videos I do for my clients are a combination of stills and video, and they seem to respond to it very well. I just did one for an American client in Milan. It was a still project but I had time and shot video on almost every look we did. I sent one segment to the client and she was very excited because she saw she could use it for social media purposes.
Have you made any other change in recent years?
One thing I have been starting promoting actively is portraits. I did not realize portraits were so important in advertising until lately. I have been shooting portraits for years and it does come easy to me; it is still about light, composition and where you put the subject in relation to the camera. So, on my website, I have now “portraits” instead of “beauty.”
What is unique about your approach or what sets you and your work apart from that of other photographers?
Color has always been at the forefront of my imagery, but I also have a very good understanding of black-and-white. Normally only my personal work is in black-and-white. I think the reason is most of my clients really like my color work so much that they rarely think of me as a black-and-white photographer.
In terms of my process and technique: I move around a lot, changing position relative to the model or subject. I change the light direction, the light quality, the light intensity; I change the background; I change the lenses; I change the location of the subject in the frame. I almost never shoot vertical, knowing that with today’s chips you can crop for a vertical from a horizontal and be just fine. (I do shoot vertical, but only when the location is so limiting that I do not have a choice, or when the shot will only “work” as a vertical).
You’re well known as a cowboy photographer, with an authentic sense of this subject, yet you’re a native of Atlanta, Georgia. When did were you first stung by the allure of the cowboy?
I had my first horse when I was two years old. My first childhood memory was talking to a ranch hand in the stables when I was about three years old. I still have my first pair of boots. Cowboy movies and TV series were my programs of choice and still are high up on my preferred viewing list. But by the time I was five years old the horses were sold or given away.
It was not until I had a client who liked my photography ask me to shoot a cowboy scene that I got into cowboy photography. Around 1992 or 1993 was the time frame for that first shoot. In shooting this I was introduced to a new circle of friends and I just shot cowboys for fun. Not until 2000 did I decide to get serious and go after some western clients.
Your appearance and wardrobe is very much in character with your Cowboy niche. Have you always dressed like this? If not, at what point did it occur to you to make this part of your “branding.
I started dressing like this in 1993 or so. I have always had Cowboy boots and jeans but not any hats, shirts, wild rags, chaps, half chaps, hitched horsehair belts, Buffalo coats, dusters, spurs and other cowboy accouterments.
As for clients, depending on who they are, I will adjust the level of the cowboy “regalia” I elect to wear.
In what ways has your style been influenced by working on European campaigns?
For me, style is an evolution. I’ll land on something I like and work in that mode for a period, then move to the next phase of what I like. Italians like the strange and unusual, so that opens a wide variety of directions one could go stylistically.
Your Web site describes you as a brand image consultant. For how long have you actively marketed yourself in this way?
Most of this is in Italy. My business partner there suggested it after seeing what I did in client meetings. I’d look at the imagery they had and would suggest other uses that they were not thinking about. When asked, I would tell the client if I thought the imagery they already had was good or not, and why.
How do you price your services as a brand image consultant? Is this a growing area of your business? Do you ever consult about branding without providing photography services?
It is by the job. I ask a lot of questions about where they are now and where they want to go. I ask if they want to brand themselves to the trade only, to the end consumer only, or to both. I ask them how long they want to take to grow into a larger company, and I give them a price on how long I feel it will take to give them a report.
I do just consult without shooting. Sometimes they just can’t afford me; sometimes what they have is solid imagery that, for them at that point of time, is all they really need. For me this is a long-term investment, like planting seeds and, like seeds, some grow and some do not.
One page of your Web site is called “Problems and Solutions” and features before-and-after images with imperfections corrected in postproduction. How useful is this page when you’re in discussions with potential or new clients and how often do you specifically direct people there?
I use this when I’m asked if I can provide retouching. It is just one more tool I use the put in the prospect’s mind that I’m the right guy.
Do you employ full time administrative staff, assistants or tech support? How many regular freelance helpers do you work with?
I have a producer I have been using for over 20 years. Everyone is freelance. Most of my projects I’ll have a producer and two to four assistants. Beyond that, it depends on the project. I hire the best I can find, and I have several team members in different parts of the world.