ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Questions with a Pro: Steve Thornton

Copyright 2003

This week’s Questions with a Pro article features the talented Steve Thornton.

Steve is a still and motion photographer who specializes in a wide number of disciplines consisting of fashion & beauty, portrait, cowboy and western, lifestyle, and commercial and industrial photography. He has been photographing since the age of 12 and never seems to fail to find new inspiration. He has mastered the art of traveling for work and is able to capture countless perspectives of the world because of this. Here, Steve details his traveling techniques, his photography style, and a bit about his personal work.

We asked: Given your extensive international experience, you must have to travel a lot with your whole business operation. How do you prepare for a long international photography trip?

Steve said: I’m gone 175 days on average, both in the US of A and internationally. I prepare the same way I prepare for short domestic trips up the street: Checklists.

Depending on: Where I’m going, for how long I’m going, what I’m shooting when I’m going, what the weather is likely to be determines which checklists I use. Frequently I’ll customize an existing checklist to match the project and conditions.

All checklists have the same “Top line” items:

Stop the mail, turn off the water to the house (I finally installed a ball valve to do this with a quarter turn), turn off the water heater, forward my calls to my European phone number if I’m heading to Europe, set the thermostat to prevent freezing pipes in the winter to having a reasonable temp during the summer and still remove a good bit of humidity (about 80°F – 27°C).

The next section on the checklist is for clothing, including long underwear, hot hands & hot toes, wool socks, bathing suit, goggles, snorkel, etc.

The rest of the list gets into the camera/audio/lighting gear to pack.

The list covers my roll on bag, where I’ll pack 2 laptop computers, a mouse and large mouse pad, 6 0r 8 external hard drives, (3 or 4 sets of 2 each so I have a backup) a bag of USB cables and power adaptors, my home made cord with 13 electrical outlets, my bag of European electrical adapters, extension cords, 3 way splitters, Bose noise cancelling headset with spare batteries, tablet with USB power cable, back cushion for the seat on the plane, an electric shaver, mini dopp kit (soap, deodorant, electric toothbrush, aspirin, Imodium, mini hairbrush, etc.), some snack food in case I get stuck somewhere, slippers (to replace by boots that I remove and store before takeoff). It also has my blowup neck pillow, sleep mask and earplugs in case the Bose dies. I also store my custom Lightware case straps in the roll on, (see a link called “This is how” below to look at an example of what these look like). On my roll on and camera bag, I attach a spare luggage lock. Sometimes I’ll accidentally drop the lock in the bag while I’m packing and rather than spend time looking I’ll just grab one of the spares and use it. Also, TSA will frequently leave the lock off either by forgetting to replace it or by leaving it inside the case.

Still on the checklists: Pack all of my knifes (normally 2 of them) – I also put 3 or 4 alarms on my cell phone to make sure I don’t goof and forget to pack them. A printed list of phone numbers and addresses vital to where I’m going. Note: These numbers/addresses are also on the phone, but if the phone dies, you may be in real trouble because who remembers phone numbers now? Not me. This list goes into my shirt pocket which stays attached to me. I’ll take about $300 to $500 of the local currency in cash: Euros, Pounds, Dinar, Yen, etc. This is for emergencies like if my credit cards were lost or stolen. Most purchases are done with credit cards.

Flying internationally, I’ll normally check 3 or 4+ bags. I have photos showing what is in each bag, showing me or my assistant how to repack it and for insurance purposes in case I need to make a claim. I put these “How to Pack” photos on my laptop and on my tablet. This is an example. Note the Itinerary in the second photo. I put one of these in each bag including my camera bag and roll on bag. This is another how to pack example.

I have had people ask me how do I travel with so many bags, how do I move all of them at once? This is how. Lightware made the modifications and connector straps to make this work.

The single biggest problem with most of my international travel is jet lag, and there is no “Cure”. There are some things you can do to help, like drinking a lot of water on a long flight. Last year I crossed 42 time zones in 3+ weeks. I started in Atlanta and flew to LA for a 6 day project, flew home for 2 days then flew to Singapore for a 5 day project, back to Atlanta for 3 days then back to LA for 6 days then to Atlanta for one day then to Milan. Fortunately, I was in Milan for 3+ weeks so my body finally discovered where it belonged time zone wise.

While I’m on the travel subject, I pack 2 of these travel scales. They work well, however sometimes they just die, hence my taking 2 of them. This is just in case you need to shuffle some gear because you found something you want on the trip and need to bring it back without going over the 50 pounds (23 Kg) international checked bag limit or the 70 pound (32 Kg) paid bag limit. (Your limits may differ as I am a Delta Platinum Medallion member and my limits are higher than normal. Those of you that have status on American or United, and others, will likely have higher checked bag limits too.)

And these are the BEST TSA luggage locks I have found and I have been through about 6 different ones. Tarriss had a different version which was a very sad product. I sent them a message outlining all of the shortcomings that made it such a piece of junk, with photos, and about 7-9 months later they sent me two of these to try out for free with a note thanking me for being one of the reasons they redesigned a new one. I used them once and ordered 12-14 more of them. The best TSA luggage locks period and a lifetime warranty.

I also take photos of my suitcases plus my gear cases and post them on one of my websites. This way when they ask me to show them what it looks like based on a chart they have, I can tell them where to go to see a photo because none of the gear cases look like anything on their chart.

We asked: How did your business become so mobile? Was it always your dream to travel with your business?

Steve said: My parents traveled the world, frequently staying away for months. So I guess you could say I have itchy feet. I’m always glad to get home, but within 2-3 days I’m planning my next “Escape”.  Another benefit when marketing yourself is to never forget the “Expert from Afar” theory. This means in people’s minds just because their photographer travels from a great distance, they are better than the photographer next door. (I of course do nothing to dispel this thought.) As for “How”, the Website plus USA & European phone numbers and addresses shows I’m well-traveled and I travel well.

We asked: You seem to photograph a wide range of subjects. How does your style of photography differ from one setting to the next?

Steve said: I do not think my style changes; the locations, clients, the time of year, and the assignment focus will change. Now I do shoot a lot of personal work to experiment and play, and this does help a lot on my professional growth, so this will evolve my style, but I’m pretty much the same photographer if I’m shooting fashion, beauty, cowboys or industrial projects.

We asked: How did you transition from stills to motion?

Steve said: I did not really transition. I have been shooting motion for well over 40 years, on and off. I got serious about it when my stock agency, Sharpshooters, asked us to start to shoot motion. I then bought an Arriflex 2C 35mm motion picture camera and a selection of lenses and shot stock footage and stills. I then acquired a Canon XL1 video camera and shot a good bit with it.

The BIG change was when the Canon 5D MKII arrived with the ability to shoot full 1080 HD. This was a total game changer for me…and a lot of others. Now I only need one camera system to shoot anything I want. The lenses, batteries, chargers, and accessories etc. were all the same. At that point in time I started shooting in earnest and really started to edit more and also “learn” After Effects. The “Quotes” are in reference to how very little I really know about AE. I’m still learning.

What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about transitioning to motion?

Be sure that you personally edit all of your videos, at least initially. You will learn what mistakes you are making on the shooting side, how to not over shoot and the need to move to get a lot of different POV’s. If you hand the files to someone else to edit, you will not get the benefit of learning from your mistakes.

We asked: Where do you find your inspiration for your personal work?

Steve said: I can be driving a car, walking on a city street or on a ranch, eating dinner or raking a shower and I’ll see or think of something I want to shoot. I’ll see something in real life or just in my head and want to shoot it. For me this inspiration is non-stop.

I have always shot personal work. I did not know it had “a name” and that it was important for professional growth for the first 20 years of shooting photos; I started shooting when I was 12. I did not shoot my personal work with any real reason other than I just wanted to. All I knew was I liked shooting it.

It was only years later when other photographers talked about their “Personal Work” or personal projects, did I discover what it was called. I just called it “something cool I just shot”, and I learned something along the way. While in my early 20’s I read a lot of Kodak books and other than that and a few workshops I’m 100% self-taught and I like a lot of photographers, I lived on my professional island. I even shot motion for personal work 40+ years ago. I shoot all the time and still love it.

How do your personal projects affect your business as a whole?

I think it allows clients to see my vision and style. I do not shoot Personal Work for any business reason. It is still just something cool I shot.

I’m currently shooting a food project for a good friend and while at his restaurant I saw something I liked. So I walked to my Explorer, pulled out one of the colanders I had with me, dumped in some Brussel sprouts, found a spot on the floor where the hostess stand is and shot a few snapshots. Not planned, not asked for, not a lot of thought, I just saw something in my head.

A few days before I had shot a Mussels dish and later while at home thought of another idea. I called and Rick said he would get in fresh Mussels on Wednesday, so I went and shot fresh mussels on Wednesday. Again, nothing really planned, I just had a rough idea of what I wanted and executed a few ideas.

Same story with the trout.

Find more of Steve’s work on his website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with a Pro and Questions with an Educator series.

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