From the old school glamour of film stars such as Pierce Brosnan, to the new cool of footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo, Kenton Thatcher has photographed them all. From his base in Lisbon, Portugal, he shoots advertising and editorial commissions for some of the world’s biggest brands and magazines.
No two shoots are ever the same for Kenton, and whether it is planning and preparation, or having just minutes to capture an image, he explains that everything comes down to timing.
I have to be able to capture fraction of a second moments. Still life photographers have time to breathe and think, but as a portrait photographer, it’s impossible. It’s like if you’re driving a racing car; you can’t take your eyes of the road, and it’s the same with the people I shoot. I always need to keep my eye on the subject or I may miss that shot.
Whilst it only takes a split second to capture the final image, there’s a lot of preparation that goes on behind the scenes. Kenton told us about a recent advertising shot he took of a girl with wings standing on top of a building in Lisbon, explaining the preparation he did beforehand.
I went to that location about twenty five times to shoot the background landscape in that image, but it was never quite right. It is taken from one of the highest buildings in Lisbon and the wind was crazy; even with the camera on a tripod and weighed down, there was still some vibration and movement and long exposure. There were a few days I had to abandon the shoot, so I spent literally hours trying to get that one image.
And then there are the editorial shoots where Kenton might have just had a few minutes with the subject. He discusses the time he was tasked with taking the official portrait of Boris Johnson when he visited Portugal as Foreign Secretary. “There is never a dull moment in any of my shoots,” he says. “I was going to have just three minutes to photograph him, so the day before I went and did a two hour setup so I could capture as much as possible in such as short space of time.” Kenton continues, “I actually shot the initial portrait against a white background. Just as he had finished adjusting his tie, I fired the shutter and took the first shot. It was very natural and the next thirty or forty images were ok, but they looked a bit too posed, which doesn’t suit my style. Once we had the official shot I had just one minute left to get another image. We quickly put up a black background on the wall with gaffer tape and I wanted to take a very British shot of him, so I got him holding the saucer and drinking a cup of tea. With just a minute left this turned out to be the image I was most pleased with, and apparently Boris loves it too.”
Kenton started by shooting on film and medium format cameras, but has since embraced the technological advances that digital cameras bring.
My father was a bit of a mentor for me; he was an amateur photographer and turned our whole garage in to a darkroom with four enlargers! It was there that I learnt about Ansel Adam’s Zonal System, and how to expose images to get the most from the dynamic range. When I used to shoot on film I would always get a clip test done when developing the film and I would pray that I had exposed within the 1 stop latitude of the film as you were so limited with the dynamic range. Now I use the Sony α7R III and the dynamic range is phenomenal - when I first used the camera I couldn’t believe how much detail there is in the highlights and shadows.
Kenton uses some of the classic focal length portrait lenses to accompany his camera, with his favourite being the Zeiss FE 50mm f/1.4 lens, “because it ticks all the boxes; it’s a phenomenal lens.”
He explains how he also uses the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM lens and FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM lens as they are perfect for portraits. However, for Kenton, “a lens that I probably use more than any of those three is the FE 24-70mm f/2.8. It’s my everyday lens that I take with me everywhere, and I love that it’s phenomenally sharp.”
Another important feature that Kenton has found really helpful in capturing portraits while using digital kit is the Eye AF feature of the α7R III. He talks about how this is especially useful when he’s shooting lifestyle images.
Once upon a time I would have used my 50mm f/1.4 lens at f/2.8, or even at f/4 to make sure that I got the subjects eyes perfectly in focus, he says, “with Eye AF I can get eyes pin sharp at f/1.4, and that has changed the way I shoot. I can speak to the subject and direct them, and with the Eye AF switching on, I can just fire the shutter and know it will be focused.
An image which perfectly emphasises this for Kenton is a shot for a campaign of Joaquim de Almeida, in which he is drinking whiskey. “I very rarely use a tripod and use continuous lighting, but he was always moving, leaning forward, pouring another whiskey, laughing and moving back and forward. The depth of field was so shallow, but his eyes were spot on in focus in every image. It really is a game changer!”
"Photography is my tool of communication. I have learnt so much from life having a camera in my hands and listening to my subject’s stories, than in any book I’ve read - but then again I’m dyslexic"