Stephans path to photography was somewhat unusual. His first encounter with a professional camera was a mess but throwing in the towel is not his cup of tea. You would never believe a guy like him works as a clerk but in his creative work you see who he really is. That is the person we're meeting for an interview today: Stephan Thom
compagnon: It's great to have you, Stephan. In the current creative landscape, photographers, especially those of young age just as yourself, are often introduced by their presence on social media. As if the number of their followers determined their status in the scene. Your Instagram account has not reached vast numbers (yet). Is that an important statistic for you personally? Do you have goals considering your social media accounts? Do you think Instagram is more a blessing or a curse for photography in general?
Stephan Thom: Early this year I used to think about it. Why isn't my account growing quicker? But, in the end, many things go as quickly as they came. What was hot yesterday can be out tomorrow and so on. That's why I think it's nonsense to base your presence on social outreach or likes. The customer/brands hire you to have a benefit. Some want to buy access to a huge audience. But that's not what I want to sell. I want to offer my results and my creativity. If my account would grow that's fine. But in my eyes some less prominent photographers do a much better job than other huge multi-million fans accounts. I have no desire to comment on 100 posts daily to get follows or likes back. That's where Instagram became dishonest. I much rather give and receive real, honest comments. And if I have some input on a shot, I send a private message with my feedback. Got blocked once for that but all the other times a good chat resulted.
compagnon: While we're on the subject of nice chats, in photography or art in general it is all about having people to look at what you create. Especially nowadays, social media is as important as ever to manage that. Did that have an influence on your signature look? How would you describe your style?
Stephan Thom: "Hhhhm, I'd say my style is moody & dark but it is important to me to preserve some kindness and gentleness in my look, keep the threatening tone to a minimum. Of course I'll be reducing the lights, sometimes even lower the exposure in general and bump up the contrast. And, generally, I prefer to shoot when most people consider the weather as bad. Rain, fog and so on are my favorites. I can stay true to my style in edit even if it's sunny outside but bad weather is more rewarding for me.
My focus has shifted towards landscapes significantly but I also like to have a person in the frame. Having somewhat empty landscape shots doesn't do much for be at the moment. But my preferences might change in the future. And as I'm doing this for just 1,5 years now my style has not developed yet. Time will tell."
compagnon: So you're always on a quest to get better. And to us it seems you're always your own toughest critic. What do you think are the makings of a truly great photographer?
Stephan Thom: "Well, that's always in the eye of the beholder. What is a great photographer anyway? If everyone were to tell you your photos are dreadful but you love them and you're happy with their look, you have done nothing wrong, I'd say. There are a few things that matter anyway: You gotta be able to work in a team. Shooting with several people means you need to be able to make and stand your point if you have to. But you also need to be able to deal with criticism, learn from it and be better for it without feeling personally hurt. And being spontaneous and flexible is key. Be ready if an opportunity calls. Survive on little sleep and manage shooting requests on short notice."
compagnon: Sounds like an educated perspective, especially for someone who started out in photography just about 2 years ago. What kind of camera did you start out with? How did it go?
Stephan Thom: "That's a short time but a long story. I was about to travel to Marocco with my girlfriend, you could still do that back then. Before that I only used the iPhone and put some ready made filters on the results. But for that vacation I wanted someting better and thus rented a Sony Alpha 6000 for the time. And it never really clicked with this camera. The auto mode didn't seem to work at all, the flash was interfering with my shots all the time and the images looked terrible. In Marrakesh, a really vibrant city, I took literally one photo with it. One. As we returned the camera went back to the rental. Two months later I wanted to take cool photos on a trip to Paris. So what did I do? I bought the Alpha 6000. *laugh* The reviews for that camera were so good, I was just convinced I was the issue. As a result, the photos from Paris were not that good either. Oh well..."
compagnon: You did experience multiple issues with a rented camera and got terrible results. So as a logical consequence you go out and buy just that camera? That's bold... *laugh*
Stephan Thom: Yeah, maybe. It didn't really matter how I edited those photos from Paris. I almost cringe looking at them today. But hey, using an A6000 with a kit lens, what do you expect? You won't get any bokeh. Then I bought the 50mm f1.8 which didn't even cost 100 bucks. I took some awesome fashion shots with that.
When I had the chance to test a colleague's A7 II everything changed and I was gobsmacked. The weight, the look, built like a tank in comparison. A few months later I got myself one with a 35mm Sigma Art and took it straight to the Southside music festival. We had tormenting rain, slept in the car and the entire weekend was a mess but I loved it. And I loved the camera right away. Since then, every minute and every cent I can spare goes to my photography.
compagnon: You don't hear a story like that too often. Do you have a habit of thinking it is your fault whenever some equipment doesn't perform well? *laugh* What has been your worst purchase? Which one did you regret the most?
Stephan Thom: No I can't say that. Back then I was a modeling at a shoot and the photographer had an A6000 and the images looked fine. So obviously I was the problem and I had to learn the basics better. When it comes to equipment I like to limit myself a bit and I very much prefer prime lenses. I don't mind using my legs for framing a shot and live with the limitations or overcome them in the situation I'm in. That's more than just zooming. But at one point I bought a G-Master 24-70mm zoom but hardly ever use it. I take it as a travel zoom if I really have to. But even if I use it I lock the focal length and work with this fixed value. So having a tele zoom does make no sense for me at all.
compagnon: Alright, so let's zoom in on your creative idols or favorite creatives. If you could pick any photographer or model to work with and shoot with for one day, dead or alive doesn't matter, who would be your choice?
Stephan Thom: That's a cool question but I would have multiple answers. Starting with Benjamin Jaworskyj from whom I picked up many basics and even shooting with him today I would still learn plenty. And there's guys like Peter McKinnon, Alan Palander or Matti Haapoja. Or Hannes Becker with German Roamers, who goes to cool locations and finds himself awesome adventures. At least from their social media they seem like nice dudes. Would be interesting to find out it that's the case personally. I wouldn't say it would be a goal or dream for me to do that but if I had the opportunity I would certainly enjoy it.
compagnon: And if you found a magic lamp and had three wishes to spend on your creative work, what do you choose?
Stephan Thom: That's easy. First, I would like to have more money so I could afford traveling more and having lots of time to travel. Changing my homebase whenever I want for as long as I want and see the world with my camera. And I would like to be a little less self-critical. Sometimes it takes me ages to stop (not finish) editing a photo or working on it because I keep on thinking it's not good enough yet. Being more laid-back about my work would be pretty relaxing I think. My third wish would be an all-waterproof equipment without needing any cases or compagnons to protect my gear. Being able to stand in tormenting rain without having to worry about my camera, lenses or other tech would be so cool. But I believe equipment like that will be in the stores a couple years from now
compagnon: Some of these could become true some day. Thank you for meeting us and taking the time for this interview. Stay healthy, especially these days and best of luck and continued success for your creative visions. No matter where you might go in the future, with your Element backpack you will be prepared for whatever happens. More of Stephans work on Instagram.