Shooting The Stars
“I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve asked an Olympian if they’re okay with another take, just to remember their entire careers are built around practising and repeating the amazing things they do.” Tom Watkins on capturing the perfect portrait
Photography by Tom Watkins
London-based Tom Watkins inherited his family’s interest in photography during his teens, although his journey to becoming a professional photographer took a slightly convoluted route. After working with associated industries and as an art buyer for advertising agencies, he decided to make the jump and shoot for himself. Tom is now recognised as an excellent portrait photographer, specialising in fitness, sports and health lifestyle. From Emma Raducanu, Adam Peaty to Precious Adams, he talks us through what it takes to prepare and capture the perfect shot and why he’d love to photograph the Lionesses.
Glorious: You specialise in portrait and lifestyle images mainly within sport, is this because you have a personal interest in sport?
Tom Watkins: My early interests were live music (shooting at gigs 4-5 nights a week), as well as hanging out at skateparks and shooting breakdance events. When I decided to become a professional photographer, I gravitated towards movement and action, and a few of my early assisting jobs introduced me to clients such as men’s and women’s health magazines. Capturing dynamism and movement in a still image is still a challenge I very much enjoy, and generally the subjects make for interesting portraits too.
Most people I have met and shot along the way are hugely dedicated to “getting the shot” too, which is frankly a gift to any photographer. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve asked an Olympian if they’re okay with another take, just to remember their entire careers are built around practising and repeating the amazing things they do. Sports for myself… Like many other Middle-Aged-Men-In-Lycra I enjoy cycling, but my main form of exercise comes in the form of chasing a lively toddler around!
Glorious: What are your thoughts on women’s sport and how it is becoming far more prominent? What is your favourite women’s sport to watch and why?
Tom Watkins: I think it is fantastic that women’s sport is becoming a lot more prevalent in mainstream media. I am – at best – a fair-weather fan of international football, but like a lot of people, I really got into the 2019 World Cup, and obviously the 2022 Euros was incredible. I heard Leah Williamson speaking on the radio about how there’s still a way to go, but also saying how it’s a “different” game from the men’s, and for me – that’s the appeal. There seems to be less egos, more playing for your teammates, more respect for the opposition and officials, the atmosphere in the stadiums seems completely different. I might be wrong, but I love the fact that it isn’t the same as the men’s game. As a huge rugby fan, I also appreciate that women’s rugby seems to be raising its profile too. Hopefully with more players receiving professional contracts, rugby can follow in the footsteps of women’s football.
Glorious: How would you describe your method of capturing the best images and what sets you apart from other photographers?
Tom Watkins: No two jobs are the same, but being sympathetic to the brief, the location, the lighting etc is important. Understanding when to utilise what is in front of you, or trying to create and light something from scratch is also a decision. The most important factor is often understanding the peak/decisive moment and how best to represent that, and generally that’s by speaking to the subject. Knowing exactly when a gymnast is at full extension, or why a sprinter keeps their head down during their start and drive phase only comes with experience of working with talent at the top of their game.
Glorious: What photographers do you admire and why?
Tom Watkins: All the obvious portrait greats – Irving Penn, Avedon, Nadav Kander, Annie Leibovitz, Martin Schoeller, Marco Grob, Platon, Dan Winters, Christopher Anderson…
In the sports realm, I’m always inspired by people who do something beyond the obvious, such as Carlos Serrao, Rick Guest, Marcus Eriksson, Sandro Baeblar and others.
Glorious: You have photographed some high-profile athletes. How do you prepare for a shoot – do you research them so you can chat and build a rapport on set to help them relax?
Tom Watkins: Obviously you need to be able to talk to somebody without coming across as ill-informed, so yes, there’s always a little bit of research. But equally I feel it’s important to try to engage with your subject as you would with anyone – even if you’re in awe, treat them like a normal person. Generally most of the high-profile people that I’ve been lucky to work with have been lovely, but equally we’re all there to do a job and they’re not used to hanging around for a photoshoot to happen. It’s part of the mindset I suppose, being efficient with your time etc. Often you don’t know what kind of day they’ve had, so if they arrive on set at 6.30pm after a hard day of training, don’t expect lots of friendly chat. Don’t take it personally, I have learned.
Of course, some people are very generous with their time and will give you the extra minutes you need to get an image beyond the brief. Adam Peaty was a great example, or Paula Radcliffe. And sometimes people just have a big personality which can take over but often gives you great photos at the same time.
Glorious: Prior to this year’s Wimbledon Championship, you photographed Emma Raducanu. Tell us about this shoot. Is it more difficult to shoot an athlete when they are not in their natural surroundings?
Tom Watkins: We were at Bromley Tennis Centre, where she learnt to play, with a ‘studio’ set up on the edge of a court. It was part of a day of filming branded content for HSBC, and it was quite lighthearted overall – shooting interviews and doing trick shots with Tim Henman. This is a standard type of job for a stills photographer, going along to a film/TV set and shooting in a corner in between takes. My brief was a mix of the more typical sports portraits (shown here) and some more fun stuff, which was being used at a HSBC experiential pavilion at Wimbledon.
The challenges with this type of job are mostly the time constraints that you have to shoot under. I had Emma on my ‘set’ for 30 seconds here, 2 minutes there, while the film crew changed lights etc. Like most professional athletes, she was pretty well versed in what we needed and made my job easy.
Glorious: What input do you have on location/direction of a shoot? Do you always work to a brief or do you like to be spontaneous?
Tom Watkins: Like every photographer, I wish I had more input! For me, the ideal job is a succinct brief with clear art direction, but within that there would be time to play around with things that aren’t on the shot list. Often the shots that make the portfolio are the more spontaneous ones that you might get a chance to try, or a shot that is ‘off brief’. But of course, the main thing is to capture what the client needs first and foremost. For personal projects and portfolio shoots you have the chance to shoot as you want and that allows for more spontaneity.
Glorious: Do you enjoy photographing dancers as there is more scope to capture a variety of images through movement?
Tom Watkins: Aside from boxing, which is such a visual sport, working with dancers and gymnasts has given me some of my absolute favourite images. Both have an obvious performative element, so I’ve found that people will work very hard to get the perfect shot. There’s so many nuances and details to it that you need to trust the person you’re shooting, but they’re also so invested to get it right that it creates the perfect atmosphere. Then it’s just down to the photographer!
Working with Precious Adams was such a gift… having access to a dancer from the English National Ballet was a privilege in itself, and I had a very clear idea of the art direction going into the shoot (right down to the handmade backdrop). Hopefully we did it justice and created something special.
Glorious: What are your favourite images of female sportswomen and why?
Tom Watkins: As much as it has been copied (sometimes badly), and possibly the idea is a bit cliched now, but the ESPN Body Issue is always an interesting collection of images. Of course, they choose great subjects and amazing photographers, but it really shows off the idea that for top-flight athletes their body is a tool to get a job done. They train for results above all else, and not for aesthetics, which I think is interesting in the current climate of body image awareness and social media.
Glorious: If you could photograph any female sportswoman or team, who would it be and why?
Tom Watkins: I think The Lionesses would be at the top of anybody’s list at the moment. It is always a privilege to work with high-profile people, those in the public eye, but also anywhere there is an interesting story to tell, or if I can help to raise someone’s profile. More time with some of the people I’ve shot before would’ve been great, but equally working with the next generation, people who are on their way to reaching the top is also rewarding. So someone like Andrea Spendolini-Sirieix would be great. Or anybody with an interesting story – get in touch!