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Lorenzo Agius: shooting famous <br class="br_visual" />faces with the <br class="br_visual" />EOS 5D Mark III

Lorenzo Agius: shooting famous
faces with the

© Lorenzo Agius

October 2013

Celebrity portrait photographer and Canon Ambassador Lorenzo Agius talks to CPN Editor David Corfield about life in Hollywood with the EOS 5D Mark III...

© Lorenzo Agius

Actor Denzel Washington photographed on set. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/3.2, ISO 1000.

Lorenzo lives in a land full of ultimates; a land where the biggest and the best rub shoulders with rising stars and fallen heroes.

In this rather crazy suburbia of superlatives, what better camera to document life’s excesses and the ‘beautiful people’ than the ultimate quality full-frame DLSR, the EOS 5D Mark III? I pick up the phone to ask him how he’s getting on with it. “Dave, hi, I’m just in the car. OK if we talk while I drive?” he asks. It’s a Californian freeway conversation, I muse. And so we begin...

If you’re unaware of Lorenzo Agius, then may I direct you to that ‘90s cult movie ‘Trainspotting’ and his iconic images of the film’s main characters, in animated poses, starkly shot in black and white with an orange tint. The posters, simply designed with bold white Helvetica type, introduced us to the likes of Renton, Begbie, et al, and broke Lorenzo into the big league. And as the stars of the film went on to find fame and fortune, so did he.

A year later, and a portrait he took in London of Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, in bed with then-wife Patsy Kensit, defined ‘Cool Britannia’ for Vanity Fair magazine. A 12-month graduation as a fully paid-up celebrity photography was complete. He was on the map.

A lover of people

The secret to a successful portrait is your connection with the subject, any portrait photographer worth his memory cards will tell you that. A rapport – be it negative or positive – translates into eye contact and the eyes, as they say, are the gateway to the soul. “I love people,” Lorenzo says, “even the ones who cut me up on this freeway!”

“I love what I do, it’s not a 9-5 job and it’s certainly not ‘work’ in the traditional sense,” he admits. “I’ve always had a fascination with people, and I guess the best photographers are the nosy ones. I like to get to know my subjects, mess around with them if they’re in the mood, ham it up, whatever. The best pictures are the ones when they forget that I’m there to photograph them. Even for just a split second. It only takes 1/60sec after all. It’s about capturing that defining moment.”

© Lorenzo Agius

Actress Saoirse Ronan, photographed beautifully against a plain white background. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/3.5, ISO 500.

Life in the fast lane certainly has its moments. And while Lorenzo is enjoying being at the top of his game, he’s certainly not taking it for granted.

“I started coming over here to Los Angeles every three or four weeks.” he remembers. “It just got to the point where I thought ‘this is ridiculous’ and I realised that I needed to move here full-time. So about five months ago I finally decided to do exactly that. It was quite a wrench, leaving London and family behind. It’s been a bit like starting again,” he reflects. “Relocation is always a big thing in life, no matter how you do it, and that’s been a big preoccupation for me this year.”

Keeping pace with work – and technology

Packing and unpacking boxes hasn’t stopped Lorenzo enjoying one of his busiest years yet as a portrait photographer, though. The easy-nature of his demeanour and the exceptionally high-quality images that result from seemingly “playing about” [his words, not mine] belie a talent and a devotion that borders on obsession.

“It’s actually really hard work, with a lot of passion and dedication thrown in for good measure,” he laughs. “If you’ve got a passion and a drive it will consume you and photography has consumed me. From the equipment to the people I photograph – I wake up every day and already I’m planning. It’s not like you can give it up and walk away – in fact I don’t think it would let me.”

“It’s like any creative profession, it gets under your skin,” he continues. “I never went into this business to make money; you get into this profession because it’s a love. Sure, one can accomplish the dizzy heights if you devote yourself to it. I mean, a classic example is the fashion photographer Mario Testino. He used to shoot for Ms London, a free magazine you used to get on the tube in London many years ago. And now he’s one of the most successful and richest photographers in the world. So there’s the proof right there.”

© Lorenzo Agius

Actor Chris Hemsworth, dynamically framed in black & white with great shadows. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/400sec at f/8, ISO 320.

Being prepared to sacrifice everything for your art is a test of anyone’s character, but there’s one thing Lorenzo refuses to give up on, and that’s his quest for quality. For him, a camera’s ability to capture colour and detail is absolutely paramount. “My work these days ranges from editorial to advertising,” he advises, “And when your images are being blown up to billboard size you need a camera that can cut it.”

“That’s why I have a couple of EOS 5D Mark IIIs in the bag,” he reveals. “I absolutely love them – 90 per cent of my work these days is done with them. They are a massive improvement over the previous 5D [Mark II] with a sensor that allows you to shoot in near darkness. That’s brilliant for photojournalists, but I work at the other end of the scale and quality, low noise and sharpness are the key factors for me. I thought my old EOS-1Ds Mark III was good, but these new 5D Mark IIIs are absolutely fantastic.”

Along with Canon’s highest-ever megapixel full-frame DSLRs, Lorenzo is committed to his lenses, too, with a selection of L-series primes being the glass of choice. “The EF50mm is a lens I just adore,” he admits. “That and the EF35mm are the ones I love the most. In fact all the primes from Canon are great but those two are my favourites. If you cant do the job on either of those two, you might as well give up.”

Quality, lighting and post-production

As well as a good camera and good lenses, quality lighting is naturally the key to a great portrait and Lorenzo uses a variety of systems depending on the job. “I use Balcar and Elinchrom lights, plus Profoto, too,” he reveals. “I hire the gear in when I need it. I don’t actually have my own lights as such, as I don’t like to be restricted to just one system. I bring in what I know I will use.”

© Lorenzo Agius

Actor Eric Bana, photographed against the light through a doorway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/3.5, ISO 200.

“Some days I will even shoot in Kino Flo lights (fluorescent tube-based systems, optimised for the colour temperature of film and digital video). “These are like tube lights and sometimes I also use HMIs, when I am in a big set where flash is less effective. I use all sorts and like to play around with things.”

“The post-production side I leave to my editor and retoucher, but I always oversee what they do. It’s really about making the situation better but I don’t like heavy handedness when it comes to retouching. Flatter, yes, but keep it real.”

He continues: “Normally on a shoot I have a team of two assistants and a digital operator, so that’s three people plus me, but if it’s a big job then I’ll have four or five assistants. We might have a lot of sets to build, lighting to arrange and so on. Although working on location is my favourite type of shoot it can be a bit more stressful because it’s unpredictable. Big sets are great because you are creating an environment that you have total control over. You can bring the outside in. The biggest problem for me, of course, is the clock,” he warns. “I’m always up against it, so the more people that can help me achieve the image, the better.”

“If you don’t get it done quickly you run out of time. And time, especially over here in Hollywood, is the critical factor when working with high-flying people, especially film stars. Their schedules can be a bit ridiculous sometimes...”

Never stop planning, or learning...

It’s been an important year for this particular Canon Ambassador, and as Lorenzo starts to look back at 2013, he’s already halfway through planning his activities for 2014. “Yeah, this year has been a big step for me now that I am officially based in America,” he reflects. “I want to do a book next year, that’s for sure. It’s a long-term project but I have an amazing archive of stuff, with many portraits of stars who were very much at the beginning of their careers when I shot them, which now makes for fascinating viewing and so I’d love to see that published. An exhibition would be good too. But my main desire is to keep up the good work and try to get more interesting jobs.”

“I never think that I’ve made it and I don’t put myself beneath anyone,” he ponders. “There is no hierarchy in photography. One painter doesn’t look at another painter and say ‘I’m better than you’, for example. We all learn from each other – there’s such a lot of talent out there, not to mention great cameras like the EOS 5D Mark III...”

Biografie: Lorenzo Agius

Lorenzo Agius

Following several years working as a photographer’s assistant in London, Lorenzo Agius went freelance in 1989. Specialising in advertising, portraits and still life his big break came when he shot the publicity posters for the film Trainspotting in 1996. Shortly after that he secured a cover shoot for Vanity Fair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ issue and shot the stills for the Spice Girls movie. He now has a reputation as one of the world’s leading portrait photographers shooting celebrities including Madonna, Muhammad Ali, Johnny Depp and many other Hollywood A-listers.


Actress Jurnee Smollett, at home in Los Angeles. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 90mm; the exposure was 1/80sec at f/5, ISO 250.