Concepts of Authentic Portraiture


Capturing Authentic Portraits


Lesson Info

Concepts of Authentic Portraiture

Okay, how do we do this? So what I wanna do is look at some images. And I wanna do that, we'll jump to light room on my computer. And part of the reason I wanna go to light room is it to walk through the concept of what this looks like in a small way with different shoots. And, what I found is, I've had a chance to sit down with some of the world's best photographers through teaching and meeting these different people. And I sat down with this one guy who's like one of the best of the best of the best. And he was showing his photographs he'd just taken that day and they weren't that good. And it was such a relief. (audience laughs) It's like, oh, you know. But I saw his progression, which was interesting. So that's a little bit of what I want to do here is progression. So how do we do this? And how do we keep three things in mind, those questions? What is a portrait? What makes a portrait good? And then, why does portrait matter? So I'm in Costa Rica with my buddy Martin, one of my bes...

t friends and his son. And we're just playing in the ocean. The camera's in the water housing. When the wave would come, his son would jump off his shoulders over the wave and it's just more of this... They're not good photographs yet but, you know, when something fun's happening, you just wanna photograph it. And he's climbing up again. And then this isn't quite a portrait but I think it captures a nice moment. And that's what you're looking for. Why it becomes nice is, it's a little bit still in a range, at least for me. And so I'm getting, but I'm still just kinda having fun. I'm not thinking, I'm gonna create a portrait of my buddy. But then I see this and Why am I not in full screen? Then I see this. The way his son was holding his head, and the connection of them, for some reason, that was it. And so I swam a little closer to them, And then I needed to make the turn of the intent, right? If you're gonna create a portrait, you have to have intent. You can capture moments, but in portrait you need intent. And so then this, at least for me, is a portrait of these two people. And so as we start to try to do this, I mean really, the progression might be something... Let's say it's like this. It's like this, where we're just goofing around, and it's a little bit more arranged, and then you see a moment, and then you capture the portrait. And so what we have to do collectively, us as photographers, is think through those steps. Let's look at another scenario. Yeah? Just a question for you on this. Are you interacting with them? At this point, yes. So you're now? At this point they're here and I'm like Hey you guys, can I create a picture of you? And then that's when they turn to me and I'm directing them and then, you know, I take the picture. So you're observing and then directing. Yeah. If I'm creating a portrait, I'm directing. If it's I don't wanna portrait, I'm not directing. So this isn't directed. This is just arranging moment. So that's a really important thing that for those of us who wanna create better portraits, that's where the individuality comes in, right? 'Cause part of it's, it's saying, But what do I wanna make? What's interesting to me here? And how do I make those things? So let's look at another one. This one I'll start backwards, how about. This is someone who is a big influence on my life, Lynda Weinman and she founded And she saw in me a teacher before I knew it was there. You ever had those people that believe in you before you believe in yourself? One of those people. So I wanna get a portrait of her, which captures, one, how I feel about her, and then also the keen sparkle and what not in her eyes. And these I think are two of those images. So how I get there, my workflow is something like this. So, you just have to work with where you are, right? With portraiture, this kinda style, it's not like, Come to my studio at two o'clock and sit down for three hours. It's like, you're just seizing the moment of where it is. So I see this and I think, oh my gosh, this is the best location ever. Looks like a nondescript, not very interesting building. But I see an overhang, I see somewhere I can put in the shadow, and then over here is just bright sky on this side. It's similar to that tent I was talking about. People call it cave lighting, tent lighting, garage lighting, doors, you know, all those kind of things. And so here's another look of that. When I see this I'm like this is a portrait studio extraordinaire. And there it is. And here is why. Not only are they in the shade, I have white concrete, are you kidding me? White, oh, white illuminated. And then the big sky in the background brings the light in the eyes which is where you get the sparkle. I really like light inside of eyes. And so, I ask her to do the portrait, and this is the horrible first portrait. Let me impersonate it. Lyn is amazing, anyway, she's a good friend, too, so I don't think she would be upset. It's like this, cheese, you know, and I'm like okay, I gotta work a little bit. And then maybe I'm working in closer and we're talking, still not quite there. I do need to get in closer. Maybe try a little bit of an angle. And then I get it. And then here is the kind of the post production you see here. So it's just, why this one didn't work, the composition is close, near eyes in focus, everything. But the eye isn't quite high enough in the frame. I think so highly of her I want her to be a little bit up. And then, obviously, the orange of the background of the building, I knew I could deal with that, like especially a solid pretty even color. And if you were to see my post production you would say like oh, that's too easy, that's silly. It's so how easy it is. And that's part of, you know, with backgrounds and different things, I'm aware of that if I don't have the opportunity to change it up. We'll talk about backgrounds later. And then here is another scenario. This is using light, but just trying to figure out if light's gonna come in from the side, it's not really working. And then I just change her posture facing the light a little bit more. And so in this one, I think if we were to compare kind of what we were hoping for, it perhaps looks like this, right? So we're going from that to here to this to that. Are you with me on that? That those are a lot better. At least they're closer to my vision of what I wanna accomplish. Also, I'm sneaking a little tip about photography that you photograph people and things that are interesting to you. I mean, that's the whole deal. This is buddy of mine who designs shoes, which are the shoes I'm wearing, and he's just this amazing mentor, someone inspires me. And he's been... Hawkesbury, this brand, is doing this little film on him, and so I'm gonna do some still photographs. This is a little bit more about anticipation. And here he is talking to the film guys. They wanted to film somewhere else, I'm like, you guys, we gotta go up in the mountains. We went up in the mountains, they parked the car by this fence, which I wasn't keen on. But they kinda had to do their thing. Meanwhile, I'm gonna sneak in my thing. And so I'm thinking, I wanna get Steven next to this car. And so I get in next to the car, he's still talking to them, and he's still chatting with them. Someone said something funny there probably. And then he looks at me like oh, Chris wants to do a portrait. And he becomes a little bit too serious, at least for me. And so then I say hey, just look off a little bit. And then this to me is the picture, let me show you, and then the post production, this is where it goes. Little bit difficult to see up here for you guys, but you get the gist, right? My exposure is down, you know, it's probably too low, but I wanted warmth, I wanted all that's light and then I wanted to get rid of everything back here so it's him and this to me is him. And if you knew him, you would be like, That is Steven Tiller, like you nailed that, right? And so in that case, was there direction in nudge? Yeah. It was, other people didn't even know I was doing it but I got there, I knew the sun was where it was gonna be and I had to do it. Then, they wanted him to get in the car so I knew I needed a photograph, too of that. And he was just gonna drive away. But this is where I said, Steven, hey look towards me for a second, I need a portrait. This is the shot. You can tell I don't like the fence in the background. I never would've parked the car there but I know in post I can fix it. And this to me has the energy of who he is, as well. So again, for thinking in progression, it's perhaps something like this. Oops. There we go. Something like this, right? And this is what we all need to start seeing. We're seeing like there's light, there's moment, there's personality. I just need to get them there, right? And I need to get them there in kind of a natural way. Now if I said hey Steven, I wanna do a really cool portrait of you where you're authentic and look kind of badass and awesome and everything, I want you to sit in this car and look off in the distance like you're pondering something. Would I have gotten a good picture? Would he'd even done it? No. Right? But we got him there. And then same thing down here. I just needed a little extra like, right in his driveway, just hey, wait man, give me this. And I'm arranging myself a little bit to try to do that thing. So sometimes it's opportunistic and that's the nature of the game. Other times I think it's, what I call, shift tasking. It's not multi-tasking. What I mean by that is you're on task for one job, or one thing, and then you also add something else. And so here I'm shooting some portraits for this course I did on portrait lenses. And I'm talking about how wide angle lenses distort and we have some goofy fun with that. And then we shoot some other pictures with different lenses and we look at the characteristics of it. But the point is it's not like great photography. It was good instruction, right? And the same thing could be said like you do corporate work for a client, or maybe you're photographing a wedding and you're getting the wedding, and you're doing what you need to do but then also you're also like what if I added? What I'm calling like authentic portrait to what we're doing here? And so for that I just said hey Lyn, can I also create a more significant portrait before you leave? And it's just like five feet away. Wee flat behind, that's the light. And even that I like. And then you kinda see what I'm trying to do here with these type of things. Same person. Isn't that wonderful? So this one... We could keep going through those but the idea perhaps let's just choose these, it's that to that, right? Burn this image into your mind. Again, not my photography, but the concept which is you're gonna be in situations where, I don't know what it is, like I'm just gonna say Kenna, for example, she's gonna be a host for someone who is really, really fascinating, like this amazing person. Her job is to be host which I'm gonna say is a professional role. But she could also get that portrait of that person, right? Or you're gonna be at a party, or I'm gonna be with my uncle at a party and he's this president of a university. I'm gonna hang out with him as uncle, but then also I'm gonna get presidential profound portrait. You're with me? I'm just trying, like you add on. Like it's this add on thing. And when you can do that, it can change your career. One example, remember that guy Todd? The photo underwater, surf? He's a surf photographer. When he was one of my students back in the day, he only shot action sports. And he did an amazing job at that. But the trick with action sports photography is if, and not belittling it, but if you see one surfer doing the turn, you've seen a lot of surfers doing a turn, right? And you don't know if they're connected to that surfer, right? You just know, well they're standing on the beach, 500 millimeter focal length lens and they got the shot. So I said Todd, if you can add portraits to the mix, you know, it'll be crazy. And so he built that up. And I think he's almost mourning on for his portraits now and the other thing and he has both, right? And the reason why he is literally one of the best in the world, is he's really, really good at water action stuff. Like really, really good but he also has something else. Are you with me on that? That's what I'm trying to encourage you to ask yourself is there this other thing that we can do? Okay, next let's look at... We'll go surfing. I go to surfboard factory, it's not kind of fun, all these surfboards, they're in the process. Imagine you're surfers for a moment, you're like oh yes, this is so cool! You know, and then you go in the shaping area and they're working on board. And I'm there to do a portrait. I'm just trying to figure out this place. Do you ever figure out things with cameras? You're like what's going on here? You take a picture of it, it kind of gives you an understanding you wouldn't have had. This is the ventilation system. You know, bringing it all that. And then I saw this and I'm like oh! You know, this is this is it 'cause you know what it is, right? Warehouse door. Bzzz. White light bouncing back up, you know? Open shades, you know? And I gotta figure out how to do something with this and I have this surfer who I meet up with who oh sorry, wait, that's not the surfer. This is the door looking in, this is the door looking out, this is the guy who delivers the blanks. He's just a great, old character. He wasn't very happy, but then I was like hey, can I get a portrait of you? So he turned that way because I also wanted to test out my theory is the light good? And it's like yeah, I think this is good. I think is a kind of interesting portrait of him, as well. And then the guy I photographed this guy named Rob, he shows up and he's talking on the phone. The light's behind him. And I'm trying to get him into place and he's goofing around at first. He showed up with this minivan you always wonder what kind of cars like people like famous people drive. In the surfing world, he's one of these famous guys. He pulls up in this minivan, opens up the back. It's like full of surfboards, top to bottom and I'm like what is he doing? He gets out of a box of donuts and starts eating these donuts. (laughs) Just this character, right? So he's in this kind of goofing around mode, and so I'm just talking to him. And what people will say about Rob is you can never take a bad picture of him, it's not true. I mean, he's a dynamic person. You can see here he's sort of like, you know, just messing around. (audience laughing) But I'm shooting through it, I'm not saying Rob, okay, stop it, you know? Be serious, sit down, be still, you know, whatever. That wouldn't work. Shooting through it, shooting through it. I'm trying to figure out the light, I'm working, I'm like hey, dude, what if we walk over here? I'm trying to figure out my open light, I don't quite have it. And I'm still trying, I'm still trying, I'm kind of talking, shooting, who knows what's happening here? But then here, I'm like I found it, you know? He's not with me yet, but I found it. Because it's gone simple in the background, you can kind of see how the lights like open up at this point. And these kind of things, when working with natural light, it's probably like two feet away from the other thing and sometimes it's how close you are to the opening. So if you're really close or if you pull back, you just find that right little spot. And then, the picture, which I think is the picture that works, you guys with me on that one? That one works. And then the one right after that doesn't. And the reason why it doesn't work is he was with me and then he left and he's looking away. And then we went on to do other things. But it's that moment, you know? That moment where I've organized my stuff and I'm talking to him about it and I get the picture but you can't always hold someone there. Be with me for 10 minutes Rob, you know? He's got other stuff to do. Authentic portraiture. What is it? Well, I think authenticity when we see it, we tend to know it. The musician Ben Harper, if you listen to his music, you know through and through it's him. I think in images, when you see someone being who they are, you get it. The thing I think to keep in mind, it doesn't come quickly. It's not like hey, I'm authentic version of myself, it takes a little bit of time. It isn't easy, it's about character, personality, and it changes over time. What is authentic Chris Orwig today will be different than authentic Chris Orwig 30 years from now, right? We all notice about our different stages of life, so you can't always say well, yeah, I know this person as this, 'cause they're not that anymore, right? And so it's trying to find who they are in the here and now. Next, I think we can think about it sometimes poetically. This is a picture I took last week. And in this case, I call to minor, I give you W.B. Yeats. Here is what he said. A line will take us hours maybe; yet if it doesn't seem a moment's thought, our stitching and unstitching is naught. Here's a translation. If it looks contrived, if it looks like we've put in all this effort into it, we failed. And that's a trick with this space. And that's a trick with most photography. What happened with my students is they would show me their work, especially retouching before and after, after would always be worse, especially when you're new to Photoshop. And I would say what happened? And they're like I don't know, do you see how it's worse? I say yeah, but it took me eight hours. I'm like it doesn't matter. You have to make it look like it took you... It didn't take you any time at all, right? Same thing is true with what we do. And that's, I think, where the poetry of this type of image-making comes in. You do have to become a poet in a way that you express your rage, and you create photographs. What is it to be authentic? I think you know these people, this is Alex, one of the most authentic people that I know. He's completely uncontrived. He's genuine, he's honest, he's true. You know, these people where you're like I know what I get, like this is it, this is the real deal. And so part of it's tuning your brain to that, you know, it's like oh yeah, why is Alex so cool? What is it about this? Or authentic Mexican food versus non-authentic. Like why^do I, why, why, or authentic music versus, you know, what is that? And then we begin to create that vocabulary, then we can learn to find it. I think we like things that are authentic, whether it's art, acting, emotion, expression, style or sport, sport like a surfer, you can be a poser. What's a poser? Someone who acts like a surfer but really isn't a surfer, right? You can have it in art. You have art that you feel like it's just the authentic pouring out of who someone is in writing. I love what Hemingway says about writing. Writing is easy, there's nothing, he says there's nothing to writing, all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. You know, it's what's courses through your veins and it comes at a cost. We like it in novels and films, with leaders and friends, with interviews. One of the reasons I think Chase Jarvis' interviews are so good is they're authentic and raw, right? Imagine if they weren't. Imagine if they felt contrived and fake, you wouldn't wanna watch them. Same thing with music, same thing with brands. So authenticity, beginning to develop that vocabulary and then ask a question what's the deeper why? And I think the deeper why really is that because life is short, the brevity of life is what it makes it so grand. And one of the reasons we want desperately things to be so authentic and true is because life is fleeing. Like you don't have time to mess around with all the superfluous surface stuff. And I think we learn that more as we go through life, at least that's what I found. A slideshow story. One of my mentors, my story to becoming a photographer is really an odd one, I'll tell the short version of it. I was not a photographer, got hired to teach at a photography school to do web design. What in the world? It was in the era when photographers used to have to design their own websites, and so there I was. And I would sneak into my colleagues' photography classes and I learned photography. Then eventually, I went on to teach here. So it's sort of this strange thing. But anyway, while I was there, I would hang out with these other photographers I admire and respect more than anything in the world. I had no clue what I was doing and this one told the story about this time in the 80s when they used to have multimedia slideshows 'cause we were talking about multimedia stuff. And there was time when you had, those of you who can remember this, multiple carousels and music and the slides would go back and forth and it was really dramatic and photographers would get together. This was before creative live, before online, before... You know, it used to have to be in a room and you would experience this together, right? So this one slideshow is happening, this one photographer gets up, you know, actually it'd show after a show and everyone kind of knew each other 'cause it was a smaller niche back then, you know? If you were a photographer, it wasn't like everyone and their brother and my mom, it was like this kind of crew or a gathering of people. So the slideshow begins and someone shows these photographs and they're going through and everyone's enjoying the images and it's marching through, these are my photographs, just it's kind of placeholders. And people are watching and they're reacting and whatnot and they're noticing different things and then it gets to a point in the show when all of a sudden each advancing slide, there's no music at this point, each advancing slide becomes a little dimmer, a little darker and instantly everyone realizes whose work it is. It's one of their friend's and colleague's who's going blind and this is his way of showing how he's experiencing life. And it gets darker and darker. It's quiet, except for that sound of the chekooko, chekooko and then the next slide. And by the time that it's completely dark, he said the entire room was just in tears. And that has always stuck with me becuase the reason I think we take photographs and make them and share them is because, you know, one day we won't be able to, or maybe who knows when that will be because life is precious, right? And that's really what it's all about. And I think with that, the question is what then do we do? And I think this is what we do. We climb up one step at a time, try to figure out the gap, we get to the top of the ladder we toss off what we can. You know, this isn't about being perfect, this isn't about, you know, having it all together. You know, it's about taking a little bit of risk, taking those steps and giving it a toss.

Class Description

It takes a true connection between photographer and subject to create powerful portrait photography. A portrait doesn’t have to be dramatic or glamorous to be compelling. In fact, the best portraits often showcase people expressing their vulnerability or discomfort. It’s the photographer’s job to evoke and capture authentic emotion by establishing a genuine rapport with the subject.

Join veteran portrait photographer Chris Orwig to learn how to take meaningful portraits and use them to make your transition from amateur to professional. In this class, you’ll learn:

  • How to confidently approach a stranger and convince them to participate in a shoot.
  • How to connect with and pose your subjects naturally
  • Which lenses, camera settings, and light considerations to keep in mind during a shoot

Chris Orwig has created images for companies like Google, Adobe, and Patagonia, and his work has been published in Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Surfer Magazine. His experience has taught him how to keep a subject comfortable, authentic and engaged throughout a shoot. He has learned to deal with the technical demands of a portrait shoot - lighting, setting, constraints of time and budget - while also staying focused on the story he is trying to tell. 



Wow. This course was about so much more than "just" portraiture. Chris Orwig is a fantastic speaker and teacher - very engaging, down to earth, wonderful photo examples and live demonstrations on how to interact with the subjects you are photographing. I love that he brought in quotes and artwork and poetry, as well as some really great personal stories and experiences, to make his points. Fabulous! This man is an expert in capturing that spark in others - and you can totally see why. Really great.

Martin Backhauss

Amazing class and what a great AND inspiring trainer. Thank you Creativelive for giving Chris Orwig the stage. Perfect choice! Learned a lot but more importantly, I got so inspired by his presentation and that is what matters the most .....for me. Super grateful. THX CL!