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Lesson 7 from: Capturing Authentic Portraits

Chris Orwig

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Lesson Info

7. Light

Next Lesson: How It's Done

Lesson Info


But onto this topic of light; what it is, how do we think about it? I'm going to divide it up in two things, there's things that we talk about with light, like intensity, direction, quality of light, the color of light, and the mood that light allows us to express; we've all heard people say photography is writing with light, we have different ways to work with light, open shade, as you know I'm a big fan of, which is where buildings blocking the sun, and if there's someone in the shadow, looking out towards the brightness, and backlight or side light, where the sun's behind the subject; window light, where it's coming in through an opening, and it's a little bit directional, garage light, reflected light, where you're standing next to a bright, white building, and that light's coming back towards the person. And I think all of these things with light are very important, but there's one part of light that we tend to miss, and here, I'm going to go to a Buddhist saying, which is we need...

to "learn to see "the cloud in the tree," and what this saying refers to, is this idea that without the cloud, there is no tree, and that the cloud is somehow inside of the tree; this may be a little bit of a reach for some of us, but stick with me, the cloud, rain, rain, seed, seed grows into tree, cloud rain, the tree grows, are you with me on that? So it's the interconnectedness, nature of things, and with light, what that means, is not just seeing how light affects someone, but light that's actually within, and we hear this, you'll say that bride is so radiant, that's not like someone shining a spotlight on her, that's, I mean, and my bride, if you've ever seen her, she was radiant, she was glowing, there's a sparkle in their eyes, and it's almost like it's welling up from within, it's coming out. And if you've ever seen people, you almost sense, there's light there, and that's what our job as portrait photographers, is to capture, it's to work with all of that other stuff, I don't know if I can go back, yeah, it's to work with all this, but ultimately, this isn't enough; it's enough if we want to get so far, but what I'm trying to say is let's go even more, and if we want to do that, then we gotta go to this, see the cloud in the tree, so maybe, how does that relate to portraits, to see the light within someone else? Ask, and not just look for, oh yeah, that light is making their nose look this way, sure, but then also discover what is that within; Drew, that guy shines, right? Are you guys with me on that? I mean, he walks into a room, it's like, that guy, there's something about him, can't quite articulate it, I love to capture that; okay, onto the types of light, window light, my sister, another artist, it's that light that's coming directional, but it's really soft, and it's really poetic, and it's really intriguing; other types of light is- another self portrait, it's from ambient light, or it's weather, it was a little bit of a foggy day, and there's just beach in the background, or it's an urban environment, and it's just the light that we had that time of day, so sometimes it's just using that. On the Brooklyn Bridge, and it was earlier in the day, and the sun hasn't completely intense, so sometimes you're just using the light that you have, this is in the mid day, but it's just in a little bit of shade, and looking up; if shade's a little bit subdued, but that up look, and this is where your question, which was so great, it's Bruce, right? Yeah, Bruce, and that up look is like, "oh, you're looking," you know, it just has a different feel to it, or the backlight that we talked about; backlight creates atmosphere, and texture, and backlight is wonderful, and this is a surfer friend, Brittany, and you get this idea of just shooting straight into the light, you know, and what it does is it creates this mood and atmosphere and feeling, here are different types of moods, again, more direct into the light, this is light kind of back, but it's also kind of above, almost like a waterfall cascading down behind. This is Joshua Tree, one of my best friend's son, out there, a couple months ago, and again, it's this morning kind of light, just kind of coming in and filling in the scene, or these warm tones, you know, these are so fun to do, and we can create portraits in all of this thing; it can go cool, too, because sometimes people think backlight it's one way, it's a multitude of things; we need to expand that vocabulary, it even can come sideways, so this is backlight, but do you see how it's hitting on the side on both of these images, like right here? It's hitting over here, it's not like the sun is right behind the person, but it's back and side, so even that subtle shift, and what I mean is this, if we look at this example, this is a recent picture of a friend, who's a painter; this is the first picture, this is the sidelight of the sunset, and i just didn't like it, I didn't like the feeling, it didn't really do much for me, so I'm literally walking, maybe 10 feet around her, and what's so funny, I didn't realize it's like, she was working on the top of the painting, so her hand is almost in the same spot, her feet, you know, it's the same moment, it's just 10 seconds later, and that's where that backlight, if you want to create that kind of look, can do that thing for you. This is open shade type of shooting, and this is working in just a shady area, these are all open shade type of scenarios; this one's kind of funny, because I talked about posing a bit, this is probably the worst pose I've ever done outside of the frame; I like the image, but the only good light was really, down low, so I said, "hey, what if you go down, low," and so she's like this, you know, just sneak into this little space of light, but it works, doesn't it? So it's figuring out how you can move within that area; we saw that picture, this one it's just a doorway, this is kind of in a doorway looking out; this is my daughter in our front door, we were about to go to something, and you could see a little bit of our house behind, or living room behind, but I just darkened it up, and then, this is last week, this is about an hour after I shot, because once I finished, I took the picture, but this is finding locations kind of, what I think of as on the side of the road, so this, when I saw this plant, right here, which you can't totally see, I was like, "Yes, this is it!" (laughter) And I know, it doesn't look like much, but it's the hills of Malibu, over the oceans, there, but what it was, is this plant had these little, delicate kind of things, so I knew that all I needed to do was to get the person I was photographing there, you can kind of see them, they're just these little, wispy things, because I know what backlight is; anywhere else in that, I would say within a half mile of where we were wouldn't have worked, but that little, teeny plant was what allowed me to work within that space, so sometimes you're thinking, "okay, where's the angle of the sun?" It wasn't up, but I knew that if I got low enough, you know, I could get down, there, I could get it some backlight so I could create some atmosphere, I could work with the texture, because I know that creates texture, are you with me on that? So part of it's finding those things, so there's that spot in that image, again; okay, let me see if I can click past it, this is the garage lighting of a friend, we didn't have anywhere to go, I said, "do you have "a painter backdrop?" He just tied that up, and I have this, which was Bruce's good question, I wanted to get a little high, so I would experiment with that; I didn't like what he was wearing, so he threw on a different shirt and a hat, but this photograph is from here, Rodney Smith, mentor, photographer, this is his kitchen door and his assistant, or studio manager, says "that's how "he greets me every morning, he sits at that door, "and is like 'hello!'" and talks about what they're going to do for the day. So I'm like, "I gotta get a picture of him, there," right? So all that it is, is you see that there's a little bit of darkness in the shadows above, or in his eyes, because he's pretty close to the main light source, if he would have been back in more, it wouldn't have been quite like that, but I love the environment, and the mood that you're able to create, there. This is last week, I usually don't shoot my set, but this was, again, photographing, this is an actress, she's been in movies like Transformers, Immortals, all these things, but the point is, is where we meant to shoot was not ideal, there was nothing, I mean, it was so nondescript, but I had this backdrop thing, which I used, and my cousin grows her own Indigo, so she made that thing for me, so I was like, I gotta shoot with it, so I just taped it to the wall, and you get what you can do, there's no overhead garage door, so a friend is just holding up a piece of foam core above, I'm inventing my own, little garage, right? And then you kind of see the different looks that you can create within that space; this one was first photograph was on this wall, and then I said, "I want to come around, here, with a little more light coming out," and then, this is that photograph that you can make, so it's just this ordinary stuff, and that's part of what I'm trying to show, here, I don't have a backdrop stand, occasionally, I'll carry foam core, but usually it's just myself; you can do this stuff, right? You don't have to have all these elaborate things; under the water, under the surface, and the light coming through, sometimes is more interesting than above the surface, as we've talked about, it's looking for that fire inside, in the person, so it's not just, and I'm trying to counterbalance, because sometimes people are like, "okay, great, I'll shoot open shade "and garage doors, and I'll create great pictures," no, you won't; fire inside, the light within, lights it's illuminating. When I taught at Brooks, it was, and I'm going to rewind a little bit, it was in an era when going to photography school was a really big deal, CreativeLive didn't exist, learning photography meant you had to go somewhere to get your knowledge, and one student, who was there, came from South Africa, and was just killing it; he was winning all these contests, he was dominating in that space of fashion and portraiture, and I tell this story with permission; he went home to visit his Dad, and I'll just go black, for a second, and he flew back to South Africa, and he told one of his buddies, "one of my goals is to get a portrait "of Dad while I'm there," the most significant person in his life, he's photographed all these California people, which was great, but he needed to do something that meant something to him. So he gets back down there for his visit and returns, and his buddy said, "did you get the shot of your Dad?" And he's like, "no, you know, the light was never right," and it's a tragic story, and then a few weeks later, a couple weeks later, he found out his Dad died, and he was too trained to find everything that was just right, he got too good for himself, and he would say the same thing, himself, and that's why he allows me to share this story, that sometimes, you work with what you have, and sometimes you say, "yeah, my external "light isn't great, I don't care, there's fire within, "and I'm photographing that thing," and he would have much rather have had that picture of his father than the one that met his criteria, his critical sense on what light should actually be.

Class Materials

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Ratings and Reviews


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!

Student Work