Capturing Authentic Portraits

 

 

Lesson Info

Shoot Prep Overview

And so, with the live shooting, I want to talk about our preparation. And for me, there's a couple parts to it. There's kind of your idea and vision over here. What do you want to bring to the table? What kind of portrait do you want to create? Where are you at? Are you going for a pretty picture, are you going for one that's profound, something in between? Do you just want it to be character? Character is a really interesting word. I was in a bike shop, cause I had my bike repaired last week, and I was in a shop. The one I usually go to was closed, so I went to this other one, I mentioned that to the guy. And I said, oh your guy's shop's so cool, I've never been in here before. He's like, yeah, ours is a little bit gritty, it's not quite as remodeled, but we have more character here. I was like, totally. You know those shops where have that? Can you imagine a surf shop with character? Or one that's like in a mall? The mall one just isn't as cool. In the town where I grew up, there was...

a surf shop that had sand on the floor, I mean they had no floor, they had sand there, and so you would take off your shoes and walk in, it felt like yeah, this is, you know. So anyway, so what's the idea, is it character? Then there's the gear, am I prepared with my gear? Do I have it out and ready and have I done some of those things? So again, maybe it's just a simple-- it's like if I wax the surfboard, right? And that's an essential part, because if I'm photographing someone, let's say I'm photographing you-- remind me of your name again? Bruce. Bruce, yeah, so I'm photographing Bruce, and if all of a sudden I say, oh shoot, I don't have a battery, or a card, or my lens is dirty, then the connection's broken, you with me on that? And then there's the, what spirit are we bringing? You know, I've chocked the sign aloha. Do we have that, is it a warm spirit? It doesn't have to be; it could be kind of a solemn spirit or a melancholy spirit, that's fine. Is it extroverted? That's good. Introverted? That's wonderful as well. In my years of teaching, what I've found is there's this strange myth about portraiture that you need to be charismatic; it isn't true. And what I've found in my classes, I would teach, let's say, a three month long class at the university level, the charismatic students would do the best work early on, but by the end of the class, it was the introverts, those who were shy, who were just killing it. Like they did; it was so profound. And the reason is, is because often if you're shy or introverted you're really observant and you're aware. And sometimes melancholy can do that for you. I don't know if you've ever heard this whole idea, but if you're skippy and happy and just overly happy, you don't notice things, cause everything's happy. But when you're a little melancholy, you're like, "Oh, there's a little flower "growing on the side of the road." Or whatever it is, right, your awareness changes. So anyway, the trick is to think, what am I bringing? And how is that authentic to me, not what someone else does, not impersonation but me. And then also what's my role. And a lot of times I think my role isn't just to see lights or capture light, but it's to shine some light. And that's what I wanna do when I'm trying to do it. So I'm thinking about those things even now for this shoot we're about to do. Then I wanna think about the subject. The subject, when they get in front of a lens, it feels like a telescope or a microscope and they're feeling scrutinized, right? Cause you point a camera at someone, especially if you have a longer lens, and they're like, "Oh my gosh," and they're self-conscious. I think this, and this, and how do I look, you know, all these things tend to happen, right? And we tend to look in mirrors for reassurance. You probably all looked in a mirror this morning before coming, and you were just like, "Is my hair okay?" or "Did I button up all my shirts?" or whatever it is. And so we have to become that mirror. Remember, someone has this thing and sometimes I think once you point a camera at someone, you can feel like, "Oh my gosh, I shouldn't be "in front of the lens; why are they taking my picture?" You know, you don't feel very good. And so it's really important as far as how we approach someone. Because that first moment is really the thing. If I photograph someone-- I'm gonna pretend it's my stand, so I'm not doing it to any of you, and I meet this subject right here and I look them up and down before I say hello, I'm done. A good picture won't be made, cause I've just become that. I've forgotten this, right? And the other part of that is thinking about how what we see depends on us and some of our preparation. So rather than photographing an accountant, I'm remembering, oh yeah, this person's an amazing rock climber and she plays electric guitar. And so how I'm seeing this person, the shift from accountant to rock climber guitarist is up to me. And that will also affect what we create. So I gotta think about that stuff. As far as my tips, one of the keys. Remember, I said bullet point form. This is perhaps one of the most important things, at least I've found, in portraiture, is to never photograph a model, musician, athlete, artist, surfer, or CEO. And here's the reason why. I mean I already said it earlier, right? There's more dimension; we have more dimension than all of that. If you typecast, if you photograph someone as that thing, that's all you get in the picture. You get the CEO, right? Or you get the leader of the free world, or whatever it is, you know? But in authentic portraiture I think we want more. We want more than that thing. And so what I like to think of is always photographing these things, a complex human, someone with a soul, heart, and mind, with interests and dreams, with a past, with pain, with joy, and that list could keep going on. And if we can make that shift-- it's a subtle shift, but remember our hammock guy? Or even the shot of the underwater-- that subtle shift, yeah, it makes all the difference in the world. We need to stop looking at the surface of things. Photography is about capturing the way we look. But here's the weirdest thing in the world: it's not about how we look in portraiture. I mean, it sounds so weird; it's actually not about the visual that we have there. And I think what we need to do is start searching for things like the soul, the essence, and maybe the reason. Like what makes someone tick, right? And we all have these things. There's this great Japanese concept, it's called ikigai. And what it essentially means is our reason for waking up. Like what is your reason that you get up in the morning? Why get up in the morning? It could be practical, because I have to take my kids to school. Or what gets me up in the morning is being able to see that sunrise while I'm riding my bike up in the mountains. I get up for that thing, you know? And there's a whole range of those things. So I'm gonna photograph Drew this morning and I know Drew through CreativeLive; he's a host here. He hosted my course at Photoshop week. Instantly, it just struck a cord, like okay Drew is this really fascinating person with so much dimension, more than a CreativeLive host, you with me on that? So I need to start to brainstorm how the heck am I gonna photograph him? And when it's a friend, it's really important that you do this. Or whoever it is; I do this with most of my shoots. I started to think about well, Drew is married, he's a host, he's been to Japan recently, he likes surfing, he has a VW Syncro, he likes roadtrips, he's really even-keeled. So you know some people are a little bit skittish? You know, I need to think about if they're a skittish person, well I need to kind of slow down, you know? It's like, if you have a cat that's skittish, you don't run into its face, you kind of walk and maybe you have a treat. But Drew's even-keeled, you know? He's so firmly planted on his feet. So I'm processing all of this, you with me on that? I'm also thinking about, he's a deep thinker, I've heard a little bit about his family, he's a connector, he likes making connections between people. He has a really keen and sharp intellect. He's done other things, like he's a counselor, he's a musician, he's a songwriter. To me, Drew has a lot of hope, just when you hear him talk. He's not optimistic in a shallow way, but it's like hope that more can be accomplished; more can be done. So all of this is my prep, right? Now, imagine, let's go back to surfing for a moment. Imagine if I didn't do this prep. How would I photograph the guy? CreativeLive host, kind of a corporate shot. And kind of a cool guy, right? And how good would the portrait be? About that, right? And who knows if I'll actually execute it today; I mean, that's what we'll have to see, but at least I'm preparing. At least I'm open to the option, the idea with that. And so part of what I wanna do is that. I also wanna think a little bit about the rhythm and the flow of what's gonna happen. And what I mean by that is that shoots tend to be broken down into different segments. We have our meet and greets; that's that thing where I said I'm not gonna, you know, look someone over. And that initial warm greeting is super important. You know how it is; we evaluate people in the first few seconds that we meet them, and all those things. I gotta make some kind of connection, so I gotta talk about something that-- I gotta get talking, right? I gotta go somewhere other than sit there, sit still, move this way, do that, picture; it ain't gonna work. And then I gotta give them some direction. Because when we talk to people we don't care how they stand. And maybe Drew will stand like this, cause he's upset, and that won't translate to camera. So I need to say like, "Well, hey, what if we try dropping your hands." I need to figure out how to do something. And a portrait implies that we're involved. This is different than street photography or different than journalistic photography; it implies that we're doing something. I'll show you some images on what this means. And then I got, you know, the feedback like I said, kind of saying, "Okay, hey, this is working," or "Why don't we do that?" Cause we all need feedback, right? I think we all need to know-- like you guys here, as far as the way you're sitting, your amazing eye contact, you're doing a great job, you know? It's nice to know that; this is perfect. And then the wrap, and with the wrap what's essential is to know like hey, this is almost done. Because as photographers, here's what happens. You wanna keep photographing for hours and hours. For the person being photographed, I don't know, at least for me after 10 minutes or something I am done. If you're like, "Chris, "can I photograph you for eight hours?" No; like, never. And so we have to have sensitivity to that and say eventually even though we probably wanna keep doing this, it's time to say (clicks tongue) "Let's wrap it, awesome," and we're done. So in my head, right now, I gotta tell you some of the things that are happening. When I photograph people, I never photograph in front of an audience. Very rarely, if I have an assistant, it's maybe one person. If I have a large set, I usually clear out the set. So in order to create the photographs it becomes very small. So this is very foreign to me, right? And at the end of the day I'm an introvert that plays an extrovert. So I prefer to connect on a one-to-one, not a one to whatever we have here. So in my head I'm nervous; and I'm always nervous when I shoot. It doesn't matter how often I do it, but there's always some of that. For me, I've learned I have to kind of channel that and not let that derail, but let that kind of heighten my empathy, heighten my awareness of where I am. And I also have to ask these important questions. Is the universe for me and also are you guys for me? Cause this is what can happen to me. Let's say with live shooting like this, as well. I can start shooting and think, oh my gosh-- the first couple of shots are not gonna be good, just for the record; you can write those off. But you guys could see those, and I could think, oh my gosh, they realized I'm not any good; I'm a fake, I can't do this. I can say all these great eloquent things but I can't even get it on frame. And then there's all these people watching and they're not gonna be into it. Or if you aren't here and I'm the subject, I'm like, oh my gosh, I'm photographing this person who I can't believe I have a chance to photograph and I'm blowing it. I'm not doing what I know I need to do. So whatever that dialogue is, I know that that's there. And I always have to ask the Einstein question that's like, well no, I can shift it. And I can say you know what? These people, they're seeing me blow the first few shots, but they're rooting for me. And they're like, "Chris, you can get there. "You know, you may have fallen off but I know that you're--" "I can't wait to see how he actually pulls this off, "cause there's no way it seems like it's gonna work." And everyone else online is maybe sending that vibe and they're like, "Yes, you can do this thing." And you see the shift though, in how that's gonna change? Because how I look, I mean Drew's even-keeled so it won't affect him that much, but it's gonna affect how the subject looks back at me. Cause they're gonna pick up on that. Even though being self-critical here to myself, who do they think I'm being critical to? Them; they don't know that I'm just thinking, oh, my mom said I couldn't do this, you know, whatever it is, that voice. So yes, so I need to get into that right headspace and try to shoot. And part of what that means maybe for the shooting side and the encouragement I'll give to you guys here and also watching, is give yourselves some breathing room. You know, maybe go back to that sport of surfing. If you fall of the wave, that's fine, you know? And it's probably even fun, and tumble with it and roll with it. And then get up and keep trying again. What I've found that authentic portraiture like this, using natural and available light, we're not using-- it's not like, you know, with studio light you set it up, it's all perfect; someone walks in and it's done. This is a little bit more of unearthing. It's a little bit more of discovery. It's a little bit more of experimentation. Now, some people will say, "Well, that's easy or--" And it's like, no, you know? It's almost like I think a poet trying to find the right word; it takes so much time and it's just a few little simple words. But once they're right, man, it really works. So anyway, that's what's going on in my head.

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.