Capturing Authentic Portraits

 

Capturing Authentic Portraits

 

Lesson Info

Why Portraiture

So what I want to do is share a few photographs and share a couple ideas as well about this whole idea of portraiture. At least for me, the most memorable and powerful and provoking portraits of all time, they share some sort of a common thread, regardless of the subject's age, their gender, ethnicity, vocation, beauty strength, weakness, sickness, health, whether they're a refugee, or a rockstar, or leader of the free world, whatever it is whether staged or set up, whether captured quickly, or over an extended period of time, whether painted, drawn, or captured on film, whether tack sharp or blurry, these portraits, at least for me, the most memorable ones, they are simple, strong, and true. I think they convey personality, they convey presence, emotion, values and ideals. They are not contrived or fake. In short they are authentic and real. Whether happy or stoic and sad, they make us feel, right? They somehow awaken the senses. And I think in simple subtle ways, they get beneath the...

surface, and they remind us what it means to be alive. They expand our understanding of life, of what it means to be human, and to be given this gift of time. And at least for me, this is authentic portraiture. And this is what we're trying to do. And what I'm hoping we'll do today, is that we'll explore this whole idea of how we create these images, where we're capturing the person where they're set apart, up and above, like this person here, and to do that, I think one of the keys is individuality, right? Because, when you think about a good portrait for a second, you capture the individual in such a deep way that it makes sense, but if it's just generic, it doesn't really connect, are you with me on that? And so then to do that we have to become individualistic ourselves, right? And I love how Emerson puts it. He says, "to be yourself in a world that's constantly trying to make you something else, that is the greatest accomplishment". And it might be one of the secrets to what we're trying to do, so whether you hear, those watching at home, are new and nervous to this, or just interested in adding this to an already flourishing craft, this is what we're going for. And then I have one word of caution. What happens with things that are kind of authentic and real is that they seem kind of simple and easy, right? Because it's like "wow it just looks so natural and real". Well it isn't. And we know that photography, at least I believe this wholeheartedly, photography is the easiest art form to participate in, just push the button, but it's the most difficult to define your own vision and voice. It's really easy to capture a portrait. Camera, button, boom. To create one that has meaning and depth, that's a whole other thing. And then it looks like it was effortless, and just kind of happened, believable, true honest, are you with me on that? That's where the difficulty lies. And so part of this requires that we figure out well, who are we, who's the subject and how do we make the connection between the two? So, in regards to what we're actually covering today, this in a sense is what it is. I think it's six different things. We're going to talk about vision and voice, and what are the ideas we're bringing to the table. What's our voice? What's our own unique stamp and style? We're going to talk about light, we'll do that in a nontraditional way. There's obviously light coming into this room, but there's also light within, so we're going to look at both aspects of that. We'll do some live shooting. This morning we'll do kind of a compressed smaller shoot, to get the wheels spinning a little bit, and in the afternoon we'll do one which is a bit fuller, and we'll talk about some other topics as well. We'll discuss essential gear, and things to think about how we work with our gear and handle it. How do we connect and direct and provide feedback to the subject which is essential? And we'll discuss how we can grow because if we want to capture more interesting photographs, we have to become more interesting ourselves, and with portraiture that's it. I mean, that's a huge part of what this is, so there's some self-work that needs to be done. There's some side effects to what I've found is approaching portraiture from this authentic perspective, and I think it's these few things. One, it helps you find your element. This is a self-portrait. When I was there in the water, I had a friend help me, obviously because I was in the ocean and I had a beard and long hair, but when I was in the water, I was like, "this is my element, this is where I'm meant to be." Have you ever had that experience where you're in the zone and the flow and the element? In trying to approach photography from this authentic perspective versus trying to impersonate someone else, gives you that, and it's liberating, and it's wonderful. And what happens is if you find that in photography, it spills over into life. And that's kind of the beauty in this art, I think. And the other one is that it's an amazing way to fast-track your progress from amateur to pro. It may be a couple stories on that, two quick ones. One is I got my highest paying job, to photograph this five-star hotel because someone saw my portraits. And it was the oddest thing in the world, but he saw these portraits, the series I had done, and this guy just loved them and he said that I had this essence in what you're doing, I want you to photograph a hotel, and I was like "are you sure? I don't think I'm the right guy!" But it broadens the connection you have with people, or maybe another story, a little bit more related is, when I started to do campaigns, it was from the portraiture that meant something to me. People would see that and then they would hire me to do this bigger stuff. And so the secret isn't to chase the bigger stuff, it's to do what's authentic here and means something to you. If you can make something that means something to you, it's going to mean something to other people as well. And so it's sort of this opposite approach, right? It's like a sneak attack approach to becoming a pro, and it really works. I've been teaching for over a decade and I've seen student after student, create work like this and then all of a sudden, boom. And everyone says how'd you do it? Well I started photographing my friend, photographing my mom, my dad, my cousins, my sisters. One artist I met, they didn't go and hire a model that was maybe a lower level model that had an awkward pose with really amazing light, that didn't get them there. What got them there was the meaning inside, are you with me on that? And so that's a fun thing which is one of our side effects as far as what we're going to do. So, the question, I think with all of this, is where do we begin, and part of what we're going to do this morning is talk about that and I think the best place to begin is with this idea of the gap. Can you relate to this picture, at least with portraiture, that this is where you are and where you want to be? Or you see other people's work and you think, how did they do that? And part of what I'm hoping that I provide today, is a little bit of vision, my buddy holding the telescope there We're going to look at this differently, and then maybe shift our approach, like his problem really is he's tying his hammock to the wrong tree, right? He could just go over there and it would be fine. And I think that happens in portraiture a lot, and if we have this gap and we're honest about it, the good news is it's okay. That's why we're here, right? That's how we learn. And what I've found when I've taught photography is the people more in tune with the gap, they're the ones who get places. The ones who are standing there with their hammock and are frustrated and can't figure out, nothing's working, you don't get very far, right? But the one who maybe holds up the telescope and steps back, or someone takes a picture, this is what you're doing, and you say oh my gosh. I don't know if you've been there. I've been there so many times in my own photography where you realize, I can't believe that, or they just give you a little shift. One of my mentors said this thing to me once. I said I have a really hard time photographing models, and he was like, and this was early on for me, "Chris, you don't have to treat a model as a model. They're a person, with a mom, a dad, sisters, brothers. You're photographing a person, not a model." And I was like, "you're right, of course." And that changes the way you create the picture, are you with me on that? So it's these little things. The other thing that I think we want to do is take this perspective shift, and this isn't my photograph, this next one, this is my buddy Tod's, and if you look at it, can you figure it out? It takes a second, but it's Indonesia. It's Rob Machado, an amazing surfer, going left, getting barreled. He's surfing right? So it's inside of the wave looking back at it. Now we've all seen photographs of surfing thousands of times. I'm a surfer, I love the sport, so I've seen too many photographs. But I've never seen this. And sometimes when we just take that slightly different approach, all of a sudden, it illuminates how we want to change, or what maybe we want to do a little bit differently. And, quick story, can I tell you guys a surfing story just for fun? I live in Santa Barbara, California, and I love the sport of surfing. Has anyone surfed here in the room? Anyone tried it? Okay, so imagine that you love surfing and you're with me for a moment. This sport's amazing and you get out there and there's these ocean swells that generate waves thousands of miles away, and they finally hit your shore. So anyway, I get up early in the morning, I grab my surfboard out of the garage, I'm stumbling through, and I hit my shin on a bike or something, it just frustrates me. Have you ever had that happen to you where you're just like "ugh!" And then I get in the car, drive to the beach, and I check my email right before I paddle out. Major mistake, right? I'm like, ugh all these things, and I don't know about you, but emailing on a phone when you have a problem to solve and it's that small, and you can't- On a computer screen, I can sort of deal with it, but here I'm scrolling, "what did they say?" Ugh. Frustrated, grab my board, run down to the beach, and then I step on a sharp rock, and I'm just like "ugh" and I get to the edge of the sand, and I'm like "okay Chris, deep breath." And just that small shift. And then I open my eyes, and I see what I hadn't seen before, the sparkling stars above, the sun hasn't risen yet, and the ocean looks like it's glowing, and I'm thinking it's just because I took a deep breath, but then I jump in the water, and the bioluminescent plankton is going on, I don't know if you know this, but this stuff's amazing. And what happens is when the water's agitated, it glows bright green. It's something you can't invent. When you paddle on the water, there's this stream of bright green, and when you watch other people catch a wave, they're going down the wave and behind them is this strip of green light that's bright and then tapers away- I mean, it's amazing, right? So there I am, and all of sudden, the sun rises, and black turns to gold, and I scrape into this wave, and what you try to do when you catch a wave, it's kind of like catching a freight train. You're trying to run as fast as the train, and then hop on. You wouldn't just stand there and grab a hold. So you're going as fast as you can, and the sun's in my face and I can't see, and the water's spraying in my face, and then I drop in, and I'm behind the shadow of the wave, because the sun's on the other side because it's just peeking up, right? And all of a sudden, I look at the wave, and it's like a stained glass window. It's just the most beautiful sight you've seen. And then I see a silhouette, a dolphin, and I'm like "oh my gosh!" And then the dolphin and I proceed to ride this wave, and we're just going- it's like this dance with the dolphin inside of it, I'm on the surface. And then we get to where the wave closes out, which is kind of like, if you're driving, you get to a dead-end street, you can't go straight anymore, you have to turn. So I turn and go up over the back of the wave, and the dolphin launches out ten feet in the air. Right in front of me! It just goes and the crew out there in the water who see this, who witness this thing, as it launches out and then I kind of look at them, it's like this moment. And some of them just kind of nod. One of them kind of, reverenced. Couple shockas, one guy had double shocka, just double shocka, this is it. And I fall back in the water and everything is right. Everything is well. And I think of that Einsteinian question where he said the most important question to answer in our lives, do you know this question? He says whether or not the universe is friendly. And in that moment, I'm like, the universe is for us, for me, for all of us. This is right. So I think you can hear a story like that maybe, or watch surfing and think "I'm going to try this. I want to go to Costa Rica or Hawaii this summer and I want to get out there and see what this is all about." So you go to the surf shop and you get a surfboard. And if you've seen surfboards before, they're really cool. They're sexy, they're so cool that restaurants or people will buy them and hang them on the wall just because you want to look at the thing, right? It looks fast and interesting. It's kind of like camera gear. When you set camera gear out, people get really excited, and one of my favorite moments of that- I was shooting with a 300 millimeter lens. It's a huge lens, it's this big, and someone walked up to me and they said, "wow, that's a really neat lens." And I said, "yeah", you know? And they said, "how many megapixels does it have?" And I said, "two-hundred and fifty" without skipping a beat. Because lenses do have megapixels as we all know. Cameras do but it has two-hundred and fifty, and she just walked away like "two hundred and fifty, gosh." But gear is exciting to us. When you see gear- and that's good, and that's fine and that's part of what we do and that's part of the sport, right? But what you could do is grab that surfboard and run down to the beach and imagine you're super excited, and you could get there, and then someone says "here's how you surf, here's the thing. What you got to do is paddle, and then you strike the pose, you pop up! And that's how you do it." It's posing, right? Or you do this pose, or maybe you do this pose. And, yeah, posture's part of it, it's part of portraiture. Posture's really important. Posing can help. Yeah, you need your legs a little more than shoulder width apart, you probably want your knees bent, your arms at your side, you're not as balanced as your arms out, so sure. But it's not like you can just use a formula, are you with me on that? Or you can, it might get you going, but then you want to get past it. It's not just the pose but maybe it's how you feel inside, it's your mindfulness. Remember my shift? I would need to say, just take a breath. Because surfing's- if you've never done it, it's harder than it seems. And so before you get out there, just take a breath. Analyze the scene, how's the water moving, what's happening, where are the currents, where's it breaking, where's it safe, where are the rocks, where's there coral? And then, I think, from there, you also have to think about some of the small things, and one of the things that's really interesting is if you buy a surfboard, let's say for eight-hundred dollars, great surfboard, best surfboard in the world, whatever. If you didn't spend a dollar fifty on this, which is a little bar of wax, it wouldn't work. So in snowboarding or skiing, you put wax on the bottom to add glide, but in surfing you put it on the top so your feet stick. And without the surf wax you would slide off. Literally impossible to surf without a dollar fifty bar of wax. And so sometimes in surfing, I think, in portraiture as well, it's small stuff. Some of the things that you're going to walk away with today are like a dollar fifty tip. It's not rocket science, and maybe it's just a dollar fifty tip in taking your breath, you know? And if you walk away with that, I am more than happy, because I think it will change not just how you look on the surfboard, but how you feel inside, and how you feel inside will open you up to things that you might have otherwise missed, and so part of what we're doing in here is, I think, just that. And, in order to, like I said, to get this going, I want to talk about- do a little shoot with a friend.

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.