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In the Narrative Portraiture series, photographer and teacher Chris Orwig explores the use of elements such as location and natural light to create images that tell stories about their subjects and produce a strong emotional connection.
In this first installment, Chris lays the groundwork for the series. The course begins with a discussion of portraiture and the characteristics that make an effective, story-filled portrait. Chris then explains the importance of establishing a connection with a subject and identifying those details that will help tell his or her story. Next, he explores elements such as location, natural lighting, and composition. The course concludes with an exploration of gear: the creative options that various lenses and cameras provide, and techniques for shooting efficiently and unobtrusively.
Here we are going to take a few minutes to talk about how we can use composition to create and tell interesting stories. We are in a fascinating location. We have some good train tracks and this old train bridge. We are going to explore how we can work with our camera in order to try to create or tell a story in this context. Now whenever I get the context I start to try to observe what do I have to work with. Whenever you have roads or lines or the train tracks like this and you have these interesting reading lines, I think I need to do something with that, so I start to experiment with my camera.
Now sometimes you can experiment or move your camera in a way that becomes a little bit awkwad and we have to think about the edges of our frames. zyou can cut something off, it's almost like a knife, and if there's something on the edge it's just disoriented. So we then have to reposition what we're doing to make it look a little bit more appealing, to let the viewer relax a little bit. Now we want to think about our subject matter and brightness value. What are on those edges? So, I mentioned here we have these leading lines.
One of the things I think that I might want to do with these lines is say position a subject so that they're surrounded by the same lines. So they somehow relate to the train bridge behind. I would lower the camera down so the tracks become more interesting but all of a sudden in doing the background of the bridge, which is so fascinating, is dwarfed. It's almost disappeared and the reason is that we're too far away from that subject. Now as we start to work in this context what we want to do is not put our subject in front of something. Rather we want to embed them within that context. And this is true this regardless of where we're shooting.
If we are photographing an artist in his or her studio, again we don't want them in front of the studio. We want them within that. So in order to do that here, one of the things that I think that we are going to need to do is to move forward. We are going to need to really approach this architectural element and bring the subject into that context and then explore how we can use our camera to create some interesting compositions. So let's go ahead and take a look at how we can do that. So one of the things I would want to think about with a location like this is trying to get my subject to somehow fit within the frame and again I am trying to move them closer here and I would ask my subject probably to stand in the middle and I would start to see what I have in my frame.
To me it's not quite that interesting, it's not captivating me. So one of my thoughts would be what if we play with these lines a little bit, what if my subject moved over and then so I could use the leading lines, so it sort of lead up to them? When seeing that new perspective, most likely what we need to happen is I would realize I need to drop my camera down. I need a little bit more interest of foreground there and I also then would say it would be really neat if I had more drama. I need to create something a little bit more dramatic. So I would want to move my camera over and I will start to try to find some different spots. I would explore with what it looks like in one context and see how those leading lines really lead up to the subject and I'll go even further.
what you want to do when you are working with composition is really to swing something one way or another. I don't know if you know about tuning a guitar but here's how it works. When you have a guitar string you tune it sharp and then flat and then sharp and then flat and then sharp and then flat, sharp, flat, sharp, flat, till you find that sweet spot. I think that's a lot of how composition works. We start out looking through our camera and then moving and repositioning, seeing what kind of the image or story do we to want to create. And in this case we are created some interesting drama with some good leading lines.
now I know there are some other images here. Again I want the subject to be a part of this context. So one of the way that we could do that would be to get closer. So here let's go ahead and walk forward and I would have the subject stand right at the base of the train tracks there. So in this case I'm having them pretty close because I want them to be a little bit more connected to the train bridge and what we do is explore different ways of viewing the person in this context.
I can raise a camera up and the person will look a smaller in the frame. We have that regular eye level view, but then because I want an image with a little bit more kind of kick to it, I would again try dropping my camera down. And I'm exploring with these different leading lines and you know, one of the best ways to compose photographs is to physically move your camera. So often what people do is stand there, they shoot at eye level, and they just twist the zoom in and out. If you want to create good images, you really need to change that camera position.
Move it to the side to the left to right, up and down, move your feet and by doing so you can come up with some interesting options. Now here we looked at a couple of shots we could create. I know there has to be one more kind of within the train tracks. So let's go ahead and explore that location and move in deeper into this context and see what we can come up with. So here we are a little bit deeper in this train bridge and what I would want to do is position the subject somewhere in this context and probably in the center of the frame. And initially you tend a look at your subject at eye level and you say okay, that's kind of interesting and there is something that I can work with there, and what I would start to notice is that there's some options to frame the subject.
I would explore how can I do that a little bit better so that the framing would just go right around and it would arch over them and I would seek to move the camera a little bit till I had a nice sweet spot with that. I would create a couple pictures in that context. And then another way that I'd explore as I would say, well we have these lines. I've seen using these leading lines before. I would drop my camera all the way down and again this is where moving is just so important. When we do that, we start to see lines that come down to the shoulders and lines that are coming to the edge of the frame and again, it's creating a little bit of visual interest. It's that geometry that it is becoming intriguing.
After doing that once I got to that position I would start to say okay Chris, well how can you break the rules, how can you get a little creative, how can you crop in a way that isn't typical or normal, and that may be capturing an element of the frame of something that's completely different? Because I got those other shots, [00:06:19648] I am now thinking about some of the smaller images, some of the images that perhaps will act as the connective tissue between the larger images. Oftentimes when you start experimenting and pointing your camera in different ways, in different directions, tilting and moving it, you can come up with some photographs that are really fascinated.
So as you seek to work with your subject in a location, keep in mind a lot of this is about experimentation, looking at how they fit into that context, and then just shooting a number of different ways. And you know in a place like this I could shoot here literally all day. There are so many options. We're just barely scratching the surface. But my hope is that by walking through a couple of different potential shots it will start to expand how you think about composition and ultimately this will help lead you to creating images that have a stronger composition and tell even a larger variety of stories that have more power, purpose, and depth.
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