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In the Narrative Portraiture series, photographer and teacher Chris Orwig explores how to use location and natural light to create images that tell stories about their subjects and produce a strong emotional connection.
In this installment, Chris travels to Texas to visit with Keith Carter, a fine art photographer and teacher, and has a conversation with Keith about his work, outlook on art and photography, and suggestion that photographers commit at least two years to a personal project.
The course continues with a pair of portrait shoots. Keith photographs Chris and describes his process and creative decisions along the way. Then the cameras are swapped and Chris creates a portrait of Keith.
Finally, Chris reviews the photography he took, and discusses the gear he used and the lessons he learned while visiting with and photographing Keith.
Here I thought it would be fun to talk a little bit about the gear that I used when creating the portraits of Keith, everything from the extraordinary to the ordinary. I'll start over here on my far left. This camera is here almost more symbolically to represent Keith's camera. This particular camera though is mine. It's my Hasselblad, my film camera. I didn't use that one. I did use Keith's. And I have that there just as a point of reference, because working with Keith's camera was so fascinating. Obviously it was interesting to look through the lens, to see the blur and distortion, but also to work with film, to wind the camera up, and somehow that winding motion does something to me.
It slows me down. And then of course shooting with black-and-white film. When you're shooting with black-and- white film you're thinking about color as tonality, brightness value, trying to compose with that in mind. And then I have these two cameras here. These are mine. They're both Canon 5D Mark IIs. I work with this camera body a lot. I like it because it's small and compact, and the images that come off the sensor are really good. And then I have a few different lenses. Now, this weren't the only lenses that I packed. I had a number of others, but these are what I brought with me to work with Keith.
The reason I chose these lenses was because I wanted to capture a certain story. I wanted to tell something about Keith in a particular way. So here is how it works. I have the 50mm lens, and that one's a really ordinary perspective. It's straightforward. I wanted to create images that are honest. In that image it requires that you move, and you may have noticed in the footage, I was moving a lot, changing my perspective from left to right, top to bottom, low to high. And I liked that. I like that that lens, it gets my feet moving.
It's almost like turning a song on your iPod or on the radio; it just kind of gets you going. Yeah, it's a real authentic and honest lens. Next to it and related to it is a 35mm lens. This one allows you to capture a bit more of a wide perspective, take in a little bit more of the scene, capture an environmental portrait. Yet it's not so wide that there is distortion. In other words, both of these lenses are relatively normal. You almost have to think harder when you use them, because you can't rely on the lens to give you amazing capture of this wide scene or compression that you get from a telephoto lens.
I also chose these lenses because I knew that I would be working in a small space. I needed to work close and intimate, at arm's length or maybe two arm's length away. And then over here, closest to me, I have a lens which is the 16-35, a wide-angle lens. This one, I almost think of it like a hungry lens. It takes in the whole scene and, yes, there is distortion, but it allows you to really absorb everything there. It's great for those picture of Keith in the middle of the studio and the whole studio surrounding him, or Keith in the middle of his darkroom and all of the darkroom around him.
And my positioning of the subject near the middle of the frame, he isn't distorted, but there may be some distortions on the edge, but that's okay. And so in this case I have the ability to tell a few different types of stories. I should also point out that a lot of times I shoot wide open. In other words, these lenses are really fast, or they allow me to have a small area in focus. I can create an image where Keith's eyes are in focus and other things are completely blurred and out of focus. And that's important to me, because I love blur.
I love being able to focus in on one image, draw the viewer to one aspect of the frame. And this then was my setup, and it was a nice setup, I think, because it was pretty mobile and it helped me, again, communicate the stories that I wanted to tell. Now, what's most important, I think, for you and for your portraits is getting familiar with your gear and getting familiar with it perhaps from this perspective of your gear's personality. What stories can you tell with these different types of lenses? And the more you learn about that, the better and more authentic your photographs will become.
And it's not necessarily whether you have the best lens in the world, or it's not necessarily if this one has the best reviews or costs the most; rather it's about how does this lens work, how does it see, and how can I use these characteristics or how can I utilize these characteristics of this lens in order to tell the stories, in order to create the portraits that I am most interested in telling?
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