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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.
Well it's one thing to see lights. It's another thing to find it and work with it. Here what I want to do is take a look at a handful of photos from some different photo shoots and explore how we can find and work with lights. Let's go ahead and turn off the lights and take a look at some images. Well in this first photograph we are going to see a picture that I took for a person who is a lead role in a film. And we're there meeting up in his house as he was putting his shoes on in the hall. I thought it was kind of interesting context.
You can see it's lit by the window. We actually made some fascinating photos here in this scenario, but what I wanted to do was get outside. So we got outside and we went down in the front of his house and I noticed that there is white driveway, white concrete. When I saw that I thought okay, this is perfect. We went and opened his garage and hung a little drop cloth behind him and that white concrete is going to bounce light back up on to the subject. As you can see in this next photo this is the type of image that we can make.
You can see the street and the driveway reflecting back into the subject's eyes. In this image his eyes are out of focus, which isn't something you should do, but I like it. I think it's breaking that rule and an interest in an artistic way. Here's another type of a photograph made in that context. It's quiet, it's simple, it's strong. Yet another perspective. The story that I am trying to tell here is to tell enough but not too much. I want to keep things really simple. I am going for simple authentic and strong.
I am thinking through those things in my mind. Yet as I am thinking about those elements I'm also not afraid to create images say like this, one that's a little bit more happy, more direct, more straightforward, capturing that side of his character. Now I love photographing in context like this, where we have shade, where we have the sun being reflected back into the shade. You can get so attached to one scenario that you overlook something else. So after this we walked out into direct sun in the middle of the day.
Here you can see the next photograph. Now the light is harsh, there is a lot of contrast, but the colors are really vivid. It captures this interesting moment. So again when you're finding and working with light, you try to work with different types of light because you really never know what you might come up with. Okay, let's take a look at another photo shoot. Here I was out of photograph Ben Harper and this was just an initial snapshot. I am just trying to think visually. It's not a good photograph but it's telling me something about the light. I can see that the light is coming from behind the band I'm also starting to get tuned in that there are other band members I might want a photograph.
Here's another snapshot type of a picture of the lead guitarist. Again I am trying to start to think visually. One of things I noticed behind the stage were these white columns. I thought that if I could take advantage of that in some way I could probably make something interesting. Let's take a look. Here's one of those photographs of the guitarist now in front of that column. Now one of things that you want to keep in mind is that finding good light is typically about finding light that's close to you. In other words if I had asked the guitarist hey you know what, there is a great place to photograph five minutes away, do you want to go over there? He would have said no.
But if I had said to him-- or let's look at another photograph-- the drummer, say hey you know what, would you mind stepping in front of this column here, take couple of pictures, keep it simple, hopefully you can create some simple and strong and interesting photos. Now one of my goals on this photo shoot was to create an image of Ben Harper that was iconic, that was strong. Again I'm trying to communicate something. I have a storyline in mind and so I walked over just a little bit away from the columns to an area that was a little bit more removed from the crowds and here you can see the photograph that I captured.
Now what's interesting to me about this image is one, it's an open shape. We had a lot of space to move around and it was really simple. Two, was that before I took my picture someone came up to take a trophy picture. In other words "me and the rock star." Ben out of kindness obliged. The lady had taken the picture didn't like his expression. So she said "Ben smile, Ben smile, Ben say cheese" with that, he snapped. "Lady, I smile with my eyes" and I think in this frame he is.
That taught me something really valuable. That many times smiling is more than just something you do with your mouth. There's so many different ways to think of it. And as we work with light we want to expand how we think about light, how we think about expression, and we can use different sorts of light to connect with our subject in order to create interesting photographs. Okay well let's move to a different scenario. Here I was on location to photograph a professional athlete. This guy named Rob Machado and this is a photograph of the surfboard factory.
When I saw the light falling on the surfboard I thought to myself okay, there's potential for great image to be made. Now you're noticing a lot of times I'm taking snapshots before my portraits and I am doing that to explore the light. How does this scene look through the lens? Here in this next frame you can see there is the athlete in the middle talking to the surfboard shaper if our position the subject in that shade in front of the surfboard with all that light bouncing back up onto him, it could create fascinated photograph. Let's take a look.
And with this image you can see that I created a quiet and simple scenario, again just repositioning the subject where I wanted him. Now if we zoom in on this image, say zoom into the eyes right there, you can see the lights from the open warehouse door and the sparkle in the middle of his eyes. Now let's go ahead and zoom back out. You can see it's really evenly lit, again a simple and strong photograph captured without a lot of effort. Let's go to another context. Here I was set to photograph the inventor of the wetsuit.
Well I drove up to the location, got on my car, and this is what I saw. Again I'm trying to take in the seen. The light isn't very good. I then turned my last and here I see his house perched up over there in the cliffs and the light is super bright, it's the middle of the day, how am I going to work with that? There's something there though I know because the brightness is telling me something. The brightness is telling light is bouncing and when you start to think about it, where is it bouncing from? Well the ocean.
So I go into his house and in his house I notice he has floor to ceiling windows. I am thinking all right, floor to ceiling windows, bring ocean outside, bouncing light back inside this is going to be it. I love window light, so I set him up and I take the first picture. And that's not very good, because that's not the story that I want to tell. Now the light is okay. I like how it looks, it's nice and soft, but I don't like the environment. I don't like seeing his kitchen, appliances, his pots and pans in the background. I want to create an image that really depicts him as I think of him and that's not how I think of him.
I want to create an image that's iconic. So I take him outside and this is the first photograph from the shoot that I really like. I lower my camera position. He is in the shade on that balcony just outside of the window. The ocean, again bouncing the light back in towards the subject. Here's another perspective of that same shot now in black and white. It's a really interesting perspective right. You can see the brightness coming into the frame. And then one final shot taken with my large format camera I like this image especially because I think it's a little bit melancholy.
Alright let's take a look at another scenario. In this photograph you can see that I'm photographing Kelly Slater, an amazing surfer, and one of my friends captured this photograph of me photographing him. One of the reasons why included this because I think it's kind of interesting. There I am with a simple camera, a simple lens, 50 millimeters lens. Let's take a look at the image that created in this context. Well it's open shade. You can see that surfboard is making the background really clean and simple and I am close to the subject. The light in his eyes is from the sky.
That catch light making it look alive. In this case I like this close and intimate photograph. Now some people might say Chris you're too close, there's a little bit of distortion. But sometimes I like that because I think it can make a photograph feel intimate. Well the next image that I made I stepped back a little bit and here we can see that one and this one is a bit more commercial, him balancing his surfboard on one finger. Well I am working in open shade and whenever you have open shade you have a lot of options. You have the ability to move one way or another.
Kelly Slater has been photographed a ton, but I want to create an image that somehow stood out. So I started to think about how can I do that? I love the texture in the background, the plywood there. So all that I did was reposition myself, reposition him, in order to capture this next frame. Again I was going for something authentic, alive, timeless. Something that didn't really tell you about when it was captured that would be good today as well as in the future. So keep this in mind. As you learn to see light, one of the things that you want to do is to figure out how to find it of course, but then to work with it and sometimes some of the best images result from simply moving your subject from within one light source to another or moving them within the light that you have or moving yourself and as you move these different elements, as you work within this light, it can lead to stronger images.
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