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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 installment, Chris visits Rodney Smith, a photographer whose work is known for its graceful serenity and its wit. Rodney's career spans more than four decades and includes editorial, fashion, and advertising work, as well as several books.
The course begins with a wide-ranging conversation between Chris and Rodney, during which they discuss Rodney's work, his approach to photography and models, his love of film and of black and white, and the importance of creating photographs that both ask questions and tell stories. Next, Chris tours Rodney Smith's studio, including the darkroom, to get more familiar with Rodney before photographing him.
Chris then takes a series of portraits of Rodney. Along the way, he reviews his gear choices and the compositional decisions he makes, and discusses the importance of committing photographs to paper, particularly in today's digital age. Finally, Chris reviews the images and shares some insights from his conversation with Rodney.
As photographers, the gear that we choose really affects the type of pictures that we can make. And so with this portrait shoot of Rodney, I want to talk a little bit about the cameras and the lenses that I chose, and I want to talk about talk about why I chose those particular setups. Well, one of my first choices was this camera here, the Canon 5D Mark II, and a 85- millimeter focal-length lens. Now I like this one because this particular focal length, it allows me to get close, to maybe even create an intimate, or an authentic, or a strong, portrait, where I'm just removing almost everything but the face. And I wanted to create some of those pictures.
And I put this lens on my body with a vertical grip, because that reminds me to not just shoot this way, but to turn the camera so I have that nice portrait orientation. Another setup that chose was this one-- again, Canon 5D Mark II, in this case a 35-millimeter lens. And I like this focal length, because it's wide, but not too wide. It takes in a lot, but not too much. If you really look at Rodney's photographs, one of the things you will notice is they feel natural.
They are almost a little bit comfortable. Even when you have a lot going on, say with this picture here, you can almost settle into it. And I think this type of lens, it helps me do that. It helps me tell a bit more of the story, it helps me take in the environment, but again, not too much, and in not too much of an exaggerated way. And then another camera that I knew I needed to use was this medium-format Hasselblad. In this case it has an 80-millimeter focal-length lens on it.
Now on this camera, that's more like a normal focal length, say, like, a 50, on one of these cameras. It's how your eye sees. And one of the reasons why I wanted to use that was, well, for starters, it's a film camera, and Rodney shoots with film. And as a matter of fact, he uses Hasselblads; he likes to shoot with normal focal-length lenses. And one of the reasons why he says that is because it allows him to get close. He wants people to be aware of his presence; he wants that to be part of the pictures--and so do I, especially when I am photographing someone like this.
Now, I don't consider myself a great film shooter; as a matter of fact, it's really difficult. and you don't necessarily know what you are going to get. But I knew that was a risk that I needed to take. You know, sometimes when we create pictures, we can go for what's easy, what's comfortable, but I wanted to create something special, so I really wanted to go for it, have a range, a couple of different cameras, and a few different options. With this camera in particular, it kind of does something to me. It puts me at ease. The winding motion helps me settle down into things.
So again, just to highlight, why these three different set ups? Well, this first one with the 85 millimeter, it helps me get close, create maybe an authentic or a strong portrait. That 35, it takes in the scene, but not too much of it. And then the film camera, it's kind of how your eye sees the world. It's normal. Whenever you shoot with that normal focal-length lens, you can't rely on the camera. You can't rely on the wideness of this lens or perhaps the closeness of this lens; rather, the scene is there as it is, and it's up to you to try to create something unique and special.
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