Hi! My name is Chris Orwig and I’m a Sony Artisan of Imagery, portrait photographer, author and teacher. Today I want to share with you a few tips for capturing better portraits. These tips come straight from my brand new book, Authentic Portraits: Searching for soul, significance and depth. Let’s dive in!
What Makes A Portrait Good?
I’ve always felt that capturing a well exposed picture was easy, but capturing a portrait that reveals the essence, character, and personality was hard. And that’s because the most successful portraits take us well beyond the surface of how someone looks and show us the inner essence of who someone is. They reveal character, soul, and depth. They uncover hidden hopes and inner strength, revealing that authentic and deeply human light that shines within.
And while technical expertise is undoubtedly important, it’s not the technique, lighting, camera, or pose that creates a great portrait. It’s you, and it’s your mastery of technique and the way you make the connection with the subject, that makes the image come to life. Because ultimately, good portraits have very little to do with the surface of how someone looks.
Good portraits go beyond the surface and in doing so, they make us feel. I like how Antoine de Saint-Euxprey put it, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” So in a sense, the craft of portraiture is all about capturing what you can’t quite see, but what you can clearly feel. That’s what makes portraiture such an interesting craft. And at the same time, such a paradox.
The Paradox of Portraiture
I like how the French poet Charles Baudelaire put it, “A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound.” Authentic portraits—at least the ones that endure—are paradoxical in these ways. These pictures aren’t single-minded; they’re a complex and sometimes conflicting combination of ideas, emotions, and themes. Like good literature or art, they give you access to multiple emotions at once.
Authentic portraits speak to the many paradoxes of life: absence and presence, fragility and strength, pity and admiration, nostalgia and regret. Paradoxes are truths in disguise. That’s why they thrive in good literature, film, and art. The element of surprise draws us in. What at first seems like a flaw suddenly makes sense, and the original contradiction metamorphoses from dissonance into interest, believability, and depth.
So how then do we capture more authentic, more meaningful, and more interesting frames? Here are three tips:
1. Carry Less. Capture More.
One of the quickest ways to capture better portraits is to work with a single camera, lens, and natural light. And that’s how I’ve built my career and had my images published by Rolling Stone, New York Times, Esquire Magazine, etc. and worked with dream clients like Google, Adobe, Patagonia, The Nature Conservancy, etc.
99% of all of my images are created with natural light. So if you’d like a great primer on natural light, I’d highly recommend Scott’s new book. I was sent a prerelease copy and it’s really good. His book will give you the foundation to start capturing great images without a lot of gear. This way you can work quickly and build up a body of work.
2. Search For More
When we see someone standing in front of our lens, it’s easy to think of the person in regards to how they look. But great portrait photographers always resist the urge and look past the surface in search of something more. My friend Travis Blue put it this way, “To be human is to look so closely and so deeply into another that you see yourself.” In other words, we must find a way to search for the story within that resonates with who we are.
Like with the photograph below on the left. At first glance he seemed like an “ordinary homeless person.” But as I got to talking with him I discovered that he really was a writer without a home. And I was able to identify with that. Not that I’ve ever been homeless, but that I have experienced what it’s like to be displaced, marginalized, and discouraged even while I was committed to my craft. And it was my craft that kept my spirit alive.
So when you photograph someone, never settle for what you see at first glance. Take time to search, look, listen, and learn about your subject so that you can create portraits that reveal more.
3. Find The Common Ground
When I am photographing a celebrity, a stranger, or a close friend, the process is always the same. And it always begins with making a connection through finding common ground. I’ve found that the quickest way to do that is through the art of asking interesting questions. Rather than telling my subjects what to do, I ask them about their life. And that’s true whether it’s a world famous celebrity like Millie Bobby Brown (below left) or a good friend like Chris Burkard (below right). The point is to start a dialogue and to learn about the subject so that more of who they are shows up in the frame.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to learn more, check out my new book, Authentic Portraits: Searching for soul, significance and depth. The book is chock full of inspiration, ideas, and advice on how you can capture more meaningful and awesome portraits. Thanks!!!
Chris Orwig is a best-selling author, photographer, and teacher who blends a down-to-earth approach with technical expertise. Having authored 7 books and over 5000 hours of online tutorials, Chris knows his stuff. But more importantly, he knows what matters most. After having survived a near death rock climbing accident at an early age, Chris realized that life is a gift, and that the camera is the perfect tool for savoring and celebrating the time that we have.
He regularly speaks on creativity and photography at conferences and workshops, and has been invited to speak for companies like Google, Facebook, Adobe and on the TEDx stage. Whether capturing photographs, teaching, or writing books, Chris strives to inspire others to become more creative and lead more meaningful lives. Find out more at ChrisOrwig.com and on Instagram @chrisorwig.