Chris Orwig first found his way to photography through serious injury.
“I was hit by a car skating and was really badly injured, chronic stuff,” the Santa Barbara-based photographer tells me when we catch up in LA during Adobe Max. “So, my dad gave me a camera but he gave it to me in the right way, not just a dad being like, ‘Here use this, it’s going to make you feel better.’” Living on the Californian coast gave Chris the opportunity to experiment with surf photography, but it was portraiture that his lens became increasingly trained towards. In the years since, Chris has shot for the likes of New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Surfer Magazine, authored a book and passed his gems of knowledge onto thousands of students in his photography courses focused on portraiture and post-production in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Though all of this is bound to have him scraping around for more hours in the day, his laidback demeanour not only gives off the impression he’s got all the time in the world to chat, but makes you instantly at ease. I joined the thousands of people clamouring for Chris’ advice on how to take a decent portrait, and here’s what he had to say.
Always Have Your Camera Out
Never talk to someone and then pull it out, because it’s quite a revealing moment. We have a primary fear of it, even if we don’t know it. I notice that people’s eyelids will quiver a bit, which is an indication of fear or uncertainty. So have it out like normal; sometimes I’ll hand it to them, or put it on the ground like it’s no big deal.
Find Common Ground
I find some thread to pick up on. If you’re aiming for a ‘deep, moving portrait,’ it’s like overacting almost. Instead, aim for something that’s meaningful—maybe they just had a nephew that was born, and through talking about that a warm expression comes instead of a corny smile. I always try to tell people whatever typecast idea you have about a person—whether it’s that they’re an old guy with a beard, or a CEO billionaire or a homeless person—they’re way more than that. Try to dialogue and find out about what that is.
Don’t Be Afraid To Move Around
Whenever a camera goes up, we tense up in different ways. Sometimes it’s just that someone’s breath is a little shallow, or their neck is a little tight, or the hands are a little clawed. I’ve photographed beautiful, wonderful people and they’ll have clawed fists—it’s because they literally want to defend themselves. Whether its subtle or pronounced, the only way to get rid of that I’ve found is movement. Tell them to lean on something, or go for a walk, just get moving.
Remember to Breathe
It happens to a lot of students; they’re so excited that they hold their breath, which means their subjects holds their breath. Then they stare at each other too long and it becomes a staring contest; the connection is there at first, and then it kind of fades off. So if you can, look, look away, reconnect. Move, breath, talk, look away… that creates something meaningful.
Work With The Elements
Blending in with the elements—whether that be the person, the conditions, whether wind is blowing across their face and they’re trying to fix it, just let it go. Have an awareness of what the light is doing, but also try to figure out how to connect with the person and see them not as a look, or how marketing portrays them… not typecasting. Like, this is not just a surfer, this is a dad, or someone who has a back injury and they’re kind of wondering, is my pro career about to be over?
Don’t Find a Mentor that is Exactly Like You
You end up trying to be like them. I’ve met people who have mentored with a lot of famous photographers and they could never really get out of that shadow. You want to find someone that resonates, but you’re not trying to replicate them. My mentor would say stuff like, “Stillness of hand can’t make up for emptiness of heart,” meaning technique is never enough. One time we were talking about my pictures and he told me, “If I didn’t know you I would say yes, this photographer is really good, but then I would look again and say, ‘You know what? He isn’t.’ Because what I see is your committed to the person, but you’re not committed to the frame.” Which was his way of saying I need to work on composition, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. Find people who have your best interests at heart and who are able to help you realise things about yourself.