How to Capture Layers of Expression in Portraits
Tips from professional photographer Chris Orwig.
“A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious, and more profound?” In those words, Charles Baudelaire captured the essence of portraiture.
In an industry that is often obsessed with aesthetic, portraiture is unique. It isn’t about how the person looks, what they’re wearing, or even what they’re doing. A portrait is about who someone is.
Chris Orwig, an accomplished portrait photographer and educator, says, “The job of a portrait photographer is to never believe that how someone looks is who they are. Believe that there’s always more to the story.”
Portraiture is about going deeper and finding the layers of a person, then capturing those layers in a photograph. At Adobe MAX, Chris gave his tips for portraiture success.
Great portraiture begins by looking inward. “The foundation for creating better portraits isn’t a sense of light. It isn’t lenses. It isn’t composition. The foundation is you,” Chris says. “Who you are really shapes the photographs that you make.”
Chris believes that our thoughts create our reality. And as a photographer, your interests, activities, what you’re reading, watching, and doing — all of that material shows up in your photographs. “That’s the magic that happens between the lens and the subject,” says Chris. “If we want to capture more interesting photographs, we have to become more interesting ourselves.”
The feelings you have — and the intention inside of you — will be reflected by your subjects. “What we are changes the person in front of our lens,” says Chris. If you’re sincere, your portraits will be, too.
Build a connection
“We always photograph complex humans with interests, dreams, pasts, pain, insecurities, and so much more,” says Chris. Understanding this humanity is what builds a connection with your subjects and sets the foundation for successful portraits.
That connection begins the moment you meet. Set out to build trust with your subjects by being kind. While you’re shooting, treat your subjects like human beings. Don’t be afraid to put the camera down for a minute and talk with them.
“Connections happen through intentional questions that are asked with a sense of kindness, or maybe a little bit of vulnerability,” says Chris. If they hint at anything personal, go there. Ask them more about it. The more you can learn, the more layered your portraits become.
Another trick to building connection is providing genuine feedback and using movement. Lots of people feel uncomfortable with how they’re supposed to move and what they’re supposed to do in front of a camera. Giving gentle nudges and suggestions can help them feel more at ease and take the focus off what they’re supposed to do with their body.
In this same vein, reading body language is really important. Clenched hands can mean fear or nervousness. Quivering eyelids? Same thing. Chris says, “I’ll do shoots where I get the subject to move, even if I don’t need movement, simply because movement gets the blood flowing and releases tension in the neck and eyes. I’ll get the people I photograph to close and open their eyes, to stretch their arms out, roll their shoulders — any kind of movement will help them feel more comfortable.”
Finally, in order to truly connect with your subject, you have to know what they are going through. “If you want to create good portraits, you have to have people capture portraits of you to gain that empathy of what the experience is like,” says Chris. Ask other photographers to take photos of you, and learn not only from being the subject but also from watching another photographer’s process.
Don’t force portraits — discover them
Portraiture is not a one-and-done gig. It requires technique, yes, but it also requires patience and experimentation. It requires finding a flow. “Don’t be afraid to shoot some obvious pictures, some throwaway shots to help you get into a rhythm,” Chris says.
Once you’ve found your rhythm, try different angles and perspectives. Play with lighting, and use shadows. You don’t have to have artificial lighting to create great portraits. Chris works almost exclusively with natural lighting.
When you are working with natural light, a step or two in a different direction can create completely different looks. Chris likes putting someone in a shadow, or creating a shadow with something like an overhang, where they’re looking toward the light. “It’s a sort of even lighting, but they’re looking toward the light. And so that light almost illuminates the person,” says Chris.
Critical to creating the environment you want is thinking about how lenses can shape and affect the things you do. ”The way the eye and heart actually sees is in a shallow depth of field,” says Chris. “The reason why portrait photographers like shooting with a shallow depth of field is because it’s replicating that. It’s simulating that kind of an emotional connection.”
Edit with purpose
When editing portraits, there are three high-level things Chris thinks about.
First, creating clarity. Clarify the image and remove distractions. Second, consider the lighting. What is it doing for you or against you? And, finally, ask, “How do I use color as a language, as a way to express ideas?”
Editing should be a continuation of the connection you made with your subject, and translating that connection to those who will be viewing the photograph. Keep it simple and look for the little things. “Once the viewer knows a portrait has been retouched, you’ve failed. Most portraiture, even headshot shots, you want to be really natural,” says Chris.
Your camera is your passport
“The camera can act as a passport,” Chris says. “It can help you meet people, grow, learn, and discover things about yourself you didn’t know were there.” Whether you’re shooting your best friend or a stranger, capturing someone in a photograph is about discovering the depth of their personality and helping those elements come to the surface. And because people change week to week, year to year, there is always a need for portraits and for portrait photographers like yourself, who go out into the the world and show us what we would have otherwise overlooked.