January 4, 2016

“The Portrait Whisperer” reveals his secrets. 

Try asking Chris Orwig a couple of questions about himself and you’ll see – he’s way more interested in learning about you. It’s that deep curiosity about the world around him that’s at the heart of what makes Orwig so successful as a photographer and sought after as a teacher. His wish to truly see his subjects, to know them in an authentic way, sends his portraits from the realm of merely skillful to extraordinary.

“Whenever I’m working with someone there’s a high chance I won’t get a good portrait of him, and that’s OK because that’s not my end-game,” said Orwig, who is widely known for both his surf photography and deceptively plain but emotionally powerful portraits. “What I really want is to connect in such a way that if I were to see that person again it would be ‘Hey Chris – let’s go get coffee.’ “

Too bad for Orwig, then, that his newest project, a book on creativity he’s writing for Peachpit Press, is taking the form of a memoir. Like it or not, he’ll be the subject.

“It’ll be my story, even though I’m not that good at talking about myself,” Orwig said. “But for me teaching is really more about coaching, and in this book it’ll be done with stories rather than as a paint-by-numbers how-to.”

Through the looking glass

Orwig’s own story, of how he went from being just another California kid crazy about surfing and skateboarding to a renowned photographer and educator, starts with a magical wall in his childhood home. When Orwig’s father, a contractor, built the family home in central California, he designed one of the walls to function as an enormous window.

“That whole wall – it was 18 feet high and 40 feet long and it was just windows,” Orwig said. “It opened up to rolling hills and oak trees, the outdoors coming right in.”

Through that massive lens, framed by the home’s natural wood interior, Orwig watched as light moved, as the landscape changed, as the seasons shifted. The endless view in the windowed wall became the earliest source of Orwig’s visual education.

Years later, when Orwig was in college, he was hit by a car while skateboarding, and a different kind of lesson came calling. Suddenly, the athlete who saw himself in terms of all of the things he could do so well, was beginning to define himself by the things he couldn’t do at all. It wasn’t until his father gave him a camera that Orwig could move beyond the pain of his injuries and find his way back to the world.

“My photography and who I am fit the aesthetic of my childhood and my childhood home,” Orwig said. “I choose to err on the side of hope and beauty and the idea that life is good. I’m an optimist and the camera lens pulls me that way.”

Putting in the (10,000) hours

After college, where Orwig became skilled at web design, he joined the faculty of the Brooks Institute, the prestigious photography school in Santa Barbara, Calif., but not as a photographer.

“I got this dream job at this great photo school but not for photography,” Orwig said. “I was there to teach how to put together a good online portfolio.”

Orwig promptly sat in on as many classes as he could, becoming both a teacher and a student at Brooks. With the same grit and persistence he conjured to heal from his crash injuries, Orwig went from being the guy jokingly banned from ever contributing photos to the school’s web site to becoming one of its most popular photography instructors.

“It’s sort of that 10,000 hours thing,” Orwig said, referring to author Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that success in any arena boils down to 10,000 hours of practice.  “At some point I hit that mark and there was this transition.”

Another recent transition, for which Orwig resigned his position at Brooks, is joining forces with Bryan O’Neil Hughes, a product manager for Adobe Photoshop software, to start an outdoor adventure photo workshop company.

“We’ll teach the way we would want to be taught, blending adventure and learning so that the classroom isn’t a row of chairs but is outdoors, shooting and learning,” Orwig said. 

Enter the Intuos

While Orwig’s preferred camera is “whichever one I happen to be holding at the time,” he’s quite specific about his post-production tools: Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and Wacom’s pressure sensitive tablets.

“Wacom has been crazy significant to my work,” said Orwig, who works with the Intuos line of tablets. “The connectedness you get from the Intuos is so important – it makes using a mouse feel like you’re drawing with a bar of soap.”

Orwig uses the Intuos in Lightroom at the start of his processing, then moves to Photoshop for the more intensive work. The pressure-sensitive interface of the Intuos is so instinctive that the gap between seeing an image in your mind’s eye and creating it on the screen is all but erased, Orwig said.

“It’s excavation, it’s how you listen to your image,” he said. “You’re not imposing something on it, but trying to discover, and that’s what the Wacom Intuos helps me with.”

The Portrait Whisperer

People have called Orwig “the portrait whisperer”, which makes him laugh. He downplays his gift for empathy and insists he makes his subjects comfortable simply by always having the camera in his hands, being casual with it, putting it down in the dirt, hanging it from a tree branch.

Whatever the reason, Orwig’s portraits have that rare magnetic quality that makes you look and then look again. As a viewer you feel the photographer’s rapport and appreciate his aesthetic choices – rich textures, muted colors, abundant light. Part of that’s the stuff of Orwig’s creativity lectures, and much of it is his delight in the technical end of the editing process.

“If someone says ‘Wow, you’re so good at Photoshop’, then you’ve failed because that’s not the point,” Orwig said. “I’m trying to hide my tracks as I work with an image and that’s what Wacom does for me.”

To see Orwig in action, watch the video below and visit his website

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