Living genuinely and creatively is important for professional photographers. So is being marketable. Channeling that creativity into successful projects means understanding the balance and the process behind creative production.
For Chris Orwig, striking that balance begins with a deep understanding of inspiration. Based in Southern California, Orwig is a photographer, author, educator, and Sony Artisan of Imagery who specializes in deeply insightful portraits. He points out that there are plenty of people who can take a picture, but those who achieve a higher, more sustainable level in their work are those who function from a place of inspiration.
Their work resonates with a particular audience precisely because it is genuine. And their images demand higher rates because people connect with them; the photographs are more than pictures.
Getting to that level of creative productivity is a process. “It’s not so much a question of gear or even capability,” says Orwig. “It’s more an inward journey where you ask yourself what interests you about photography. If you answer that question well, the commercial side almost takes care of itself. Because your why is so attuned. If it’s your thing, if it’s what really makes you come alive, people will see that vitality, that spark, and they will respond to it.”
“If you’re chasing trends, stuck in that massive middle part of the market where nothing distinguishes you beyond your price, then even if you’re killing it, it’s killing you.”Chris Orwig
Orwig concedes that the follow your-heart-and-the-money-will-come philosophy is an oversimplification. There’s a great deal of hard work and grit required to reach any notable level of success. You also need to remain true to yourself and your inspirations if you want to find real, lasting success. Photographers who try to go the other way, those who attempt to mold themselves into something they’re not in the name of making a buck, have a much harder time maintaining a rewarding career over time.
“I’ve seen it dozens of times with my students,” says Orwig. “They dive into something, a hot trend or a particular market, because they think they can make a lot of money. Maybe it works for a year or two, but then it crushes their soul, and they burn out. If you’re chasing trends, stuck in that massive middle part of the market where nothing distinguishes you beyond your price, then even if you’re killing it, it’s killing you.”
To work from a place of inspiration, Orwig urges photographers to find the element that drives them. For example, in his own work Orwig prizes a sincere connection with his subjects above all else. A lot of photographers talk about connecting with their subjects, but that connection only goes to a certain point, and then they start clicking the shutter. Orwig is willing to miss out on the shot that everyone thinks he should take in order to delve a little deeper and make a connection that allows him to portray something different.
“It’s this idea of letting go of the shot to get the shot,” he explains. “I’ll see a moment, and I think, This is it! The light, the background, what the subject is wearing—everything lines up perfectly. Then I try to let go of that perfect shot, pause, and consider it from the subject’s perspective. Sometimes it’s a situation where the shot works for everyone except for the person in the portrait.”
He stops and discusses with the subject what he’s seeing, and he asks if it works for them. Giving them that option out, that chance to express their point of view is important, he says. “When you connect with someone and they tell you something really deep and meaningful, you don’t say, ‘Hold right there for a second so I can take a picture.’ No, you just nod and acknowledge that you’re there with them, and this is happening. Honor that instinct, that quiet voice within you that is very intuitive and tells you to pause and let the experience happen. That creates a connection. Then, if you get the photo, they are with you, and they are giving you a gift as opposed to you taking the photo.”
This process works for Orwig because he’s willing to veer off course on his projects if necessary. Every photographer has their own inspiration, but they don’t necessarily understand where that spark happens in their work. “You can tell when there’s a disconnect in the image,” says Orwig. “I always ask my students to understand their why. If they can articulate that and bring that to frame, then people will connect with their photographs, and that makes them much more valuable.”
“Photography is easy. Style is really hard,” says Orwig. It’s also essential to building those connections that make your imagery insightful and unique. But how does a photographer find and develop that style in a reasonable timeframe? Remember, we’re talking about being both artistic and marketable, and few photographers have the luxury to wait around for a decade for a unique style to emerge organically.
Orwig recommends doing exercises that reveal what’s below the surface. One of the most useful exercises is using comparative language to help define what appeals to you and what you want your work to be. For example, ask yourself how you would describe your style (or the style you aspire to) compared to something else—maybe a car or a type of food. Find other language to describe things in familiar terms and understand why you chose that language.
From there, explore your definition. Find your edges, those places where you feel like you’re moving beyond your vision for your work. Where does it get inconsistent or vague? What are you having trouble describing or defining? That’s where you should put guardrails on your work to help you focus. For example, you may envision doing insightful portraits of distinguished people in dramatic backgrounds, but your personal vision gets hazy when you think about applying studio lighting to large groups indoors. That’s where you can create constraints to help you zero in on your passion.
“This process is important because if you don’t create your own style, others will define it for you,” says Orwig. “When that happens, you have to let go of the reins, and someone will pick them up and direct you to something they want.”
It’s helpful to understand the creative process of fight and flow, says Orwig. Sometimes you have to fight. You need to grit your teeth, push through the resistance, and just go. Other times, there’s flow. Everything comes naturally and builds on itself in a way that feels organic, free, easy.
An avid surfer, Orwig likes to describe this process like a set of waves with peaks and troughs. If you’re at the peak, you’re flying high, but that also means you’re about to drop precipitously into the trough. That can be a deflating letdown for creatives, who look at the effort to get back to the peak with apprehension.
It’s important to know where you are in the process and also understand that the ebb and flow in creative inspiration is natural. For people at the peak, it may help to start working on the next project before the current one finishes. That keeps the creative momentum going. Orwig brings up examples of some film directors he knows who start their next movie before they finish the one they’re currently filming so they can continue working at a high level of creative production.
“If you’re in the trough, it’s not unusual to feel uninspired or want to give up,” he says. “It took so much energy to get to the peak, and then there’s this massive letdown. But no one succeeds in the trough. Be aware of where you are and that you need an injection of momentum. That could be a pivot to something slightly different. It could be trying a new direction for your work. Test those guardrails and see if you can work your way out.” The ability to self-assess is critical. Do you need to grit your teeth and push through a creative downturn, or is it time for deeper introspection? “When you’ve gone off the rails a little bit, go inward,” suggests Orwig. “Investigate the discord and determine why something is unsettling to you.”
If you’re still stuck, ask for help. Colleagues, mentors, or friends can be invaluable in stating what seems obvious but may be hidden to you because you’re too close to the problem. If you’re strong enough to ask for help and allow yourself to be vulnerable when making that request, then the feedback could help you move in a new direction with boundless potential. And that’s when some of your best work emerges.
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.