Portrait photography sounds simple enough. Step behind the camera, pull your subject into focus and click the shutter. But taking a portrait of someone is much more than that. We speak to Olivia Sari-Goerlach about her passion for portrait photography and why it’s more important to click with people and not just the shutter.
A good portrait, the kind that burns a lasting image into your mind, isn't made in the camera but on both sides of it. When you look at Olivia Sari-Goerlach's portrait photographs, it's easy to see the connection she strives to establish between the subject and herself.
Currently based in Singapore as a food and portrait photographer, Olivia first started taking photos in high school before branching off into photojournalism and graphic design. While on the search for something different, it was with the support of her partner and a serendipitous meeting with a portrait studio owner in Sydney, that Olivia decided to leap headfirst into photography. After getting hired on the spot, her training started the very next week. "Photography became a huge part of my life when that happened," she tells us.
Despite being somewhat unfamiliar with portrait photography in the beginning, her mentor guided her from the ground up, teaching her how to direct a subject as well as basic lighting setups. During her stint at the portrait studio, she picked up vital tips on how to work efficiently in and out of the studio. As her confidence and skills grew, Olivia found herself falling deeper in love with portraiture.
Olivia counts photojournalists such as Robert Doisneau, Fan Ho and Henri-Cartier-Bresson as her main inspiration, and it's not surprising! Her photographs, and portraits in particular, all seem to capture that "decisive moment" when a photograph becomes a story instead. She also finds inspiration from other film and art creatives, citing late film director Stanley Kubrick and painter Caravaggio as examples. Kubrick's "brilliant eye" and Caravaggio's "intense light and shadow quality in his paintings have influenced me greatly," she reveals. "I really enjoy playing with light and shadows in my portraits, whether it's using natural or studio lighting."
With that, let's dig deeper into what gets her excited about portrait photography!
Canon Snapshot (CS): How do you get inspired for new shoots?
Olivia (O): Observation is the best tool for inspiration. Just by looking around in my surroundings, being inspired by certain factors such as colour and textures. Other than that… I look at art, architecture and design for inspiration as well.
CS: Can you tell us about your most memorable portrait shoot?
O: Every shoot is pretty memorable for me; I take away something different from each shoot whether it's a good memory or an opportunity to learn from a mistake.
A particular series of photographs that was probably most memorable for me would be my personal project called "The Home Club Portraiture Project" in which I collaborated with a place called Home Club to document the Electronic Music talents over a span of one year, it was my first long-term photography series. The set-up was really raw, to align with the club's vibe. We shot against a wall found behind the club's venue… I created a makeshift portrait studio there with my travel studio light and my camera, and spent up to five minutes per subject on international DJ nights. The set up stayed the same for one year and many colorful personalities appeared in front of my lens. You can see this series on my website under the ‘personal works' tab for more examples!
CS: Some portrait photographers like to focus on their subject's eyes. Do you have a particular feature that you like to focus on?
O: No, each person that I photograph is different and it's up to me to capture them individually where I feel that they should be best captured in a certain lighting or pose or expression.
CS: What gets you excited about portrait photography?
O: I thoroughly enjoy the whole process of portrait photography, meeting the person, getting familiar with them during the portrait session, seeing the results and sharing it with the subject; it feels really gratifying. Also, I love the part about getting to meet so many people with different characters. It's really interesting.
CS: What equipment do you use for shooting portraits?
O: I use Canon 5D Mark III, as well as EF50mm f/1.2L USM and EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lenses, and Speedlite 600EX-RT for my portrait shots.
CS: We noticed that you're into food photography as well - what similarities or differences are there with portrait photography?
O: I treat my food and portrait subjects pretty similarly, like I light them the same and take the time to compose according to each subject (or dish). The difference is that one subject talks and the other doesn't, eating the delicious food afterwards is a bonus.
CS: Finally, do you have any advice for our readers who want to improve their skills in photography?
O: The best advice I could give is to keep shooting! Practice gets you closer to your style and to be ‘one' with your camera. Shoot manual as much as possible. Also, research to improve your knowledge and skills on the photography subject. I'm always learning and try to pick up new challenges often; there's nothing like experience to make you learn. Just find what you like to shoot and be open to explore something new.
Olivia Sari-Goerlach is a Photographer with a passion for capturing images, she specializes in Portraiture & Food photography along with some food styling. She started out her career in 2010 working for an established portraiture studio in Sydney where she fell in love with portraiture. Based in Singapore since 2011, she continues to practice her photography, taking on interesting projects and with a keen interest in collaborating with other creatives. She is currently the Canon Pixma ambassador for Singapore since 2014 highlighting her latest focus in food photography.