James Chororos Slows Down to Create Amazing Environmental Portraits

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“When you relate with someone you’re about to photograph, it gives you a base level where everyone is more comfortable”, says James Chororos about his approach to portraiture. Having dropped out of art school, he did his post-grad in architecture and worked as an architect thereafter. A few years later, he decided to give himself another chance at being a full-time artist and turned to photography in 2011.

Medium format – is it the ultimate frontier for digital photographers? I began my professional career using an APS-C camera. After a hand full of years, I switched to a flagship full-frame DSLR in 2013 for my sports photography. I’ve still got a bunch of those that I use for my work these days. Fewer sporting events and more corporate work these days have me doing more portraits and headshots than I used to in the previous decade. I can’t say I had been tempted too much by the prospect of owning a medium format camera until I interviewed Jeroen a few weeks ago. The depth of field falloff that these large sensors produce is unbelievably smooth and difficult to get my eyes away from.

Growing up, medium format cameras were absolutely unaffordable for most of us. Granted, cameras as a whole have become a lot cheaper than in previous decades. But you can now get a Fuji medium format camera for under $5500, cheaper than what I paid for my Nikon D4 less than a decade ago. I’m honestly afraid that if I test out my friend’s Fuji GFX 100s that I’d end up buying one and start investing in this system. Maybe I should just get a Nikkor Z 50 1.2S and be content with it. James Chororos shoots a lot more medium format these days, and he thoroughly enjoys how it allows him to think a lot more before clicking the shot.

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The Essential Photo Gear Used by James Chororos

James told us:

I’ve used a variety of different cameras and lenses over the years as you can imagine, but my favorite and current setup for portraiture is the Pentax 645z which is a medium format. It’s actually pretty cumbersome, which I like because it slows me down a bit more than a digital format that’s easier to work with and tends to force me to look at things outside of the camera longer before getting ready to capture a frame.

The other critical gear that I use are 2 profoto B1’s. It’s been incredibly valuable for me to work with these very portable powerful studio lights. No wires, and the batteries last a really long time even after years of use.

The Phoblographer: Hi James. Tell us about yourself. How did you get into photography?

James Chororos: Hi there. I had a deep interest in art growing up and decided in High School that I would pursue art in college. I went to Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University after graduating High School in 2001. While deciding my concentration, I was between painting and photography, so I ended up studying both.

Sounds like a pretty normal path to becoming a photographer until I threw a huge wrench into it. Somewhere along the way, for whatever reason, I became increasingly nervous I wasn’t going to be able to make a living as an artist. I dropped out of art school and began studying engineering and architecture to become an architect.

I kept shooting pretty regularly for years but just on a personal level. I graduated with a master of architecture and went on to work at Studio Daniel Libeskind, working in teams there to design cultural, institutional, residential and commercial buildings all over the world. It was fun and interesting, but after a few years, my heart wasn’t in the day to day. I was shooting on my lunch breaks, weekends, early mornings, evenings, anytime I wasn’t in the office. I began to realize I needed to break away from the office and try to make it work. That was in 2011.

So as it turned out, my fear of not being able to make it as an artist wasn’t as great as my fear of never giving myself a chance to become one.

The Phoblographer: With many portrait photographers in NYC, what’s your strategy to make yourself and your work to stand out?

James Chororos: It is increasingly more difficult to make your work stand out no matter what type of photographer you are these days. There was a point where I used to give that element of my imagery attention, but you soon realize it doesn’t make you a better photographer, quite the opposite actually. I really just try to continually stay inspired and make the work I want to see myself make. Whether it stands out or not is up to the viewer.

As for standing out as a professional and maintaining clients or attracting new clients, I try to focus on continually creating work that everyone involved in the project will be proud of. You also have to consistently and reliably be everything your client needs to get a job done right and use a network/team that you have good chemistry with to make the job go off seamlessly. I think if you bring your expertise to the table, listen to a client’s needs and deliver on them, and make the process seem as simple as possible (even when it’s not), you’ll find that people will enjoy working with you and come back.

The Phoblographer: There’s a lot of environmental portraiture in your work. What are some of the challenges you face in this genre?

James Chororos: The biggest challenge I face with environmental portraiture honestly is time. In a great location, you have to stay on track when there’s too much to do while also not getting overly attached to an idea or setup. It’s easier to get carried away with a great setting when there’s more to work with, and you risk spending too much time on something that ends up being trivial. I find that keeping the shoot focused and honing in on just a few setups that work is critical.

The Phoblographer: What are some of the more challenging on-location portraits you’ve done? Please take us through some that were the most rewarding.

James Chororos: The first one that comes to mind was a 5-day advertising campaign I did for a residential development in Vancouver a few years ago. The client was fantastic, and it was one of those unicorn assignments where the agency shows a lot of trust and basically says, “just do your thing.” The gist of the creative was to highlight locations through environmental portraiture in and around Vancouver with a high-end vibe to promote the prime location of the development. I’m NYC based, and I had never been to Vancouver at the time, so we did a combination of a remote scout leading up to my arrival in Vancouver and location/prelight scout for 3 days prior to the shoot. It was one of the first shoots where I had the problem of too many great locations to work with. I definitely had trouble at first narrowing things down and prioritizing locations to hit the best and most project appropriate spots. We did 3-4 locations per day- they were long days, and it was summer, so it was pretty hot. Not losing creative energy or energy in general toward the end of long days like that is difficult. Your brain and body start to turn to mush, and you just want to turn off for the day. No one will ever know or care at what part of the day an image was shot though, so you have to be as enthusiastic and energized as you were at the start of the day. The last stretch of each day is always a challenge. In the end, it’s work I’m still proud of, and I had a lot of fun with the whole crew out there- we had a great week even though it was a heavy shoot.

Another location shoot with a different challenge was for the film “The Sound of Silence.” I was tasked with shooting marketing material for the film and working with the talent on set to create promo imagery. The film was shot over 2 months I believe, and I was on set about 75% of the shoot days. Scheduling, timing the shooting in between takes, lighting, and not ruining the film crew or talent’s flow was critical, and it was an extremely big challenge to get the work I wanted out of it. It was incredibly rewarding and interesting, and I was happy with the images. Also, Peter Sarsgaard was awesome to work with.

Lastly, not a specific shoot, but I love shooting portraits in outdoor settings around the city at night. There’s a lot of really nice things about it. It’s much quieter and easier to set up in many locations without being bothered, I like having full control over the lighting without needing to deal with the sun, and I always find the city is romanticized at night- mundane locations that wouldn’t look great during the day become more interesting, so it increases the amount of locations you have to choose from. There are challenges, though, of course. The biggest non-technical challenge is that it’s more difficult to get people to agree to shoot at night outdoors, especially in the winter months. Photo-wise, the lighting has to be very portable, and an assistant is still a necessity.

The Phoblographer: What are some of the factors you take into consideration when composing a portrait on location?

James Chororos: Environment is the biggest for me, I’d say. I always try to make work that has some kind of special or unique element in it, and usually, for me, that means working with the environment. If I’m inspired by the place/location, I know the rest will fall into place. I try to put myself and subjects in the right places with a general idea of what I want to do and see what’s revealing itself in the moment.

The Phoblographer: Aside from this, how do you establish an emotional connection with a subject to ensure their pose and glance resonates with the viewer.

James Chororos: I genuinely enjoy getting to know people and learning about them, so that helps. Usually, about 5 minutes or less into a conversation, we’ll find some common ground- favorite NYC locations, restaurants, design, buildings, art, music, whatever. I photograph many artists and designers, and as a former architect and art school student, I am always deeply interested in how they work, what inspires them, etc.

When you relate with someone you’re about to photograph, it gives you a base level where everyone is more comfortable, which makes the whole process more enjoyable.

Sometimes there’s no time for even a quick conversation, which makes it a challenge to get any sort of working rapport. I photographed Cheryl Hines and Peter Bogdonavich in Florida once, and I had about a minute and a half to shoot two setups. Sometimes you just have to shoot and be quick.

The Phoblographer: Who are some of the people you’ve most wanted to photograph?

James Chororos: It might be surprising since my portraits are really more emotional than lighthearted and fun, but I’ve always wanted to photograph comedians. Many comedians that I’ve met have a wide range and depth about them, and I’d like to explore that. I photographed Aidy Bryant and Nasim Pedrad very early in my career- It was fun, but we didn’t have a lot of time, and I’d always think it’d be nice to revisit shooting with more comedians as my work has evolved.

The Phoblographer: How has connecting with different types of people helped develop your personal style?

James Chororos: I photograph a lot of designers, artists, and in general, just lots of cool, unique people- seeing their personal style firsthand or how they curate their spaces often inspires me and definitely influences my aesthetic.

The Phoblographer: Given that you do this often, how do you keep yourself charged up about each new assignment?

James Chororos: I like the challenge of finding or creating something unique on every shoot, even if the project seems “same old”, and using it as an opportunity to evolve as a photographer. I try to attempt one thing on every shoot I’ve never done before after the “safe” shots are out of the way so I can take some risks and see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes I get my favorite images out of that, sometimes it becomes a setup I try for another shoot, and sometimes it just doesn’t work at all, but that’s okay.

The Phoblographer: What would you suggest for a quick, portable lighting setup for those who want to get started with on-location portraits?

James Chororos: I’ve refined my portable setup over the years so that, if needed, I can travel around with it myself and set it up quickly. I’ve gotten it down to a light stand bag, a roller bag, and a backpack. The light stand bag has stands, a tripod, an umbrella and soft light modifier, and smaller useful items like gaff tape and an extension cord. The backpack is for the B1 heads, remote, batteries. The roller bag is all camera equipment, a field monitor, a 5 in 1 reflector, and accessories. The B1’s are expensive, but you can start with any battery-powered studio light or even speedlights work (that’s what I started with). Those 3 bags are essentially everything I would ever need to light and shoot any standard job.

The Phoblographer: I don’t see a synchronized style of edits across your portrait portfolio. Would you describe your post processing style as eclectic?

James Chororos: Maybe eclectic, though I’ve never thought of it that way. I shoot a variety of different work and types of people, and I try to avoid consciously applying the same style to every shoot so that I can reflect people’s differences and not homogenize each subject/location.

All images supplied by James Chororos. Used with permission. Visit his website, Instagram and Twitter pages to see more of his work

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