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Envisioning & Shooting an Environmental Portrait

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This post is part of a series called Environmental Portraiture: How to Go Beyond the Ordinary.
No Light, Low Light, No Problem: Environmental Portraiture at Night

Striking the balance of environment and subject is what good environmental portraiture is all about. Today, I'm taking you from start to finish with how to envision and craft an environmental portrait. We'll go from scouting to sculpting the light to highlighting the subject and environment.


What is an Environmental Portrait?

Before we get to shooting an environmental portrait, I wanted to take some time and talk a little bit about how we define this class of portraiture. It brings something unique to the table.

Doing a little research on environmental portraiture helps us to learn that the basic premise is photographing a subject within a naturally constructed environment.

Shooting someone on a white backdrop in a studio is the "anti" environmental portrait. Placing them outdoors and shooting a tight headshot doesn't qualify either - when we shoot environmental portraiture, we are exploring the balance of the subject and the environment that he or she interacts in.

When I think of environmental portraits, they can certainly fall within this definition of a subject in their natural environment. But this post right here on PhotoTuts+ got me thinking more about creating stories, placing them in backgrounds I select and sculpting the light to our vision.


Studio portraits on white are very visually appealing, but it can be difficult to truly express our subject. Photo by Flickr user Illusive Photography.

Maybe an environmental portrait means photographing our subject in their day to day setting, behaving in ways that they frequently behave. Or maybe environmental portraiture is about placing someone in an unfamiliar setting, and creating juxtaposition between the subject and the environment. By taking a subject out of their natural environment, we have the chance to create a setup with unconventional results. I think that both setups are aspects of environmental portraiture that photographers can (and should) explore.

Today, I'm crafting an environmental portrait that I am curating. A local hip-hop musician and friend of mine needed a promotional photo for his upcoming works. In this case, the subject doesn't have a "usual environment" so I felt it was my role to create the story of the photo. Let's get started with walking through the gear choices and vision for the photo.


Lens Choice

One thing that photographers talk a lot about is lens choice. Part of this is borne of an interest in gear, but even outside of that, varying focal lengths drive the aesthetics of an image. Environmental portraits require some special consideration, so it's important to address the things that drive my decision on lens selection. For this shoot, I went with the Canon 35L lens. That's a 35mm f/1.4 lens, and I thought it fit my situation perfect.

For most portraits, I might use a longer focal length, like an 85mm or even one of my favorites, the Canon 135L lens. In these situations, I want to isolate the subject and make the background an afterthought. But when I'm looking to make an environmental portrait, I typically find myself using something a little wider. We're looking to balance the composition of the environment with our subject.


The Canon 35L is my go to lens for most of my work, and environmental portraiture is no exception. I like the way that it's wide enough to balance a subject and what's around him or her.

There are things that we have to keep in mind however. On my full frame camera, a 35mm lens is pretty wide. Wide angle lenses can introduce some distortion with our subjects if we are working at close distances. Make sure that you are mindful of not getting too up close and personal when you have a wide angle type lens attached. Your subjects will thank you later.


The Walkthrough

Even before I shoot these photos, the first thing that I do is usually spend a great deal of time scouting for good locations for environmental portraits. However, a key is being able to handle those locations for the given lighting situation. Scout a location in a way that best simulates photographing it. That means aiming to examine it at approximately the same time and weather conditions as how you will photograph it.

Doing good scouting work means doing lots of scouting work. The more places that you traverse and the more locations you note, the more choices you'll have when the time comes to create the photo. The cool thing is that you don't have to go out specifically to scout for new photo locations. In fact, most of my best spots come from the daily explorations called life! Driving on back roads and exploring your area will lead you to places that you never knew existed.

Luckily, keeping almost any cell phone in our pocket means keeping with us the only tool required to visually note scenes that can be used for environmental portraits. Photographers of old times would have killed for a tool like a camera phone, with which we can snap scouting photos, make notes about them, and even log the exact location.


Using a smartphone is one of the easiest and most powerful tools when scouting. Many cameras will log GPS data and make it easy to navigate to the location at a later time.

This location just outside of a state park was a place that I highlighted in my scouting notebook some time ago. I snapped a quick photo with my phone several months ago and knew I would use it when the opportunity presented itself.


This was the first thing I saw as I ventured down a path. That moment when you have an idea for how to use a scene is one of my favorites as a photographer.

This photo had enough "interestingness" to make it noteworthy to me. Between the greenery and the shed on the property, there were a lot of ideas that came to mind about how I could position my subjects and balance the scene.

Before my subject arrived, I started to envision the photo and how to balance it all out. I knew that my subject would be the focus of photo, but I didn't want to lose the shed. It brings a lot of visual curiosity to the table and I had to think of a way to involve it in the photo.


This outtake from the scene shows how the shed kind of just "blends in" with no highlight on it.

Enter the wonders of flash photography. I'm always looking to use an off camera flash wirelessly to highlight the details of a photo. For this, I wanted to get a little bit creative and interject the light that would highlight the shed. Lighting the subject would be simpler in approach, but I wanted to use creative lighting with the shed.

Using wireless flash meant busting out the wireless flash setup. Using RadioPoppers I rigged one flash to fire when the shutter would fire on the camera. Placing the transmitter in the hot shoe of the camera and attaching the receiver to the flash unit will trigger them in sync and allow me to add light anywhere in the scene. Also, I might add a gel to flash in these types of situations. If my final exposure is in color, interestingly colored light can create something unique.

After my subject arrived, I began to think more about the compositions that would best combine the subject and environment. I settled on placing him several steps in front of the shed off to the side, and continually moved back and changed my composition until I was pleased with the outcome.

On the technical side of things, I was shooting my camera in aperture priority, with the aperture set at f/2 . I enjoy shallow depth of field and generally like isolating my subject so I'll frequently shoot wide open at at f/1.4, but I wanted just a bit more depth of field to include the shed. Pushing the aperture to f/2 did just that for me.


One of the first shots fired achieved a decent photo, but I wanted more of an idea of how the subject related to the environment. Backing up and changing to a full length portrait helped me to achieve this.

Also utilized was a small flash with a shoot through umbrella which I lit my subject with. It was only throwing off enough light to highlight the subject, and dialed down enough to not give off the typical "too-bright" flash effect.

After taking a moment to push the photo to black and white in post production, I'm very pleased with the final result. The flash on the door makes my eye also pay mind to the shed in the background, whereas it was almost an afterthought before. Lighting those background or secondary elements is a way to control how a viewer explores the photo.

Keep in mind that when it comes to environmental portraiture, you have to be careful to not lose sight of the environmental portrait vision. Sure, you can snap "other photos" while on the scene - tight headshots or otherwise - but the moment you begin to lose the balance of the subject and scene, you're venturing outside of what could be considered environmental portraiture.


Wrapping Up

Environmental portraiture is special in the way that it brings light to both a portrait subject as well as the environments in which they exist. Whether it portrays the subject in their natural setting or we construct something and sculpt it to our vision, studying environmental portraiture is one way to grow as a photographer.

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