Capture great portraits in interesting locations and tell fascinating stories with your people photos...
Environmental portraiture is one of the most rewarding branches of people photography, but it can also be a challenge. Not only do we have to deal with all the usual aspects of portraiture - expression, lighting, focusing and so on - we also have to think about the surroundings and consider the context. But when everything comes together we can create portraits with real impact.
Here are a few key things to think about…
1 What is an environmental portrait?
As the term suggests, it’s about capturing a person in their environment. But there’s more to it than this, the best environmental portraits are those that use the surroundings to tell a story about their subject. The viewer should learn something about the person through the details around them.
The background becomes the subject’s backstory. It could be their place of work, or somewhere dear to them, perhaps their spiritual or actual home. There are no hard rules here, but in general the subject will know they are being photographed and even acknowledge the camera, unlike in street or documentary candids where they may or may not.
2 Shoot the breeze first
If you have a good understanding of who your subject is, what they do and how their surroundings are meaningful to them, then it can lead to a more considered environmental portrait. As such, don’t necessarily reach for the camera and immediately start shooting. Instead, take a few moments to speak to the person and learn something about them. If they’re in their place of work, ask about aspects of their job or the objects around them. If they’re somewhere important to them, find out why it’s important. Not only can this help to put the subject at ease, you may also learn something that can add to the story of your photo.
3 Keep it friendly
Environmental portraiture is about seeking a connection between the subject and their environment, but there’s another connection we also need to be mindful of, that between the subject and the photographer. Being friendly and approachable is key to putting people at ease, especially if approaching strangers. It helps to pick subjects that look as if they will be confident in front of the camera. It can be hard to approach a stranger, but the worst that will happen is that they’ll say no. A smile and a few words can go a long way, and it’s constantly surprising how often people will be willing - and even flattered - that you’ve asked to take their photo.
4 Find pools of ambient light
Lighting can often be a challenge in the varying conditions environmental portraiture will inevitably take you. But you don’t necessarily need to use expensive lighting gear to get great shots. In most scenes there will be pockets of light that are ideal for portraiture. If shooting indoors, window light is ideal. Position your subject side-on to a large window for simple, flattering light (and turn off any tungsten or artificial strip lighting that may interfere with your white balance).
5 Avoid strong sunlight
If you’re shooting outdoor environmental portraits avoid direct sunlight. Cloud cover or shade will lead to more flattering portraits, and less squinting. If you’ve no choice but to shoot in sunlight then consider using a flash to add a little fill light into the shadows on the face, or shoot with the sun to your subject’s back for atmospheric rim lighting. Natural bounce light - like the sunlight bouncing off a white wall - can also create more balanced portrait lighting.
6 Use your own lighting
Off-camera flash is perfect for environmental portraits. With a flash or two carefully positioned, you can light both your subject and backdrop from different angles for dramatic effect. A simple but reliable lighting technique is to position your subject in a darker part of the scene - like under the shade of a tree or in a doorway, and then - before turning on your light - work out a manual exposure for the brighter areas of the backdrop. From here simply fire up the light and use it to lift your subject so that they’re balanced with the backdrop.
7 Compose for the backdrop
If we break an environmental portrait down there are just two main elements - the subject and the background. Only one of these is moveable. So it often makes sense to compose the scene first, then ask your subject to stand or sit in a position that works in harmony with everything else. Sometimes this might not be possible, but most people will be happy to move around if it makes for a better shot. Begin by taking test shots of the scene to work out the most pleasing composition, then place your subject in the ideal position. Think about the direction of the light too- as a simple rule of thumb ask your subject to turn their face towards the light.
8 Dress your set
It can be helpful to think of the scene as a film set. Like the director of a movie, you’ll want to scrutinise the mise-en-scène - the details that tell the story - and frame out those that don’t matter. Imbue each object in the scene with meaning and you’ll create a stronger portrait.
9 Simplicity and context
When shooting in an interesting environment it can be tempting to use a wide angle lens and try to fit everything in. But this can often lead to a frame that looks overly busy. As with all kinds of portraiture, simplicity is usually the best course of action. So rather than including as much as possible in the frame, instead try eliminating all but a few simple details. Crop in tighter and use one or two props to add interest.
10 Use colour to enhance mood
Not only can bold colours lead to eye-catching visuals, they can also help to enhance the mood of the portrait. Vibrant tones may speak of a vibrant character, while a muted palette can create a more melancholy feel. Of course, you could also try converting the portrait to black and white. This can give it a timeless feel and draws attention to things like expression and the play of light across the scene.