10 expert tips for 'environmental' portraits

First published:
October 25, 2021
February 14, 2024

10 expert tips for 'environmental' portraits

First published:
October 25, 2021
February 14, 2024

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.

Include details in the surroundings that tell a story and expand on the character of the subject. Photo by Callan Murray Hocking - f/7.1 | 1/200s | ISO 200

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.

Spend a few moments chatting and learn something about your subject and their surroundings before you start shooting. Photo by Anibal Bueno - f/4.6 | 1/400s | ISO 800

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.

Put your subject at ease for a greater connection in your street portraits. Photo by Will Wilson - f/4 | 1/50s | ISO 100

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).

Pools of light like this can make for atmospheric portraits, especially if you expose for the highlights so the rest of the scene is plunged into shadow. Photo by Christian Petersen-Clausen - f/2.8 | 1/50s | ISO 1000

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.

Cloud cover is ideal for outdoor portraits, especially if you use a wide aperture to blur out the backdrop like this. Photo by Sony Thomas

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.

A carefully positioned flash can augment the ambient light and create an atmospheric portrait. Photo by Sergiy Tryapitsyn - f/1.6 | 1/100s | ISO 100

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.

Juxtapose your subject and background for an eye-catchingly off-key portrait. Photo by Stockimo

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.

Include props, objects and details in the surroundings that compliment or clash with your subject. Photo by Anton Dee - f/2.2 | 1/400s | ISO 200

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.

The inclusion of the paintings and easels here gives this portrait a strong context. Photo by Ross Matthews

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.

Bold blocks of colour in the surroundings can help you create vibrant portraits. Photo by William Voon - f/11 | 1/200s | ISO 200

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