If you’ve ever gotten your portrait taken professionally, you know what it’s typically like. You go into the studio, the photographer sets up a few props, and you pose accordingly. While these kinds of shoots always create a nice clean cut look, our lives are anything but. That’s why I think it’s crucial for every photographer to learn the fine art of taking environmental portraits. It’s a much more authentic way to capture your subjects.
What is an environmental portrait?
It’s the same as a standard portrait, but you go to the place where your subject spends most of his or her time. Usually, it’s somewhere relevant to that person’s passion in life. So if you’re taking a picture of an artist, you’d show up in her studio and take pictures while she works. If you’re taking a picture of your grandmother, you might pick the one place that reminds you the most of her and use that as your environment.
But you don’t have to be constrained by one place. There are dozens of places to take an environmental portrait, and many of them might not have anything to do with your subject’s interests or life story. The idea is to do something out of the ordinary, to get out of the studio and create something with a little more impact.
A good environmental portrait should bring out your subject’s personality in a stylized sort of way. It needs to be a bit of an exaggeration. I know it might not feel comfortable having your subject pose in such a dramatic fashion, but that’s what adds the air of mystique to the image. People will see it, and they’ll get intrigued.
Granted, there is such a thing as going overboard too. What you’re really aiming for is natural drama. You want to open up a window in your subject’s world, one that shows your subject’s life for what it is. Sometimes that involves a lot of heavy posing, and sometimes it means sitting back and allowing the moments to unfold. You’ll have to decide how you want to direct the shoot if you feel like it’s not going in an interesting direction.
Things to watch out for when taking environmental portraits.
First of all, you’re going to be in an unfamiliar place. That means you’ll need to be prepared for all sorts of different lighting conditions. At one location, it might be perfectly bright inside, while at another it’ll be as dark as a cave. It helps to master your flash techniques. Knowing how to bounce flash off of your camera and onto the walls in order to get more natural lighting is key. If you can’t do that, try to find an open window to position your subject in front of. They are a fantastic light source.
In a worst case scenario, consider increasing your camera’s ISO speed. You’ll get a little more grain in your final image, but that’s a heck of a lot better than coming away from the shoot with pictures that are too blurry or dark. The grain also adds a rustic and vintage style to the image. It sometimes works really well with certain environments.
You may also want to spend some more time getting to know your subject before your next shoot. Some people are more comfortable being photographed in locations other than those you might expect. You never really know until you go there. You want to pick a place where your subject truly comes to life, where he or she just pops off the screen.
And this brings me to another point. Sometimes the one place you initially thought of just doesn’t work. There are a number of reasons why, but the most commons is too many distractions. I’ve shot photos of artists and musicians in a number of different studios, and I often have to reposition my subject or find some adjoining space to take the photos because the actual workspace is too cluttered. You never want clutter in a portrait. It takes too much attention away from what’s more important - your subject.
Above all, you need to relax and build rapport with your subject. If you aren’t having a good time taking pictures, you subject might suspect something is wrong and start acting weird. You never want that. It sort of defeats the whole purpose of taking an environmental portrait. What you want is a natural, immersive, highly stylized image that’s just exploding with personality. Awkwardness creates none of those things.
If someone were to take an environmental portrait of you, where would you stage it? Why? I’d love to know. Just leave a comment below.
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