5 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits – Digital Photography School

5 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits







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A Post By: Rick Berk

Environmental portraits typically show the subject in their natural environment. They are different from traditional portraits in that they tend to show more of the character of the subject, rather than just the subject in front of a neutral background. Most people, unless they are professional models or natural hams, tend to stiffen up in front of the camera. Because your subject is in his or her natural environment, they tend to be more relaxed, resulting in better facial expressions and body language.

Environmental portraits are my favorite way to photograph people. I love it when I get a shot that makes the subject’s friends and family say ‘Oh yeah, he’s got you down!” In this article I’ll discuss five things I always keep in mind when taking environmental portraits.

For this portrait, my client was very specific that she wanted to be captured in her apartment, just being who she is. It became quickly apparent that her dog was a very important part of that, so it was decided early that we would include him. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 24-70 f/2.8L IS II. 1/125 @ f/4, ISO 640.

For this portrait, my client was very specific that she wanted to be captured in her apartment, just being who she is. It became quickly apparent that her dog was a very important part of that, so it was decided early that we would include him. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 24-70 f/2.8L IS II. 1/125th at f/4, ISO 640

1. Do your homework

To properly photograph someone in their environment, you need to know your subject. You don’t have to be close friends, but generally speaking, when someone asks for an environmental portrait, you want to make sure you capture who they are. Ask what they have in mind. Ask what their hobbies are. If they want a portrait in their home, what’s their favorite spot in the house? What do they do in that spot? If it’s outside the home, where do they want to be photographed? Why? You need to become a bit of a reporter and sniff out the story. Then you need to illustrate it.

2. Get them talking

Now that you know a little about your subject, what they like to do, and where they like to do it, it’s time to point a camera at them.  This can be the “make-or-break” point of the shoot. If your subject is uncomfortable in front of the camera, this will come across in the images, unless you find a way to get them to relax. One of the easiest ways to get them to relax is to start a conversation. Make them forget that you are taking their photo by asking them about themselves. Have them talk about the spot they’ve chosen for the portrait, their hobbies, their families, their job – anything to get their mind off of the camera in front of them.

In the portrait below, my subject lives in the shadow of this bridge, and is most definitely a New Yorker. This was an impromptu session after a private tutoring session and she was reluctant to let me point the camera at her. She wanted to learn photography herself, so I wrapped a lesson into the banter and pretty soon she was just talking photography and forgetting I was snapping images.

My subject lives in the shadow of this bridge, and is most definitely a New Yorker.  This was an impromptu session after a private tutoring session and she was reluctant to let me point the camera at her. She wanted to learn photography herself, so I wrapped a lesson into the banter and pretty soon she was just talking photography and forgetting I was snapping images.  EOS 5D Mark II with EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. 1/200 @ f/4; ISO 100.

EOS 5D Mark II with EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II – 1/200th at f/4,  ISO 100

3. Use Live View (if your camera has it)

This plays right along with item number two above.  Most people tense up when you raise the camera to your eye, waiting for the image to be taken. Some may even inadvertently shut their eyes, expecting a flash. If you can use Live View on your camera, you can get it away from your face. Your subject will be looking at you, and not at the camera, and will not necessarily anticipate you pressing the shutter button. This works especially well with cameras that feature articulating screens. It can be helpful to mount the camera on tripod as well, using a remote release to trigger the camera.

This is an image of my friend Chris (below), taken while he was supposed to be shooting me and my kids. We were discussing what shots we wanted next when I clicked this, using Live View to frame the shot and focus.

This is an image of my friend Chris, taken while he was supposed to be shooting me and my kids.  We were discussing what shots we wanted next when I clicked this, using Live View to frame the shot and focus. EOS-1D X with EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. 1/2500 @ f/2.8; ISO 100.

EOS-1D X with EF 24-70 f/2.8L II – 1/2500th at f/2.8, ISO 100

4. Modify the light

I try to go as minimal as possible with gear for environmental portraits, using the natural light at the location. However, there are always times where the light is less than optimal and you need to modify it in some way. This can be as simple as adding a reflector in a strategic location, or setting up a flash in a soft box or umbrella. It will all depend on what the available light is like and the look you are going for. One thing I always try to do is keep the light looking as natural as possible.

This was a business portrait, but my client wanted more than a simple headshot. It was taken late in the day, meaning I had to create my own light. She wanted her team in the background working, to show when you worked with her, she had a whole team backing her up. I used a Canon 430 EX II to light the background, aiming it off a white wall and the ceiling, out of the frame. I then used a Canon 580 EX II off camera in a Westcott Apollo 28″ soft box to light my client. I adjusted the intensity of the lighting so that the background light was at a 2:1 ratio with my main light.

This was a business portrait, but my client wanted more than a simple headshot.  It was taken late in the day meaning I had to create my own light. She wanted her team in the background working, to show when you worked with her, she had a whole team backing her up. I used a Canon 430 EX II to light the background, aiming it off a white wall and the ceiling, out of the frame. I then used a Canon 580 EX II off camera in a Westcott Apollo 28" soft box to light my client.  I ratio'd the lighting so that the background light was at a 2:1 ratio with my main light. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105 f/4L IS. 1/100 @ f/4, ISO 400.

EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105 f/4L IS –  1/100th at f/4, ISO 400

5. Don’t be afraid to shoot tight

While it’s true than an environmental portrait normally means showing some of the area around your subject – the environment – you can get close and still show your subject’s character.  Take an element of your subject’s hobby, and show them participating in the hobby. If they’re a model builder, you could do a tight shot of them applying glue or assembling the pieces.  This is your chance to be creative, trying different angles, focusing on different aspects of  their personality and character.  Emphasize features that stand out, in a flattering way, if that’s the goal. Find out what makes the person in front of your camera special, and capture it!

Here's my subject from the shot in front of the bridge. She's a photographer as well now, but back then she was just a hobbyist who wanted to know more about her camera. I used the beautiful sunset light I was getting, and set up a reflector to camera right to bounce the light back into her face.  I wanted her peeking out from behind her camera, illustrating that she's into photography. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105 f/4L IS. 1/250 @ f/4, ISO 100.

EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105 f/4L IS – 1/250th at f/4, ISO 100

This is the same girl as the shot in front of the bridge. She’s a photographer as well now, but back then she was just a hobbyist who wanted to know more about her camera. I used the beautiful sunset light I was getting, and set up a reflector to camera right to bounce the light back into her face. I wanted her peeking out from behind her camera, illustrating that she’s into photography.

Do you have any additional tips you’d add to this list? Please share in the comments below.

For more portrait photography tips check out these articles:

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick’s work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

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