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How to Shoot Environmental Portraits

The classic portrait has been done to death.  Forget about capturing simple portraits for now, and follow these easy tips to start shooting environmental portraits today.

Environmental Portraits 101

Environmental portraits are very similar to classic portraits in their end goal of capturing an individual’s character.  However, the environmental portrait often includes the subjects daily surroundings as a way of highlighting or emphasizing that character.

Some online tutorials will tell you to follow certain technical considerations – only use a wide lens, or only shoot with a wide depth of field.  Of course, that’s not really accurate.  You can crank out good environmental portraits with just about any camera settings, as long as your approach is right.

So what do I mean by approach?  Environmental portraits should include things that communicate something about the subject, besides the subject itself.  Objects, lighting, physical environment – these things will help you pull off a successful environmental portrait.  But don’t just focus on any of these:  select items or situations that speak about the person you’re photographing.

environmental portrait sample

Kit sits on a bed in West Texas, an empty beer bottle in the foreground.  Kit is one of my closest friend, and he’s borderline alcoholic.  Kit was depressed a lot, so I shot with the aim of getting a murky feel to the photograph, including the bottle to emphasize the role of alcohol in his life, looming behind his back. 

Feel for Your Subject

Perhaps the easiest way to take a better environmental portrait, is to actually care about your subject.  What do they fear?  What do they struggle with?  Is there a tragedy or contention in their life?  While happy, sugary, feel-good portraits are great, people tend to care more about a serious issue, and whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve all got skeletons in our closets.

environmental portrait sample

Alex and Tom playing poker.  When I lived in Pennsylvania, I’d go up to a cabin with Alex and Tom and play poker.  This is a good example of not having to use a wide depth of field – the chips, cards, beer, and cigarette are all relatively in focus.  At first glance one can see exactly what kind of people Alex and Tom are.  

Join Your Subject

Another often-shunned approach, “going native” or joining your subject in his or her environment can help you speak worlds about who they are as a person.  Don’t just take a portrait – have a bona fide experience.

environmental portrait sample

My little brother Jesse plays video games on his bed.  Always the gamer, my little brother didn’t want to be photographed in a formal setting, so I caught him in his natural environment with a controller in his hands.  Again, I used a relatively low aperture and just made sure my key points of focus – his face and the controller – were clearly shown.

Get Familiar with Your Subject

Sometimes we miss the things that are closest to us, and the best subjects are sometimes right under our noses.  Things that are commonplace but indicative to someone’s true character are a godsend for environmental portraiture, and you shouldn’t be afraid to close the distance – both literally and figuratively.

environmental portrait sample

Beth photographs herself.  Here you can see me breaking a couple of rules, using a low depth of field and not even having the tripod or camera in the foreground even remotely in focus.  For me, it worked.  Most people looking at this photo can tell what is going on.  

Distance your Subject

Conversely, you can take a mental step back from people you are close to, in your approach to take better environmental portraits.  The more time we spend with people, and the longer we know them, the more we tend to gloss over their appearance and character.  Stop and think about who they are and what makes them tick.

Well, there you have it folks!  Hopefully these tips will be of some use to you, and get you shooting soon.

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