Photography can be easily understood to be a synergetic endeavor between two souls on either side of the lens. Today, we live in a world where photography has become a global whirlpool of freeze-frames, with millions of pictures being uploaded every half a minute, where everyone is a ‘subject’ and, boy…do they know it! To seize a treasured shred of the world from space and time, holding it completely immobile, can shatter the totality of one’s world, never to see it in the same light again. The very best of images reminds us that the power of photography can go beyond documenting, transporting you to unseen worlds. Frequently used as a genre of photography are Environmental Portraits.
- What is an environmental portrait?
- Get Down to Scheming
- Location, Location, Location
- Empower your Subject
- Learn to Read the Light
- Love the Colors
- Strike a Pose
- Pivotal Props
- Play with Your Camera Settings
- Experimenting with ISO
- Importance of Post Processing
- Environmental Self Portrait
- Environmental Portrait Black and White
- Exploring the World of Pet Environmental Portraits
- Sources of Inspiration
- Develop that ‘Negative’
What is an environmental portrait?
These portraits are taken in natural, common surroundings of the person - the subject. Basically bringing a natural touch to the photos. This could encompass their home, workplace, community, or anywhere they like to spend their time. The subject could be depicted in the portrait as going about their regular work, at rest, playing or even depicting a passionate hobby. The environment tells a story about the person and don’t we all know photos speak the best stories.
Every professional photographer desires that ‘One Epic Shot’ which depicts the perfect one-off chance of showcasing opportunity collided with skill. What’s the good thing about environmental portrait photography?
When you photograph a person in their natural surroundings, it’s easy to exhibit the essence of the subject’s personality, illuminating the character. In simpler terms, it helps establish context and makes it easier to divulge the personal interests and lifestyle that the subject enjoys. It extends beyond freezing a liking of their physical features. When you shoot environmental portraits, you are exploring the balance of the subject and the environment that he or she interacts in. Apart from this, it is also more of a delight to the subject, since they are more tranquil within their natural surroundings.
Let’s permeate through these tips and tricks that could help you in creating the most realistic and authentic environmental portraits:
Get Down to Scheming
Want to know the key behind successful environmental portrait photography? Well, it’s the research!
Don’t just get in there and start clicking, have a plan heading into a given shoot and research the matter thoroughly. Portraits on location are typically there for a reason, to showcase both the person and the environment surrounding them, and you rarely want one to overpower the other. Define the purpose of the portrait, what mood you would like to convey, the type of photo you would want emerging. You would also want to take into consideration things like shooting indoors or outdoors, a translator in the case of a foreign land and language, location permits, model releases.
Location, Location, Location
What is the one thing that makes a photograph mesmerizing? Well, you are right! It's the location.
Just like in real estate, environmental portrait photography to is all about Location. It’s the golden key in fact. It’s the surroundings that make or break the idea of an environmental portrait. Many times, the subject could choose the location for you, should you be shooting in unknown territory. However, ascertain that the background detailing is imperative to define the character of the subject, and not taking away from the power of the subject in the form of distractions. Look all around you, take note of what counts, if articles aren’t adding value to the shot, remove them, realize to what extent this environ has influenced the subject’s attributes.
Don’t let the background overpower the subject. So avoid vibrant, crowded backgrounds.
Empower your Subject
An essential part of photographing people is the Connect.
It’s essential to spend some time knowing and understanding your subject, what has been crucial to add value in their lives, get into their rhythm of living. This will help in various ways, you will build up information of the depiction of the portrait, build a rapport with the subject, make the subject more comfortable, and increase the level of interpretation between you and the subject. For example, giving subjects the ability to choose allows them to feel more involved in the shoot, which relaxes them.
In foreign countries where language is the barrier, hire a translator for hassle free photography session.
Learn to Read the Light
Einstein, once referred to photographers as lichtaffen, meaning “monkeys drawn to light”.
There’s more than plenty of light available in the surroundings you are shooting. You want to capitalize on the naturality of it, not destroy it. Learn to work with what’s available and make it work for you. In reality, people aren’t always lit from the front. Use strobes, not to highlight the subject but to add light to any dark spots in the area. Optionally, a reflector can be used to manipulate the light from the sun too.
In natural light - here the time of day could play a crucial role in the success of your portraits. For perfect environmental portrait lighting, avoid shooting between 11 am and 3 pm, when the sun is at the highest point of the day. On a cloud-free day, the sun's light will appear very white. As an almost universal fact, a warmer light such that of an hour after sunrise or a few hours before sunset will often yield far better portraits.
Love the Colors
Embrace the colors available, whether that of the subject or the background. Colour can play a vital role in explaining the environment and can elevate a subject that may be wearing more neutral clothing. It could be your own little addition or special touch that sets apart your work and are also a great way of saving grace to rescue portraits if you mess them up in other areas.
Strike a Pose
You don’t want your subject looking awkward in the photographs, because, yes, it is obvious to the eye. You don’t want to push them to give you a certain look, as it will cause tension and unnatural body language. In the process of understanding your subject, it would be easier now to ask them to emulate their very own actions or behaviors. Remember, in case you would like the subject to perform a particular pose, it’s best to show them, instead of a physical contact, as it might not always be the most welcome of actions. Additionally, determining the expressions on the subjects face is equally important to set the tone of the portrait, as it’s not always required that the model is smiling. Always an added benefit is if you can strike up a ready conversation, to indulge in a more natural approach.
If the articles are subtle and naturally fit within the context of the surroundings they can be very appropriate and add to the image nicely but you’ll want to avoid anything that doesn’t quite fit or that potentially distracts the attention of viewers. Try to be true to the context without getting too outlandish.
Play with Your Camera Settings
Depending on the effect you are trying to create, different camera settings would come into play. Mostly, shooting at a smaller aperture could be beneficial when keeping the foreground and background in focus. Getting in tight works for some portraits, but not always. Since the environmental portrait is supposed to impart a sense of place while mostly focusing on the subject, f/3.2 and f/4 are popular choice apertures because they make backgrounds detailed, but out of focus.
Experimenting with ISO
A general advice passed around is to use the lowest ISO possible. Afraid to increase ISO? Well, experienced photographers suggest to increase ISO and want to know why?
While shooting at a lower ISO does increase the image quality, increasing it could give you the power to shoot at faster shutter speeds. This is highly useful when shooting in low light conditions, without a flash. Also, camera technology has taken off fast and most of the up and coming DSLRs available are more than capable of shooting higher ISOs. Learn all about ISO in Photography in just 4 steps!
Importance of Post Processing
Keep in mind, what works for a standard portrait may not necessarily work for an environmental portrait. You should ensure that any of your editings does not in any way weaken the environment itself. A brash environment could be highlighted with a harsher treatment with regards to contrast and color. Post processing can be used to great effect when it comes to environmental portraiture, helping you to underline the relationship between your subject and their surroundings. You could use Vignetting when you need to place more emphasis on your subject. Dodging the subject or burning the surrounding details a little can also make them more prominent. When in doubt, capture your images in the Raw format so that you still have a color copy.
Environmental Self Portrait
Everyone’s well aware of the rage of ‘selfies’ these days, but it’s only fair to give due credit to environmental self-portraits. The technique here is pretty simple as it’s just a matter of mounting your camera to a tripod and using the camera’s self-timer or a wireless remote to trigger the shutter. Unlike regular self-portraits, a wide angle lens would be preferable in this situation, as environmental portraiture is as much about the environment as the person, so you don’t want to be the dominant one in the frame. A good concept is for these type of photos is to be ‘posed candids’ meaning that you’re not looking at the camera, but are instead in a contrived pose emulating the look of a candid.
Environmental Portrait Black and White
Photography’s best shooters often turn to black and white for its expressive power. While it’s true that most see in color, color can at times be too descriptive, failing to show the depth and mood that black and white’s contrast, rich tonality, and shadowing can communicate. Monochrome tends to bring the focus powerfully upon the individual, while the distraction of color can pull it away.
Exploring the World of Pet Environmental Portraits
Environmental portraits don't just end with people but also encompasses the love for pets. Photographing pets in the same way as their human counterparts by putting them at ease and bringing out their adorable qualities and characteristics in a stress-free environment, is what pet environmental portraits are all about. Pet portraiture whilst being the ultimate depiction of cuteness, is actually quite challenging. While generic commands like “Sit” or “Down” could be possibly understood by most trained pets, you couldn’t very well tell your pet to “Hold that pose, and tilt your head a bit to the right”. The flash going off too propels a whole set of other issues. Thankfully, the personality comes from the face, be it human or animal, head shots are a good place to start than a whole body shot. Having the pet owner with you is obviously helpful. Bonus tip, spend some time with the animal, to let them know you’re not the vet or a danger to them!
Sources of Inspiration
Whether you are passionate about photography or not, because of the essence of portraits one can learn so much! Below are a few environmental portrait photographers famous for their impeccable works. You should definitely look into, and who knows along the way, you could add to the list of inspirations, and even turn out to be one….
- Richard Avedon
- Annie Leibovitz
- Helmut Newton
- Martin Chambi
- Daniel Mordzinski
- Arnold Newman
- Philippe Halsman
- Diane Arbus
- Steve McCurry
- Jimmy Nelson
Develop that ‘Negative’
By definition, a portrait is an artistic representation of a person in which the face and its expression are predominant. But, it also goes beyond that. The deeper purpose of a portrait is to display the likeness, personality and even the mood of the person. What sets apart Environmental portraiture apart from the other techniques and styles of photography is the way it sheds light on both – the subject as well as the environments in which they exist. Whether you use the concept of portraying the subject in their natural setting or you one step ahead to construct something, sculpted to depict your vision, there’s nothing like environmental portraiture that could help you grow as a photographer.
It is the propelling action, a ferocious determination to tell a story through transcendent images that can be clearly seen in these portraits. It’s not the skill of a photographer and the artistry of a professional model that brings these portraits to life, but the naturality of the setting and the simplicity depicted by a subject in the comfort of their surroundings.
Incorporating these tips into your photography style and technique sure will set you apart from the scores of other professional photographers, and amateurs with camera phones.
“…because a picture is worth a thousand words…”