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If you want to learn a little about how to take environmental portraits, or want to know what are environmental portraits in the first place, stick around.
The current excitement for environmental portraits is actually nothing new, it’s a portrait genre that has been around almost as long as photography itself. What is making it so popular currently is partly due to how tastes change and evolve continuously, but also because it’s a lot easier to create good environmental portraits now.
What Are Environmental Portraits?
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Environmental portraits are images of people, alone or in groups, that include extra visual information. The extra visual information usually tells us something about the people, such as what they do for work or fun or perhaps hints about their personality. In other words, we tell a story about the person.
Examples of environmental portraits that might tell a story about someone are someone working on their bike, a person painting, or someone sitting amongst a pile of stuffed animals. All of these examples tell us something extra about the person being imaged.
Environmental Portrait Tips
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Learning how to create environmental portraits is actually a very simple thing to take on. For an environmental portrait tutorial, take everything you already know about portraits in general, including common portrait lighting setups, and add a few more things to that.
Know your subject, widen out, posing and composition, getting used to portable lighting, and things like that.
Know Your Subject
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In order to create good environmental portraits, you really need to know something about your subject. If they are a new client, an interview of some sort is often beneficial. It doesn’t have to be some elaborate session, simply talking to them for a while during the booking conversation can yield tons of ideas.
Be observant of visual cues. Did they ride up to your home office on a motorcycle? Might include bikes, a garage, or the outdoors somehow in their portrait.
Pay attention to their words. Did they mention a hobby or love of their pets at any time? Perhaps adding in their latest hobby project or them playing with their dog, iguana, or llama would be in order.
Their workspace or home is often a source of pride for some, especially if the environmental portrait session is of a group such as workmates or family. Be sure to just come out and ask them directly any of these questions if the cues aren’t readily evident. This way, you will capture something about them that helps explain to others who they are.
photo by Sisoje via iStock
In order to capture some surroundings, one of the basic environmental portrait tips is to use a wider lens than what you might normally be using for portraits. An 85mm or 100mm lens is fantastic for head and shoulder pics or headshots, but the Nifty Fifty or a lens a little wider like 35mm or 28mm is probably going to work better for this style of portraits.
Some interesting environmental portraits have been made with lenses that are even wider than that, such as 20mm and wider. If you use lenses that wide, it’s a good practice to use a tripod and level to avoid skewed lines, also be very aware of facial elongation with close up portrait subjects.
Posing and Composition
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Subject placement, both posing and composition, is a vital aspect of setting up a workable environmental portrait. By varying the position of the subject in relation to the other parts of the image, you can change what is emphasized. For instance, the portrait subject off to the side of their work or hobby will emphasize the work or hobby more than the person.
Posing tips for environmental portraits include having the subject making eye contact with the camera for a more intimate feeling or having them look elsewhere, including off to the distance, for adding interest to the environmental part of the image.
Environmental portraits can often take advantage of the powerful composition techniques of Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio or Fibonacci Spiral. Just changing the orientation from vertical to horizontal can also change up the entire message of the image.
Use Portable Lighting
You might be tempted to rely on either available ambient light or an on camera flash for environmental portraits, but my experience has taught me that a good portable light or two is often the best choice for environmental portrait lighting.
Since you’re most likely away from wall sockets or without a lot of options for power supply, a small battery powered LED light such as the new Hakutatz LED light is a good choice for your environmental portrait lighting setup.
What I like about these types of lights is how versatile your portrait lighting setup is with them. The Hakutatz LED lights are about the size of an iPhone and can even be controlled by either an iPhone or Android device.
Using one light can help emphasize the person within the environmental portraits, two or three lights or a light and reflectors can be employed to even out ambient light conditions or create a natural feel to the scene.
In order to have an effective and natural looking portrait, it often is best to light in such a way that nothing important is either in too deep a shadow or much too bright. Unless you’re intending to have a high-key or low-key image.
It's Easier Than We Thought!
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If we take the approach of how to take environmental portraits by merely adding a few key thoughts or techniques to what we already know about portraits, we should end up with environmental portraits that tell a story about the subject.