Environmental Portraits Tell a Story

5 Tips for Great Environmental Portraits

I love taking portraits of people in the places they live, love and work. Environmental portraits bring out the character of a person, and tell a story.

Environmental portraits are portraits taken at a location, and are very different from traditional portraits taken in a studio. This style of portrait is quite personal, giving insight into a person’s daily life and telling a story of who they are.  Environmental portraits can be a great choice for family photos, as they capture the essence of a loved one and invoke lasting memories.

If you’re looking for close up headshots, these are only ‘environmental’ if they give a clue to where they are taken and the place adds to the story. They need location to give the image context. A good photographer can make gazing into someone’s eyes very personal – the gateway to the soul.

I have 5 tips for people wanting environmental portraits – and for photographers to shoot better portraits on location.

#1. Choose the Environment Carefully

Because environmental portraits are so personal, be sure you or your subjects are OK with being photographed in a particular environment. A good photographer will try to capture the reason the environment is special, or the subject’s feelings and emotions in that environment. An example is the image below.   Opa Jack was strumming his guitar and reminiscing. The family wanted a happy photo of him at home, but the photo shoot also stirred up painful memories for an old man, of love and life lost. The safe environment of his home meant that he didn’t linger in those memories, and I got a lovely series of images.

#2. Plan Ahead – and have a Plan B

Plan the style of images you are looking to create, and then you can determine the style of shoot. What is the story you want to tell? What is the purpose, and the mood you plan on conveying?

Will you be shooting indoors or outdoors? If it rains, can you still shoot outside? If it’s cloudy, will there be enough light inside? Do you need permission to shoot at a particular location? Will there be other people there?

#3. Location, Location, Location

It might sound obvious, but location is the key to capturing amazing environmental portraits. It’s a good idea to scout through the location you have chosen, even if you think you know it well, to determine the best places to depict the subject.

A good photographer will meet with their subject beforehand and get to know them. It is important for the photographer to understand something of the person and their story. Perhaps the subject has a place where they feel more relaxed – a special chair, garden or outdoor space. The more relaxed the subject is, the easier it is to capture natural facial expressions and body language.

Background detail is essential in adding a sense of place and defining the story. However, it is important to remember also that the background is there to create an impression. Too much background detail can dominate and take the attention away from the subject. Environmental portraits are about the subject first and foremost.

#4. Posing for Environmental Portraits

Posing your subject and capturing natural body language can be tricky, as posing can look forced if you’re not careful.

Most people feel at ease when sitting or leaning against something – this can be a good starting point. Get them comfortable, and adjust them a little. Start slowly getting them into the pose that you want. Having the subject look at the camera can feel awkward if you ask them to start that way.

As an example, if you are in a home or workplace, get them to carry on with their daily activities while you set up and shoot. I like to take some test shots and then evaluate them on the rear screen together with the subject. Laugh together at shots that just didn’t work – it’s a learning curve for most subjects!

Close, intimate portraits need understanding and respect. A photographer should not touch a subject, or rearrange clothing. Objects in the environment, or props you choose to use, could also be special – let your subject place and arrange these.

A good idea is to demonstrate poses and have your subject re-position. Test shots are great for showing a subject the difference a small adjustment can make. It’s all about gaining each other’s trust. This takes time, but when trust develops between photographer and subject, the results dramatically improve.

#5. Natural Light Adds Drama

Working with natural light is a great way to add drama to the story. Natural light can help you create moody portraits, full of character.

Photographing elderly people in low light gives you the ability to build drama in facial expressions, lines and wrinkles, helping you create portraits that are more dramatic. Find a dark space, where only part of the scene is lit. Position your model in the area of light, against the dark background or area. The light will highlight your subject, and the background will be dark and free of distracting elements. Shoot from different angles, or maybe re-position your model to stand half in shadow and half in light. This will give you dramatic contrasts.

Another way to add drama in natural light is to add smoke or haze to the scene. You can buy ‘smoke’ for photography use, but I often burn incense. Darker backgrounds work best with smoke – the smoke doesn’t tend to show up against a lighter background, so you don’t get the same impact. A shallow depth of field draws the focus on to the smoke and creates a subtle illusion of depth.

Enjoy taking or making environmental portraits. They can be well worth the experience!

Mary Hinsen is a photographer, mother, grandmother and writer, known for her award-winning food photography, portraits and fine art images.  She lives in the beautiful Central Otago region of New Zealand.

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