As a genre, environmental portraits are a challenge of sorts for most photographers. It is because it involves bringing into focus the environment where the subject is rather than just focusing on the subject alone. These images capture the regular working environment of the subject or where the subject lives. In other words, environmental portraits involve setting up your shot where the subject normally lives or works rather than ring them into your studio to shoot. At the bare minimum these are not your traditional portrait shots.
As a professional photographer you will no doubt get assignments to shoot environmental portraits from time to time. A lawyer perhaps, might want to have her portrait taken in her office. An actor might want to have his picture taken on the very stage where he performs. A corporate head might want you to do the same inside the company boardroom. You get the drift. Having said that, environmental portraits are not only about photographing subjects inside a room. Sometimes these involve photographing subjects outdoors too in a natural environment.
Planning your shoot
Environmental portraits require you to blend the working or living environment or the immediate environment with the subject of your photos. The objective is to showcase the person in his or her natural state. This requires you to plan your shoot in advance. That involves setting up of the lights, plan what camera settings you are going to use and how you are going to incorporate the background and the foreground.
You need a good idea of the environment that you will be shooting in. That involves knowing what the ambient lighting situation is like, the nature of the background and if external lights can be used in such an environment.
Lights form an integral part of an environmental portrait. You need external lights 9 out of 10 times you shoot. The other one time you need at least a way to reflect the ambient light to either fill in the shadows or to create a catchlight.
The kind of lights you need will depend on your budget, the effect that you want as well as the amount of working room you have. Obviously if the space is tight you cannot hope to use large lights. Smaller lights with or without a softbox will be preferred in tighter spaces. If you have a bit more room to work with, go for a studio strobe with a modifier.
When using external lights you also need a way to ensure that your lights can speak to your camera and vice versa. In other words you need a radio transmitter and receiver for your lights and your camera to communicate between themselves. The more the number of lights, the more important this becomes.
Although not mandatory but a tripod would be useful too. A tripod allows you to shoot sharp images in low light environments.
The background, needless to mention, assumes critical importance in an environmental portrait. If the subject is the focus of the image, the background is what completes it. Depth of field, all of a sudden, assumes critical importance. However, that being said, you don’t need everything in the image to be sharp in focus. The background and the immediate environment must be discernible so that it gives a feel of the subject’s environment. But you don’t want them to dominate the image either.
Camera settings for environmental portraits
This is going to wildly swing between photographer to photographer and from scene to scene. There just cannot be one setting that works in every situation. ISO for example, is a very touchy thing in photography. The photography world would be split between those who have been bred on film and those who never knew what it is like to shoot at ISO 200. These days camera sensor sensitivity has improved to mind boggling levels. ISO numbers like 1600 is no longer a taboo.
Now for the aperture settings. Ideally, a good ball park number is f/8. Check the results that you are getting using f/8 and then push it down even further or open up the lens a bit more to blur out the background as per requirement. That being said, it is not always necessary to use a small aperture. Sometimes, using a wide aperture can work just as well. As the legendary Ansel Adams had said, “there are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs”.
Shutter speed will depend on the aperture as well as the focal length you are shooting in. If you are shooting on a tripod or have image stabilization that will give you some room to breathe. If you don’t have either, shoot at least one over the focal length of the shutter speed to avoid image blur.
Pay attention to the composition
The composition part is where most photographers tend to get it wrong. They put all their focus on the subject of the photo and in the process forget that the background (and the foreground) is just as important. You don’t always need an overabundance of light to illuminate the background. Though an overabundance of light with a soft look like the above image) is never out of vogue. Streaks of light coming from any corner of the room will work just as well.
In some situations, however, too much light will kill the shot. Let’s say that you are photographing an elderly fisherman sitting on his fishing boat. Sure you need some light to expose for the subject. But too much light will kill the age lines on his face, something that will also take the punch out of the photo.
I have a particular fascination for shooting inside a fairly under-lit room, especially one with streaks of light coming in from different directions. The streaks of light highlights some areas of the photo while melting in shadow at other areas. That creates an element of mystery. The person’s face is softly lit without a direct streak of light falling on the face. That retains the age lines and adds to the overall drama.
Some amount of post-processing is inevitable when shooting environmental portraits. In my case I tend to underexpose the shadows, while exposing for the highlights. This gives me the option to retain details in the highlights and then push shadows, if necessary, to bring out some details from these areas.