Environmental Portrait Photography

grunge ballerina

Portrait photography is all about capturing the essence of a person, which can be hard in a studio. This is where environmental portrait photography comes into place. It provides you with a look into your subject and creatively tells you a short story about their lives.

What Is Environmental Portrait Photography?

When you pay to get your family picture taken, you typically go to a studio and snap a few shots. Sometimes the poses and placement are unique, but sometimes this is static and even generic. Now imagine your photographer grabs their camera and takes you to your favorite diner or they snap you at work. This tells something about you, something about your life. It merges standard posed photography and candid shots, with a bit of fine art thrown in there. This is the heart of environmental portrait photography.

Environmental portrait photography uses the background of the image and the pose to tell something about the subject. For example, you might show a chef in their kitchen. Or you could photograph a ballet dancer in the studio. But it doesn't just have to be where they work, live or play, it can be any place that interests a subject or tells their story. You might use an unknown location and lighting to provide context about the subject in the image, showing the viewer their personality and lifestyle.


Getting the Right Equipment

So, you think you're ready to give this type of photography a try. Well, you can't just grab your camera and go. The environment you choose and lighting are important for this type of photography.

Get the Right Camera

The first thing that you'll need is a good digital SLR camera. This will allow you to manipulate your subject and image in the best way to tell the story that you are trying to convey. While you might be able to get this with a good point-and-shoot, the variety and options that the digital SLR will offer you are unmatched.

Looking at Lenses

Now that you have your camera body, you need to choose the right lens. Since this is portrait photography, there isn't much need for a high range telephoto lens. If you need to zoom, a 70-200 mm f 2.8 will work great. However, if you have to shoot indoors, then you might look for a 50mm f 1.2 since this will let in more light, and the low f-stop will also provide you a great depth of field.


The Right Light

Lighting is very important. Depending on your environment, this could include flashes, reflectors and filters. While Brain Harkin uses the Profoto 7B lighting kit, you can get away with a lower-end flash if you are just starting out in the field. If you are shooting your subject indoors, you can get creative with some indoor lighting techniques.

Tips to Get the Best Images

You are really ready now. You have your equipment and subject. What now? How can your environmental portraits go from 'that's nice' to 'those are amazing?' There are a few universal tips that can push you to the next level.

  • Remember environmental portraiture is all about capturing the mood or essence of your subject. Therefore, you can't just throw them in any old alley and start shooting. It is important to understand them first. If you have time beforehand, talk to them. Get to know their likes, dislikes, hobbies, attitude, etc. This doesn't have to be in person; an email conversation can be just as effective as a face-to-face conversation, if necessary. It can help you to weed out where the image might best capture them. Should you shoot in their living room or favorite chair or maybe on a running path would more suit their athletic side? This is also a great way to get your subject to relax around you.
  • Use natural light to your advantage. You don't want to have to lug around a bunch of equipment, especially if you are going to try multiple locations. This is where finding and using natural light can really push your image.
    Natural light
    Shooting in natural light
  • Listen to your client. What do they want out of the shoot? What do they see in their image? Allow their thoughts to expand your creative vision. After all, this is their image.
  • The image is about the person not the background. At its simplest, this is a portrait. Therefore, you want the client to take center stage. Having a background that is too busy can distract from the client and completely negate what you are trying to create. Depending on who you are photographing, minimal can be better. For example, Arnold Newman's famous image of Igor Stravinsky shows him with his piano. The piano doesn't distract from Igor but becomes a part of him.

Learning From the Best

Like any other art form, to understand the creativity and depth of this photography, it is best to look at well-known work and photographers.

Arnold Newman

One of the best known environmental portrait photographers and possibly the first environmental portrait artist was Arnold Newman. Not only did he win the Centenary Medal from the Royal Photographic Society in 2004, but he photographed the likes of John F. Kennedy and Pablo Picasso. According to Newman, he wanted the background to tell as much of a story as the person within it.

Portrait of Lyndon B Johnson by Arnold Newman
Portrait of President Johnson by Arnold Newman

Anthony Kurtz

With a resume that exhibits awards from the American Photographic Artists and International Photo Awards as well as images in the Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly, Anthony Kurtz is a famous photographer that specializes in environmental portraiture. Using dramatic lighting and the atmosphere, Kurtz sculpts an image of the everyday life of individuals from around the world. His images use the background and scene to expand the photograph telling their story. He also uses dramatic lighting and color to enhance the overall image creating depth and emotion.

Brian Harkin

Not only did Brian Harkin win an Award of Excellence from Pictures of the Year International, but he has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. While Harkin has taken images of famous people such as Andrew McCarthy, he also documents life through images of normal people in everyday journeys like riding the subway.

Shooting Life

Environmental portrait photography or location photography is all about capturing the spirit or nature of a person. This can be done in an area that reflects their life like their work, home or hobby. However, if you are trying to capture their attitude or personality, this can be done at a completely unknown location. You'll need a quality camera, flash and lenses for this type of photography, but it is helpful to keep your equipment minimal. Additionally, there are several tips that can really up your photography game, but getting to know your subject is of the utmost importance. Now grab your camera and have some fun trying this photography form with your next client.

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Environmental Portrait Photography