5 Tips for Environmental Portrait Photography

As an editorial portrait photographer I’ve spent a great deal of time photographing people in a variety of locations and situations. Sometimes putting together a solid environmental portrait comes together really easy, and sometimes you really have to work for it.

Environmental portraits differ from standard photographic portraits since environmental portraits are set in the subject’s environment, such as their home, workplace, or setting they spend a lot of time in. Unlike studio portraits, environmental portraits rely heavily on the setting AND the person to tell the story. By photographing a person in their natural surroundings, you’re able to better portray who they are and what they’re all about. While environmental portraits often turn out much more real, there are some very real challenges that environmental portrait photography brings. Here are five tips to help you nail that first portrait assignment—environmental portrait or not!

1.  Research Your Subject

The first thing I always do when it comes to portraits is find out as much about the person I’m photographing as possible. I look at shots taken by other photographers to see how they photograph, where they are from, how they got to where they are, favorites, etc. Photography is personal. The more you know your subject the better shots you will get.

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2.  Scout Your Location

The right location for the subject is really important for a nice environmental portrait. It should represent the person you are shooting, not always in a literal sense, but should be part of the story you are trying to tell about the person. Always try and scout things out before the shoot. That said, scouting beforehand isn’t always an option, so when you get to your location look for a background that is interesting. The trick is to find something that looks cool, but isn’t distracting from your subject. Follow your gut. I always look for interesting lines, colors, or things that represent that person. You want people to first see your subject then have their eye move to the background and let it finish telling the story.

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3.  Shoot with the Right Equipment for Environmental Portraits

I always shoot with minimal lights, or better yet, find great natural light. I want to work as fast as possible, which I’ll discuss more later on. Elaborate light setups keep people stuck in one spot. I typically shoot with one light and a fill card so we can move around quickly. If we are outside, I usually shoot with a strobe, and inside I’ve had great success with speedlights and umbrellas. Always have a nice fill card/reflector to bounce light. I prefer a nice piece of foam core. You have to learn to what lights and modifiers are going to be best for your scenario. I also like to shoot tethered as much as possible so I can see clearly what’s happening with focus, exposure, etc.

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4.  Make Things Comfortable

Once you have your location and lights set up, bring in your subject and get them comfortable. Getting someone to feel comfortable with you and the situation you have put them in is critical to a great portrait. If someone is nervous, upset, distracted, or uncomfortable in any way, it will show in the photos. This is where your research pays off. Use the info you have found about them to get them engaged. Ask questions, and try to get them to not think about being photographed. You can get different expressions from people by asking the right questions. Give compliments. Make it fun and enjoyable for your subject and your efforts will payoff in a solid portrait.

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5.  Work Fast and Get Options

Lastly, keep in mind that photo editors and clients love options, the more the merrier. It’s easy to find yourself shooting 50 frames of the same thing if you’re not carful. Move around, move your subject, change lenses, change locations. Look for interesting angles. Try and get something different every few shots. You have to work fast. People don’t like getting photographed, that’s why switching it up is important. You may only have 10 minutes to get the shot. However, don’t force things—sometimes what’s best is to just go with the flow and see what happens.

These are a few of the things that have helped me along the way when I have shot portraits and I hope these environmental portrait tips help you too! Photographing people can be challenging, but it can also be really fun. You have to learn how to work with them to get them to get what both of you ultimately want—a solid portrait.

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