One of my favourite style of portraits to shoot is environmental portraits. This may be a term that you’ve heard before, but not everyone is completely familiar with what this is. Simply put, an environmental portrait is a portrait where the subject is captured in their larger environment - this may mean their home, workplace, and so on. An environmental portrait shows the the subject in context, and it typically involves a wider view of the subject, rather than the close framing associated with traditional portraits.
When I shoot an environmental portrait I’m looking for an interesting area or surroundings, where the model will blend nicely and suit the surroundings. If possible, you also want something that ties the subject to their environment, like a theme or outfit. In this article we'll discuss the type of lenses I use to shoot this genre and what I look for when shooting environmental portraits.
When capturing capturing environmental portraits I’ll shoot with a wider lens than traditional portraits. I shoot on a Sony system, so I specifically use either the Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM or the Sony 35mm f/1.4 Zeiss, but any similar focal length will suit. The reason why I rarely use a longer focal length is I want to show more of the environment, and using a wider lens will achieve that. I COULD achieve the same result with an 85mm lens, but I would have to stand very far away!
Below is an example. I was in Melbourne and wanted to do some nighttime city portraits. This particular image was shot with the 35mm f/1.4. You can see that by keeping the field of view wide allows the city lights to show through. I choose to shoot wide open to create some nice bokeh with the f/1.4 aperture, which accentuated the blur of the city lights in the background while keeping my subject nice and sharp.
Below is an image where I used the Sony 24mm f1.4 GM. This was a pretty tight shot as I had very limited space - escalators aren’t really meant to accommodate photoshoots! Fortunately the 24mm allowed me to get a bit closer to my subject and capture her with a large portion of the environment. The wide angle of the 24mm makes the space look larger and gives the model some space to breath. This shot also incorporates leading lines in the escalators and gives an urban look.
One very important aspect of an environmental portrait is - you guessed it - the environment! For this reason picking a great location is very important. It is best to pick something that will match an outfit or theme so that the subject makes sense within that location. For example, someone in footy gear might not fit in very well in a corporate setting. That being said, there can be some creative value in unusual or fish-out-of-water locations. Generally though, if the outfit doesn’t make sense in the location it will throw the image off balance and will look out of place.
Locations are also important because the surroundings will help draw the viewers eyes to the image. Earlier I said that I prefer to use wider angle lens to showcase more of the environment, but in situations where you have lots of room you may find you can achieve an exceptional result with a longer focal length lens. Below is an example of an image I shot using the Sony 70-200 f/2.8 GM. Now, when using a longer lens for environmental portraits you don’t always have to shoot wide open. The whole point of environmental portraits is showcasing the surroundings, so you want to make sure not to completely blur out the background. Here I was shooting at 200mm at f/4. This allowed me to give the background a slight blur but it is still clear enough to showcase to rolling sand dunes and allowing the subject to still be the main focus. I used the Godox AD600 to fill in the shadows and give an even light on my subject, since we were shooting in harsh lighting.
Below is another example of using the 70-200 f/2.8 lens. I captured this image for a client on their wedding day. I wanted the waterfall to be in the background so I placed the couple on the rocks. Due to limited space I couldn’t use a wide angle lens, so instead I went across the lake and used the 70-200 at 200mm. This was again shot at f/4, allowing the background to have a just enough blur to keep the focus on the subjects but still make the background clearly visible. I also used a slow shutter speed here to show a bit of movement in the water (I couldn’t make that too extreme though otherwise the subjects would become a little blurry due to natural human movement). I used the Godox AD200 with MagMod MagGrid and MagSphere to light the couple.
Earlier I mentioned the importance of clothing and outfit. You need to keep this in mind so the setting and outfit complement each other, or at the very least they don’t clash. For example, you typically wouldn’t want to pick a bright colourful wall as the background if the the subject is wearing bright colourful clothing. This is because when the viewer looks at the image, the wall and the clothing will blend together and the viewer’s eye will get lost. A much better situation would be a colourful wall with more plain clothing, or colourful clothing in front of a plain wall so that there is contrast between the subject and background.
Another example is if the subject is positioned in a very busy environment - this can make it difficult for the viewer to draw their eye to the subject if there is too much distraction in the environment. Below is an example of an image I captured in a very last-minute and rushed shoot which had limited time to prepare and pick the outfit. Now I love the reflection, the sunset, and the colours BUT the outfit didn’t 100% suit the environment she was in. The colours didn’t blend in nicely to go with the flow of the image.
The image below is a great example of how the outfit plays a big role when shooting environmental portraits. A designer had recently received a new dress and wanted to get some fashion portraits done but she wanted them done as an environmental portrait. So we picked this location which didn’t have much of a background but had these amazing stairs. When we placed the couple on the stairs with the colour of their outfit everything started to fall into place. The stairs make it look like they are going to a ball or wedding, which suits the high-class look of their outfits. Here I used the 35mm f/1.4 to capture this image, although shooting at f/4 as I wanted the surroundings to also be in focus. The stairs also provide a leading line to help draw the viewers eyes to the couple. Here I used 2 x Godox AD200 in the Magmod Magbox to light the subjects so that they would have some pop compared to the background.
This next image I want to show you why I don’t generally intend to use longer focal lengths for environmental portraits especially wide open. This was shot with Sony 85mm f/1.4 GM lens at the full f/1.4 aperture.This was a fashion shoot and by shooting wide open it allowed for some nice bokeh. However, that heavy bokeh blurs out most of the detail in the environment. It’s still a nice shot, but it’s much more of a traditional portrait image, it doesn’t really succeed in being an environmental portrait.
In contrast, in the next image I changed my f-stop to f/2 and stepped back a bit. This made the subject smaller in the frame so we can see more of the environment and it made the background less blurred out while still giving that slight separation between background and subject. Again, picking the right outfit to suit your environment is very crucial - because the model is in a suit we specifically wanted to have a city background as it plays on the business look. I also positioned myself specifically so that the windows make up much of the background. Just on the other side of him were a bunch of bins and cars, which definitely wouldn’t have complemented the look! So slight positioning changes to pick out specific parts of the environment are also important.
This is another shoot we did in the Blue Mountains. I had the model wear a red dress so that she would stand out from the primarily green, blue and grey background. This was again shot with the 70-200 f/2.8 but shooting at f/4 to again blur the background a little but not enough to make it disappear.
As you can see, generally avoiding shooting at very wide apertures is a common thread here. I know it can be easy to want to shoot at the full aperture when you have a fancy fast lens, but you’ll find that the environment will shine a lot more if you keep it around f/4 or so. Also make sure that you pick an outfit that fits with the scene and provides a nice complement or contrast to the environment that you’re in. Keep in mind your positioning and composition so that you highlight the most beautiful elements of the environment, and don’t be shy about pushing busy or unsuitable parts of the environment out of your frame. We didn’t touch on this, but you’ll also want to take care to pose your model in a flattering way. Good luck!
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