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Photo Project: Environmental Portraits

Welcome to the Beyond Photo Tips Photo Project: Environmental Portraits. In this post, we are going to look at what portraiture aims to do, have an overview of what Environmental Portraits are, and learn how you can get started off with Environmental Portraits.

What Are Portraits?

Portraits are images of people. They try to evoke an understanding in the viewer about the person being photographed. Or at least that’s what the photographer is trying to do most of the time. Other times, he’s just trying to make the subject pretty.

When you look at a portrait you wonder what the person in the photograph is like in character… are they serious, jovial, nutty, or geeky? Apart from their usual outlook, what other emotions are they likely to face on a daily basis? These are the questions that a strong portrait makes people think about, and hopefully, find answers to.

What Are Environmental Portraits?

Now, Environmental Portraits introduce an exciting factor into portrait photography. You guessed it, it introduces the viewer to the subject’s (sitter) environment. Big words? Ok, let’s simplify things.

An environmental portrait is a portrait of a person situated in a location that has some connection with whom they are, and what they do…

So, instead of just the person being the subject of the photograph, elements of the surrounding area become the subject of the photograph too.

Why is this so interesting? Because it helps the viewer understand a bit more about the sitter – it lets them into their world.

If the sitter is an engineer who works on houses, posing them at their work location helps… or maybe posing the sitter at a table with blueprints would work… if the subject is a skater, posing them in a skate park, amidst graffitti may work…

Making it Work: The Challenge of Environmental Portraiture

Environmental portraiture has a number of challenges, and sometimes, interesting payoffs…

One of the challenging parts of environmental photography is making the sitter and the environment say something about each other – making them look and feel like they fit hand in glove.

Another challenge is finding interesting and appropriate lighting in these environments because you don’t usually have total control over the lighting situation at the location.

How you find the equation that allows these elements to play with each other will determine your success at environmental photography… There is no single formula; it’s something that will emerge as your style becomes apparent to you.

Take your time, take many photographs, experiment, and most importantly be critical of your work… be critical in a way that allows you to understand what isn’t working, and to move your work towards something that does work. Iterate quickly, and you will find a formula that works for you.

Locations Define the Environment

An easy way to reduce the unknown factors in both of these challenges mentioned earlier, is to scout out some promising locations and accompany the sitter to survey them beforehand. Sometimes there may not be all that much of a choice, but it helps to go to the location in advance.

Putting your subject at ease in your presence is a very important part of portrait photography and this chance to chat with your subject (especially if it is someone you don’t know) in their own environment is important in this process.

The Challenge

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to create three environmental portraits of people you know. We’re choosing people you know so that they’re already at ease with you, and you’ll be free to focus more on your craft – composition, technical details of exposure and lighting, and getting them to emote the way you want, rather than struggling to build a rapport.

Once you have these three images, share them with us on our Flickr Group, or leave links in the comments below.

Understanding the Variables

Now that you know more about the variable factors in your shoot, you’re more prepared to take on the challenges. You’ll know whether you need a tripod, a flash, reflectors, or any other gear – be it a different lens or a filter that will add punch to your photographs. Get started, and share your results with us.

Be a Part Of Our Community

If you’re interested in finding out more about how you can make these choices, you can follow us on our RSS feed and explore your photography along with us or you could bookmark our page and visit later.

Participate in our Other Photo Projects

If you like this, you may want to take a look at some of our other Photo Projects.

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Published: April 17, 2007 | Last Updated: September 20, 2022

4 thoughts on “Photo Project: Environmental Portraits”

  1. I think most of the CXO portraites are done by shooting the portrait infront of a blue/green screen and change the bg into an environment to which the CXO is connected. Isnt it?

    You are improving day by day man. A fantastic read.

  2. Hey Umesh, Thank you for the undeserved praise…

    Its true that you can use a blue/green matte to ‘key’ out a background and replace it with another… this process is used often in television and movie making and is usable in the same way with photography. You lost me with the term CXO though! Please clarify if you can.

  3. Ah! I guess that sometimes if the C’X’O is in a rush, the easiest option is to use a blue matte. The better photographers will still shoot on location as there is always a subtle difference between a studio shot and a location shot. Still, there are photographers who have their own style and some of them use blue matte for elaborate compositions.

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