Environmental portraits are a stock in trade of editorial photographers, and photojournalists, who need to show people in specific locations, circumstances, or at a specific time.
Environmental, contextual, or in- situation portraits are a very different proposition to those out-of-situation portraits outlined in the previous sections of this book. While simple portraits are the domain of clean, plain backgrounds and a setting that offers no clues regarding specific time or place, environmental portraits provide almost the exact opposite. The setting and background are an integral element of an environmental portrait, which inherently offers some form of narrative or mini-story regarding the subject and their personality.
Environmental or contextual portraits show people in a specific environment, location, or situation, in order to tell the viewer something about them, other than their physical appearance. It might focus on their favourite location, their place of work, their hobby, their lifestyle, and so on, but could equally convey more conceptual elements, such as their religious beliefs, their habits, social status, likes and dislikes, or skills and talents.
For example, a portrait of a farmer with a focus on his hands, complete with dirty nails and minor cuts and abrasions, provides a much deeper narrative about his life and work, than would a simple portrait showing his physical appearance. An environmental portrait might therefore include anything from a simple portrait of the subject in their favourite outdoor location (with their dogs, for example), to a study of the subject at work or play; a refuse truck driver, a ballerina, a cyclist, a gardener, almost anything. This, of course, requires much greater research and planning on your part; turning up and shooting is not an option as locations are likely to be busy, cluttered and with distracting background elements.
Planning for an environmental portrait might therefore include researching the most appropriate or appealing time of day, trying out different compositions for the image, acquiring relevant permissions for access to specific locations, sourcing props to be used, noting equipment and lighting requirements, meeting safety regulations, and so on.
While environmental portraits bring planning challenges, on the ip side they do offer wider scope and greater freedom to experiment or create unique and eye-catching imagery. The key is to focus on the requirements for telling the story—nothing more, nothing less. Including irrelevant details in the frame will start to introduce complicated and misleading narrative elements (of course, this technique can be employed intentionally).
The evolution of the concept is also more likely to include the subject, as it is their personality or beliefs that you are hoping to reveal—of course, developing an eye for hidden gestures, social clues, and so on is an important component of the environmental portrait photographer’s repertoire. This kind of portrait usually requires less formal posing too, and can create informal, relaxed portraits, as the subject is often focused on an activity.
Equipment for environmental portraits
Commonly, but not always, there will be a requirement to include more elements within the frame, and so a wide-angle, or standard, lens is likely to be the most useful in this situation. The subject will be smaller in the frame, so it is important to place them in a prominent position that clearly marks them out as the main focus. Important visual clues, guiding the viewer along the narrative journey, must be placed strategically, but not overemphasised. A wide-angle lens can therefore place greater emphasis on important narrative elements placed in the foreground. A longer focal length can add unusual or more flattering perspectives; don’t be afraid to experiment.
Because the intention is to include more of the background in the image, a smaller aperture will be required, anywhere between ƒ/8 and ƒ/16, which in turn might require using a higher ISO—although modern DSLRs are well-equipped to handle this. Photographic lighting may also be required, although ambient lighting where possible will be much better suited to an environmental portrait. Creating the studio look will appear unnatural and may utter the subject. If photographic light is used, ensure that it is diffused, and complements the ambient or natural light.
From posing and framing, to advanced lighting setups, and reliable post-production and finishing techniques,Photo School: Portrait, by Michael Freeman and Gary Eastwood covers all the essential aspects of quality portraiture. Get motivated by numerous and specific shooting challenges, and be inspired by sample work from fellow photography students, with critical evaluations of the results to improve your understanding of the core concepts.