Useful Photography Tip # 21: How to Shoot Environmental Portraits

Environmental portraits are a lot like any portrait, with an added layer of difficulty – you want the background to tell a story about the person. Often in a portrait shoot, you light the shot or use a shallow depth of field to isolate the subject from the background. However, in the environmental portrait, you want the background to be as much apart of the shot as the subject. The background tells you who the subject is.

In the above shot, I was shooting a portrait of someone who is an expert on the youth in a poor area of 19th Century Houston. So we shot this in a recreation of a 19th century classroom, complete with period-appropriate desks and wall art. While I usually wouldn’t want to set up a shot with the subject centered as I do, I really like the leading edge of emptiness and the portrait of President Washington on the right with my subject covering most of the chairs – but he chairs surrounding her.

Preferred Gear

I use a huge amount of gear, but a few staples for me are:
Canon 5D Mark III  – My workhorse camera. So beloved, I bought a second one two weeks after the first one arrived.
Canon 24-105 F4L IS – I really prefer shooting in the 85 to 200mm range for portraits, but due to the nature of environmental portraits, you need to often go wider. Also, because you often are shooting with a flash, you are stopping down to F/8 to F/16 anyway to balance the light and fast glass isn’t the most important thing in the world.
Elinchrom Ranger Quadra – I can’t say it enough. For environmental shots, this is a workhorse. Incredible piece of gear that goes with me on every assignment.

Elinchrom 39″ Deep Throat Octa – Without question my favorite modifier

Know Your Subject

Getting to know your subject before you start the shoot is critical. Having a pre-shoot consultation to get to know who they are will help you in this tremendously. Knowing their personality will help you convey the right emotion in the image. Having a demure person laughing in their environmental portrait would not be appropriate just like having a gregarious person looking isolated would look inappropriate. Knowing their interests, attitude and demeanor will allow you to set the scene and direct their pose.

Set Your Environment

Once you know your subject and have decided on a look, it is time to set the stage. You know your client and you know what look you want, so you need to make the background OR the foreground tell the story about that person. For this shot, I talked to my subject, who we will call Hakeem, first and found out that he likes to play basketball. I found a place where I was able to crawl up and get directly over a basket, so I wanted to do something really different. I created a foreground that works with the subject to tell about him. However, I did make one little miscalculation. My seven foot travel stands are awesome. But when my subject is 6’10 and looking directly up, they came up short.

Avoid a Busy Background

The one really easy thing to do with an environmental portrait is to choose a background that will distract. You want the background to enhance the subject, not distract from it. You want to tell the story, but not overwhelm the subject. For this portrait, I have a man that teaches French History and philosophy. He had recently written a book about a philosopher that had a very harsh light on his most famous portrait and he wanted something similar. Very moody and almost mysterious. That made lighting his face really easy. But what to do with the background in downtown Houston says French historical philosophers. A library, of course because the only people that read more than history professors are history professors that teach on philosophy. But the books can be overwhelmingly busy, so having them a bit out of focus and underexposed compared to the subject’s face helps keep the focus on the subject.

Expose The Background First, Then Add Flash

I’ve got the middle of the day in downtown Houston to shoot an environmental portrait of a really important business student. So I find a nice place in the shade provided by a parking garage with a beautiful view of the skyline. I want to make my subject look powerful and important with the very modern buildings providing the backdrop. So the first thing I do is take an available light shot of the buildings and see what kind of exposure I am getting. Now I know what I need to work with. For this, and many other individual location shots, I used my trusty 27″ Elichrom Beauty Dish. I love the beauty dish for the way the light falls, on a face, but also how it quickly falls off, so it highlights the face. For this, I used a gold reflector to add a little warmth to his face and separate him a little more from the very blue sky. Add power to the flash until his face is balanced with the exposure of the buildings, and then all you need to add is that rim light you see on the right.


It really is not much more difficult to shoot an environmental portrait. The key is just to get the subject to be in a natural and flattering environment that doesn’t overwhelm them. Make sure you are telling the story of who they. If done right, these will be much more powerful than your standard portrait

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