Jonathan Bielaski on Shooting Environmental Portraits


All images by Jonathan Bielaski. Used with permission

Environmental portraits are a very involved type of portraiture that is a very slow and methodical process requiring interviews and understanding of who the person is. In the end, it requires the photographer to deliver a product that tells something specific about who the subject is.

Jonathan Bielaski has been doing this for years, and knew that he wanted to be a photographer from a very young age. He is based in Toronto, Canada and some of his clients include, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and TFC), Sports Illustrated, Billboard Magazine, T+D Magazine, Bard Valley Dates, California Peach and Pear Growers, Home Depot, Lucas Oil, Hydro One, Ontario Pork, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, University of Waterloo, Sheridan, Laurier and the list goes on.

With a portfolio like that, we talked to him about the involving process of showing personality in a portrait.

Phoblographer:: Tell us about how you got into photography.


JB: I got into photography naturally; my dad was a master print maker and my mom a graphic designer. I was surrounded by images 24/7. They both tried to raise me to do something other than the arts but it was just part of me, I knew I wanted to create images at a very young age. By the time I was in high school I was assisting on commercial jobs and had a studio to start taking my own images. From there lots of hard work and persistence led to where I am now.

Phoblographer: What first attracted you to shooting portraits then environmental portraits?

JB: When I started out in photography I did not enjoy making portraits and was attracted to still life photography, I now know that it was my attraction to lighting and with shooting these types of images I could master light and its effects. But something was missing–when I was photographing custom motorcycles and custom made products the story about the makers became a huge interest to me. Who they were and where they lived or worked fascinated me. I wanted to capture them in their workspace. People have a story as well as their space, together they complete a visual story and you can capture who they are and what they do in a signal frame.

PB: Environmental portrait photography often is a process involving an interview, getting to know the person a bit, and then applying creativity to the scene. Do you have certain questions that you always ask before shooting?


JB: With making any portrait I do–I like to sit down with the subject and learn about them: what they do, where they come from and where they want to go. I ask them to take me though a typical day, show me some of there favorite places and tools. I really try to get to know them. Sometimes this is done on the same day of the shoot and sometimes it is done beforehand, but the best thing that I have learned to do is listen. By listening, you learn and find the small details that makes them who they are.

Phoblographer: To you, what makes for the perfect environmental portrait?


JB: To me a perfect environmental portrait is a portrait that tells a story, you are learning something about the person in the portrait with out the use of words. The background and foreground are just as important as the person in telling the story but they are the supporting cast and the person is the lead roll. On their own they could make good images but together they make a great image.

“…the best thing that I have learned to do is listen. By listening, you learn and find the small details that makes them who they are.”


Phoblographer: These people obviously aren’t professional models; so posing them can be tough sometimes. How do you work with these folks to make them look their best?


JB: During my shoots we are always having a conversation and I try to make them forget about the camera. This is a huge help. If they are talking about something they love it comes through. You need to know how to relate to them so research anything and everything about them and what they do. As well have a plan, making test shots and knowing your gear in and out, so you don’t have to worry about it on set and you can focus on them. During my shoots most of my subjects are only on set for about 20-30 mins per shot, we pre-light with stand-ins and only shoot them until we have what I want. 20-30 frames per view is about normal. This makes them very comfortable and also very happy.

Phoblographer: Tell us about the gear that you use.

JB: All my images are created on location so having the right gear, and gear that you trust, on site is essential. PhaseOne cameras and Elinchrom lights are the mainstay. They have traveled with me all over the world and have never let me down. The PhaseOne cameras have unbelievable image quality and I love the files they produce as most of my shots have little to no retouching this system can make it happen for me. As for the Elinchrom lighting everything must be battery operated as we are on location and don’t want cords on the floor or trying to find an outlet all the time. So, I trust the Quadra Systems paired with their softboxes and modifiers it is a great portable system.



Other systems I have been using lately are the Fuji X-series of cameras with small strobes. This makes a great portable system when I do not have my equipment truck with me or the need for the higher resolution of the PhaseOne systems. With both systems, the image quality is amazing and both have their limitations so you need to know when to use what gear. One piece of equipment recently acquired was my Inovativ Scout 37 cart, I would not buy any other cart after having this one it is amazing!!!

Phoblographer: Every photographer has a situation where they’ve felt that a certain task or project was incredibly difficult to accomplish. What was yours?

JB: Every shoot has its difficulties and knowing when you need help is one of the best things you can learn. When I was starting out I thought I could do everything myself but soon realized that pulling together a team of specialists is the best way to overcome your difficulties and shortcomings. Creating images is only one part of the equation of running a commercial studio, the business side is just as if not more important then the images himself, so mentor with leaders of business and never never stop learning.






“The fact that everyday is different and that I rarely do things twice is what keeps me so motivated in my career. Everyday I meet new people, learn their stories, connect and have the opportunity to create something that is beautiful for them. There could be nothing more rewarding then that.”

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.