Environmental portraits describe a style of portrait that includes more surroundings of a subject than a classic portrait would and therefore help tell a story about the subject. They have always been one of my favorite things to shoot as they are the perfect mixture between classical portraits and storytelling images. It took me quite some time and practice to finally get my environmental portraits the way I wanted them. Overall there’s two ways in which I shoot environmental portraits: pre-planned and spontaneous.
Sometimes there’s things I can’t capture in the moment, either because I don’t have my camera at hand or because there’s a certain image I have in mind before shooting. And that’s when I shoot pre-planned portraits. For pre-planned portraits I try to be very mindful about the story I want to tell and how it can best be told. Think what objects or other props add to the story, what kind of light can you use (dramatic light, low light, side light) and what colors help me bring the story across (think monochrome colors, contrasting colors, cold/warm colors, etc.).
I wanted an autumn feeling in this self portrait, so I decided to add some dried grass and red color.
Here, I decided to use side light as it creates a bit of drama and adds to the story.
In this shot, I decided to work with contrasting colors and framing.
I had the idea for this portrait because I wanted to work with angles to make the capture more interesting.
In this planned shot, I decided to work with props to tell the story of a summer afternoon.
I mostly shoot spontaneous portraits when the kids are playing and I see a situation that I just HAVE to capture. I also shoot environmental portraits when we’re outside and I see a pretty scenery. Shooting spontaneous portraits can be quite hard and trying to also add some storytelling doesn’t make it easier. What helps me is to first look for the best perspective. Do I want my subject to be framed? Or in a corner? I love framing as it puts the focus on my subject. However, I would highly encourage you to get a “safe” shot first and then try out different angles.
I usually will not tell my kids to look at the camera. This adds to the storytelling element when they just go about their business. I like unstaged portraits but sometimes I know exactly what I want to capture but it doesn’t look the way I want in the actual situation. In this case I like to give fun prompts. For example, “do you think you can stretch all the way to the clouds?”, “does the flower next to you smell like gummy bears?”, “what can you spot up in the trees?”
In this candid moment, I loved the red and green combination in her clothing and the environment. I also wanted her to be framed. I asked my daughter what animals she could spot in the trees to get her to look up and to get some light on her face .
Here, we were in this really pretty meadow. I knew we were going to be in nature (with lots of green), so I planned her outfit to coordinate with the colors in the meadow. I put a red jersey and on her to make her contrast more with the scenery.
In this spontaneous shot, I loved how the props (watermelon and sunglasses) and light add to the summer feeling.
This was unplanned except for telling my son to look at the window. I liked how the side light highlighted my son and how the colors go together.
I shot through the curtains and placed my son in the left half of the frame. This made the composition more interesting.
I hope these tips and examples helped you understand my process of taking environmental portraits. In my opinion it comes down to is not to being afraid to try things out. Make it fun, try colors, different set ups and angles and mostly just get shooting!
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