What is environmental portraiture? Environmental portraiture differs from traditional portraiture, in that the human subject is placed within a wider setting, adding more visual context and enabling richer stories to be told within a frame. Whether this is done using a lifestyle or documentary approach, the environment plays a crucial supporting role in telling the story of a person, such as their personality, occupation, hobbies, or motivations.
Alternatively, we can choose to make a human subject secondary to its environment, where the role of the subject is to provide deeper insight into a place. By including a human interacting with the scene, an image will feel less static and viewers will have a deeper understanding, and therefore emotional connection, with a place.
I love to tell stories about how the places we visit as a family are experienced through the eyes of my children, as it provides a unique insight into how they view the world around them. Here are some pointers that will help you tell more compelling stories about a place in your environmental imagery.
A wide focal length will help to get more of the background in the frame. I love my 24-70 zoom lens as I can easily switch between a wide environmental shot at 24mm to a more detailed shot, or one with a blurry background at 70mm. Be careful about using a wider focal length though, as you risk introducing distortion to the edges of the frame. For aperture, it’s best to not go too wide, F4 and narrower is a very general guide, as this will ensure more of the scene is in focus.
This is crucial to the success of an environmental portrait. All the elements in the image, including any props should reinforce the story you are trying to tell. Unwanted elements will weaken the storytelling as the viewer will struggle to make sense of them within the context of the story. Don’t forget to check your edges! Try not to cut off elements at awkward points as this will feel uncomfortable to the viewer.
Similarly, the arrangement of elements in the frame is hugely important in telling an effective story. The image should feel balanced, and visual weight given across elements appropriate for their role in the story. Compositional tools such as leading lines and framing are very effective for guiding a viewer around an image. If you have a relatively flat background, such as a wall or a setting with lots of lines, ensure that you take the photo straight on. It is much easier to do this while shooting than correcting this in post production. An image loses its impact if it is, even slightly, off.
I love to use environmental portraits to give a sense of scale or grandure to a place. In this instance, the human subject’s role is to show this scale. The person will occupy a relatively small part of the frame as this accentuates the dramatic effect. The younger (ie smaller!) the person, the more powerful this effect can be!
Faceless images are also very effective at telling the story of a place. Humans are naturally drawn to faces within images. Removing them makes the setting the main focus. What’s powerful is that we can still ascertain a person’s response to their environment through their body language without seeing their face, therefore still eliciting connection and an emotional response from the viewer.
The ideas above will help you take more harmonious environmental portraits, but what if you want to intentionally add some tension into a scene? You can surprise or unsettle a viewer by introducing some juxtaposition into an image. Common juxtapositions include old and new, big and small, hard and soft. For example, in the image below I contrasted the softness of the toddler’s hair and joyful gait with the grittiness of the urban environment.
I hope this has given you some inspiration for ideas on how you can use environmental portraiture to tell more compelling and impactful stories about a place. I’d love to see what you create!