The environmental portrait is a wonderful way to showcase your subjects and tell a more complete story about them and what they do. It is commonly used in editorial photography to give the reader a visual idea of the story. It is not a candid portrait, although it may sometimes seem to be. Your subject is aware of you and your camera and is working with you towards a story-telling image.
This competition is all about showing the environment, making your subject look great, and giving your viewer additional information to better understand the subject.
Note that I said “about”, not “of.” Environmental portraits are not portraits OF someone. They are portraits ABOUT someone. Before raising the camera to your eye, consider who the person is and what you want to convey to your viewer. The ideas you have here are the things you want to include in your frame. Everything in your location and every aspect of the subject gives the viewer visual clues as to who they are and what they do. Give some thought to these things and your environmental portraits will shine.
When I met this man, I had no idea he was a hunter. During our interview, though, hunting was all he talked about. His home and possessions were all decorated with the skulls of animals he had hunted. When he showed me this rack of mithun skulls, I knew this was where I’d make his portrait.
While choosing a lens can sometimes be a practical consideration for space reasons, as much as possible, you want to choose a lens based on the story you’re hoping to tell.
A short focal length like 24mm or 35mm can be great for environmental portraits, as you can get close to your subject while still showing the environment. By getting yourself closer, you also have the added benefit of bringing your viewer closer. Shorter lenses give the sense that we are present with the subject. They make us feel like we are present in the scene.
A longer focal length, like 85mm or 105mm, can also be great, but has a very different feeling. I often use longer focal lengths (in concert with panoramic stitching) to isolate my subject using depth of field but still show the environment. This can give a more two-dimensional and voyeuristic sense to the photograph.
Take a look at the photographs below. Which was shot with a short focal length? Which with a long focal length?
While not all environmental portraits need to have an action, having the subject do something can lead to giving your viewer even more information. Having a musician play an instrument, having a blacksmith work steel, or having a mechanic working on a motorcycle can be a great way to emphasize what they do. Not only does this help your viewer understand the subject better, but it can help your subject relax in front of the camera.
Asking your subject what is the most important part of their action will also lead to more expressive photographs. With the musician above, I learnt that there is an elegance to the plucking of the string that is best photographed on the upstroke. He showed me the angle that best represents his art and I photographed again and again until I got the perfect expression of it as he played.
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