Free Shipping Over $150 Lower 48 States Details

Shooting Environmental Portraits: Back to Basics

Auto Mechanic. Image © Beverley Neff

By Arthur H. Bleich—

What Does an Environmental Portrait Do?

An environmental portrait ties your subjects to their occupations or interests. It can be challenging; not only must you plan before you shoot, but you may also need to exercise some directorial skills during the shooting session.

You become a photographer, director, psychologist, and sometimes even a drill sergeant who must take charge and give orders (but nicely, please). And you may also have to arrange various implements to get it just right.

That’s why environmental portrait photographers are so highly paid– it’s a demanding job, mostly done in in unusual locations, and sometimes with minimal control over conditions. But the other side of the coin is that it can also be simple, once you get the hang of it.

The father of the environmental portrait is generally acknowledged as August Sanders, a German photographer born in 1876 and who, 35 years later, published a seven volume book of photographs titled People of the 20th Century that documented a cross-section of German society The series was covered: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, and others). In them, there was a plethora of environmental portraits, enough to establish the genre.

Pastry Chef. Image by August Sander

What Makes a Good Environmental Portrait?

Simple, straightforward photographs of people who are the centerpiece in a larger setting depicting their occupations or hobby. It’s the butcher proudly surrounded by the tools of his trade or a fishing boat captain on the bridge of his vessel amid an array of nautical accoutrements. In most photos, your subject will be standing or sitting –either formally or casually– and looking directly at the camera (but not always). Smiles are optional depending on the circumstances.

Old Sea Dog. Image © Arthur H. Bleich

Remember that bunlike a conventional portrait where the background is not important and is usually deliberately shot out of focus to put the emphasis on the subject, the background (or foreground) in an environmental portrait is a critical element of the image. You’ll want to maintain adequate depth of field to keep both subject and his or her surroundings in focus. To do this, use the wide end of your zoom to keep your subject and everything else as sharp as possible.

Tips When Shooting Environmental Portraits

For a quick review here are few technical things about focus to remember. The wider the focal length of a lens, the more depth of field (front-to-back sharpness) it will provide compared to a lens of a longer focal length (assuming both are set to the same aperture).

So setting your zoom to 18mm, for example will usually include more in your image than if it were set to 70mm. And using a smaller apertures on any lens such as f/11 instead of f/4 will also give you more front-to-back sharpness.

Train Engineer. Image © Jim Rubino

Your subject can be in front of, behind, or surrounded by his or her “tools.” Don’t let the pressure get to you. That was my students’ number one comment when they submitted their environmental portrait assignment. It’s natural for some subjects to get fidgety and start to lose patience, causing you to then feel rushed and get flustered. Fight the feeling. Take charge. Take a break if necessary. And during that break ask start a conversation about the work they do or a special implement they use. Then, as the British used to say during WWII, “Keep Calm And Carry On.”

Compose your photograph as if it were a still life, with the subject as the main “object” and everything else subordinate. Remember to avoid action shots of the subject; for example, you might not want to shoot a steel worker pouring steel. Instead, strive for a formal work portrait where he or she is, perhaps, standing in the foreground, perhaps leaning on a shovel and looking at the camera while molten metal flows in the background.