What is an environmental portrait and what it is not

An environmental portrait is not something that has to be setup and formal. Here I captured Philip Newberry who had lost both legs and arms to spinal meningitis.  Little Philip just jumped up on the merry-go-round and was having fun and smiling at his parents. I just composed and I had a great “environmental portrait.” of Philip.

This also could be used as an “environmental portrait” and may work better since here I know a little more about Philip’s loss of feet and hands. It helps tell the story. Again this is not a “Posed Portrait.”

Sometimes you may have to set up a portrait, as I did here in the man’s kitchen. I added a light to help see his face better.

Think of setting up the photo without the man and then having the man sit down into the photo. This is what i did here.

This is often the mistake made by new photographers when they have been asked to make an environmental portrait. Too often young new photographers think portrait is the orientation.

They must think of their computer and when they go to setup their page or print it they remember there is a “Portrait” choice and a “Landscape” choice. These are referring to vertical and horizontal and not a style of photography. You can have a vertical environmental portrait, but it would not be this photo. Here I have eliminated most of the environment so that the surroundings tells us very little about the subject.

By composing the image so tightly around the subject you have “eliminated” the environment.

Environmental Portrait Tips

  1. Think first of composing for the environment first. Find the angle that best captures the space for which the subject either: works, plays or lives for example. 
  2. The environment should be enough to communicate something about the subject.
  3. Let the subject move in the environment as naturally as they normally will do if you are not there. Just sit and wait and take photos until you have a selection of different places where the subject has moved in the frame. 
  4. Look for the “moment” and not just the location of the subject in the frame. This is more subtle. They may turn their head ever so slightly to the light that the light just makes their face glow or their is an expression that best captures their personality. 
  5. Just remember people have many traits to their character and the more you shoot the better the chances you will have more options to choose from to capture the very best of the person.
  6. Use off camera flash, or turn on a desk lamp or do something to help be sure you have the best light to help communicate more effectively. You don’t want a silhouette of the subject for an environmental portrait.
Here I believe the “expression” of the young boy is the strength of the photo. The environment tells a little and I would have preferred more surrounding than I have.
Here I have a father with his children and wife in the background of his kitchen. This tells a little about the man that had I cropped in tight would have been left out.
I had very little time at this home and so hanging out in the room with this teenage until I could find a natural moment was just not going to happen. However, I have traveled from Atlanta to Chiapas Mexico and so I had to get what I could. 
As you can see the window behind the teenager would have made him a silhouette and therefore I am using an off camera flash to the far left pointed to his face.
Here I had him stand and I moved the off camera flash on a light stand to the right of me, his left, and then took more photos to show what a typical teenager’s room would look like in Mexico.
This is a new pastor who is starting work in the medical center area of Houston, TX. Most all the photos I had of him were inside a hotel meeting room. Nothing in the room said “Houston.” I wanted to be sure I had something of him showing that he is working in Houston. 
This was my intro shot of Ben telling his story in in Houston in a slideshow. Here you can see how I used the photo as a way to introduce Ben Hays in a package.
http://www.stanleylearystoryteller.com/BenHays/_files/iframe.htmlOften in print the space is so scarce that the environmental portrait is the only photo they will use. So you need to capture as much as you can in one photo to help tell a little about the person’s story and introduce them to the audience.

Here is a photo of Philip and Matt Moulthrop who learned how to turn bowls from Philip’s dad Ed. I wanted to capture photos of them with their bowls in addition to photos of them making them.

This is how they used my photos in the article. As you can see sometimes they just need to introduce the person to the audience. Here the bowls were as just as important, but this was an Alumni magazine package, so the people were the hook for the story.

Sometimes they do use your photo as a vertical shot as they did here for a magazine cover. Notice how this too is an environmental portrait.

Here are just a few more examples for you and see where I used artificial light sometimes to help the photo.

While this appears to be natural light is is actually not. Here is the lighting setup for the man at the desk:

My last suggestion is the think of using layers in the photograph when possible. Have things in front and behind the subject to create depth.