Environmental portraits can make for great photos. Capturing someone in their own setting can often be a glimpse into their life and also the daily life of a destination. These photos are often unique as unlike photographing a monument, they cannot be repeated. But capturing environmental portraits well can be challenging. Whether it’s the composition or the execution, there is a fine line between getting it right or a photo that simply does not work. But fear not, here are 6 tips to help you capture better environmental portraits.
Do some research
Even though it may seem that environmental portraits are spontaneous if you want to capture good photos you need to do some research. Whether that is about potential locations for good photos or the rules and regulations regarding photography at that location. Or simply what settings you need to use, the better your research is the better your chances of capturing a great photo. You can also use this opportunity to research what sort of photos already exist from the scenario or location you are photographing. Use this to help you think of your own ideas of how to take environmental portraits in that scene.
By far the biggest piece of feedback that I give amateur photographers on workshops is for them to get closer. Most people tend to be pretty shy when it comes to photographing people. So they stand back and zoom in. The issue with photographing people in this way is that you can’t build a connection with that person. As a result, the photo can sometimes feel detached and not candid enough. So instead of zooming in, actually move in closer to your subject. Start by just having a chat with them which will make them more relaxed and open to having their photo taken. Even if you don’t speak their language, it’s amazing how much more receptive people are when you say hello, smile and ask to take their photo.
Know your settings
Whilst it is always betting to take your time and be patient when taking photos, sometimes you have to work quickly. Your subject may not want to wait around for a while for you to work out which settings you will need. This will often lead to photographers who are not confident in their camera getting flustered and rushing things. So try to work out your settings before you even approach the person you are photographing. The best way to approach this is to determine your shutter speed first as you don’t want a blurred photo.
Most people will not be able to hold a camera steady enough at speeds slower than 1/60 sec. But to be safe you may want to aim for 1/100 sec. Then work out your aperture. For most environmental portraits you can get away with a fairly shallow depth of field. Something like f/5.6 should work fine (just be careful of your focusing at wider apertures). If there is more of the scene that you need in focus then you may have to go to f/8 or higher. Once you have your shutter speed and your aperture, you can then raise you ISO accordingly to allow you to capture a photo at the desired exposure. If you know all of this before you approach your subject it will make things somewhat easier.
Even though in an environmental portrait it is important to see the full picture (i.e. the surroundings of the person you are photographing), you still need to crop your image accordingly. Make sure that you remove distracting elements either when taking the photo or in post-production. Always ask yourself if the image is telling the story that you want to tell. If there are any elements that are not essential to the story, then remove them. Be especially aware of things around the edge of your photo.
Direct your model
Keep in mind that the people you are photographing are not professional models. So usually having a person thrusting a camera in their face will make them nervous. This can result in unnatural smiles or facial expressions. They may not even know how to stand or pose. Try to take the time to direct your model to where and how you want them to stand for you. You can even direct them to use possible accessories or props that they may have. Not only will this add to the story but it will also help to distract them from the camera giving you a more natural shot.
Take multiple shots
You probably won’t have a lot of time to photograph your model, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take multiple shots. Besides the fact that you will have a better chance of capturing a sharp photo, it will also allow you to choose your best composition later. How often have you looked at a set of photos you have taken and thought you liked the first one you tool? Often you will find that one of the later shots ends up being your favourite. But avoid capturing the same photo over and over again. Instead to look for a variety of angles and if possible even different lighting.
A good environmental portrait can tell a story and capture the viewer’s attention. It often transports them into the life of the subject and can tell so much about the person they are seeing. But good environmental photos are challenging and require practice to perfect. Follow the advice above and you will be on your way to capturing great environmental portraits.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission.