A professional guide to photographing environmental portraits

Environmental portraits are a great way for photographers to make money as they’re often in high demand by many businesses. While that may sound appealing, environmental portraits are not without their challenges.

You’ll find a range of photography classes showing you how to photograph environmental portraits, but I’ve also put together this guide to outline some of the most common challenges you may face and explain how you can plan for a successful shoot next time you’re commissioned to shoot these artistic portraits.

Environmental portrait
PHOTOGRAPHY CLASSES

Environmental Portraits

How to shoot professional environmental portraits on location

This series of classes teaches you how to photograph environmental portraits, from planning for a shoot to working on location, balancing mixed lighting and what equipment you’ll need.

Watch Course
Watch Course
Join Now

What is an environmental portrait?

Environmental portraits, sometimes referred to as workplace portraits, are images that show a subject in their workplace, usually undertaking their profession. These are different from your typical business portraits in that they generally show the person doing their work in the typical environment where this takes place, as opposed to just a plain headshot. Environmental portraiture is also very different from lifestyle portraits, which usually aim to capture people doing everyday tasks in their everyday environments.

Environmental portrait ideas

Camera, equipment, lighting setups & settings

As you’ll see throughout the environmental portrait classes we have, the equipment I used for each of the shoots was fairly standard.

  • Canon 5D III
  • A selection of lenses (I mostly used the 70-200mm f2.8)
  • A tripod
  • Two to four studio lights — I used broncolor Siros battery-powered lights because they allowed me to work freely without having to worry about finding power outlets or using extension cables.
  • Modifiers — These included one octabox 150, two octabox 75s, L40 reflectors and honeycomb grids
  • Lighting stands

Other, smaller, pieces of gear I took with my included reflectors and flags, gels and electrical tape. 

When it comes to lighting setups and camera settings, there is no set answer. As you’ll see in each of the classes, I used a different lighting setup for each portrait, and my camera settings varied too. For example, when photographing the farrier I opted for a two-light setup to create a darker, moodier image with a large depth of field, but for the cake decorator I went for a brighter, fresher feel with a shallow depth of field. Whatever you’re shooting, you need to look at your scene and decide what works for that particular subject.

Environmental portrait of a farrier
Environmental portrait of a cake designer

Things to consider when planning environmental portraits

When it comes to planning for environmental portraits, there are a number of things one can do beforehand to help ensure a successful shoot. I have briefly outlined these below, but I go into more detail about each of these in the first chapter of our environmental portraits course.

1. Research the location — Researching the company beforehand will help give you an idea of the location, which can be particularly useful if you can’t get to the location to look at it before.

2. Know your subject’s profession — As part of your research, make sure you understand what it is that your subject does so that you know how best to represent them and their company.

3. Discuss outfit choices — This might sound obvious, but don’t let outfit choice be left to chance. It can also be a good idea to ask your subject to bring some options with them on the day.

4. Have an assistant — An assistant can be a great help on the day, with carrying gear, setting up lighting and also standing in for your subject while you test your lighting.

Environmental portrait lighting set up

5. Arrive early — Not only does this create a good impression, but it will also give you time to take a look around the scene and figure out your shot.

6. Re-arrange the scene — Don’t be afraid to move things around to get the most pleasing composition. You can always move things back once you’ve finished.

7. Think about the mood — Consider what sort of mood and emotion you want in the shot, and think about how you’re going to use your lighting to achieve this.

8. Consider the existing light — If there is any ambient light, think about how you can incorporate this and whether you want to. It can be a good idea to include some natural light as it often gives a more realistic feel to the image.

9. Talk to your subject — Take the time to talk to your subject and make them feel comfortable. Explaining what you’re doing and why can be a good way to do this as it also reassures them of your ability.

10. Check your final images — Again, this may sound obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Take a close look at your images before you leave to make sure your subject is in focus, the depth of field is sufficient and there are no small details that distract from the subject.

Environmental portrait of a carpenter

Common challenges when shooting environmental portraits

If you’re unable to get to the location before the shoot, perhaps the greatest challenge with this type of photography is working with and overcoming the unknown. Often with environmental portraits you don’t really know what you’re dealing with — who you’re photographing, what they look like, what they’ll be wearing, what the location is like or what sort of lighting there is. This means, as the photographer, you have to be able to think on your feet and overcome these challenges when you arrive.

I discuss some of the common challenges in my ‘An Introduction to Environmental Portraits’ photography class, but I’ve summarised some of these key points here.

Time - Perhaps the greatest challenge on any photoshoot is a lack of time. Often we only have a small window of time, but numerous obstacles to overcome. Even if you’ve researched the location prior to the shoot, you have to be prepared to think on your feet. You’ll also see in the whisky sommelier shoot how I planned my shot and used an assistant to test the lighting before photographing the subject to help save time.

Photographing on location - When working on location you don’t know what you’ll be working with until you arrive. Locations may be cluttered, busy with people and generally just not what you expect. Be prepared for this and know that you might have to look for the right space or even rearrange items.

Lighting - Lighting on location is something that many photographers struggle with. In many cases it’s common that you’ll be working with mixed lighting as the available light alone may not be sufficient (as in the carpenter shoot), while other instances (such as the cake designer) may require purely studio lighting if there is no suitable ambient light, so make sure to be prepared with two or three lights (or speedlites) and some modifiers that could work for a variety of scenarios.

Communicating with your subject - As with any portrait, building a connection with your subject is key if you want to get natural-looking results. The key thing here is to be confident as this will help put your subject at ease. Even if you don’t have a lot of time, take a moment to talk to your subject, explain what you’re doing and what you want to achieve. Talk them through the shoot to help them feel comfortable as this will make the experience more rewarding for everyone involved.

Planning for environmental portraits

The points outlined here all provide a great guide to getting started with environmental portraiture, but you’ll find a lot more information throughout each of our classes, where you can see how I set up and photograph five different portraits.

Recommended Content

To learn, make sure to take a look at our environmental portraiture course, which teaches you essential skills such as planning for a shoot, working on location, using mixed lighting and communicating with your subject.

If you're looking to further develop your portrait photography skills, you may also enjoy some of our portrait photography classes, which show you how to use 1, 2, 3 and 4 lights in creative ways, in any size studio. Below are just a few of our most popular classes.

Leave a Comment