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Environmental portrait photography has nothing to do with climate change or the amount of plastic waste being dumped into the ocean. It is different than environmental photography or environmentalist pictures.

Bright and airy environmental portrait photography of Karen hill tribe woman working in a luscious green landscape

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

What Is an Environmental Portrait?

Environmental portrait photography is making an illustration of a person in their environment. It’s a portrait in which the person can be easily connected to the location they are being photographed in.

Good environmental portraits will tell a strong story of their subject. Their immediate natural surroundings will give the viewer insight into who the person is, what they do and where they are.

Locations that best help tell a person’s story might be:

  • Their home
  • Their workplace
  • A favourite coffee shop or bar
  • Where they play sports
  • At their church or temple

The location and person should tie together meaningfully.

How to Take Advantage of Location

 Environmental portrait of a contemplative tricycle taxi rider in Thailand

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

This photo of a senior man does not tell the viewer much. We can see he is outdoors on a sunny day and he’s sitting in the shade. You might be able to see that he is Asian and could presume the climate is hot. But visual clues giving any more detail are lacking, making this more of a street portrait.

But look at the photo below, of the same man in the same place. This is an environmental portrait because you can see where he is and what he is doing. There is a lot more visual information about the man in the second photo.

He is in the street on a sunny day, sitting on his tricycle taxi. There are other tricycles lined up behind him. Above his head is a sign with Asian text. If you are familiar with it, you will know it is Thai text, which tells you which country he is in. Around him you can see people walking in a street market.

All of these visual elements build up a good illustration of the subject. You find out much more about him from the second photo than if you had only seen the first photo.

The aim of environmental portraits is to put the person, or people, in context with their surroundings. Including the best visual elements around them to tell some of the story of who they are.

Some photographic techniques work better than others for making environmental portraits. Here are my top ten tips for how to make engaging illustrative portraits of people in their natural setting.

Busy fresh market scene at Muang Mai Market in Chiang Mai - environmental portrait photography

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

1. Research the People and Location to Add Meaning to Your Photos

Knowing who you are photographing will certainly help you create more compelling portraits of them. If you know something about the person’s life story, you will be able to compose your portraits with more meaning.

Find out about their location and what’s significant about it. Sometimes this will be very obvious, other times it will not. It pays to ask because you might not see something that could be vital in telling your subject’s story. If you know your subject well the choice of location should be more obvious.

A woman stands beside a make shift shrine near the ruins of the Buddhist temple in the dry lake bed at Doi Tao, Chiang Mai province, Thailand. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan. Environmental Portrait photography tips

A woman stands beside a make shift shrine near the ruins of the Buddhist temple in the dry lake bed at Doi Tao, Chiang Mai province, Thailand. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

If I had not asked about the stacked up bricks with the flags and plastic baskets I would not have understood how significant they were. The area is a valley which becomes flooded in the wet season because of a hydro dam. Before the dam was built there was a temple at this site.

The local people reconstruct a physical representation and the memory of this holy site each dry season. Bricks are gathered and stacked up. Flags are flown. Offerings are given, just as they are at every temple in Thailand.

The ancestors of my portrait subject lived in the village at this location before the hydro dam was built. Her father was the head man of the village.

If I did not ask questions I would never have discovered the significance of the bricks, flags and offerings. My portrait helps to tell her story. Having some words accompanying the photo gives the viewer a clearer understanding. Without some explanation the elements included may seem irrelevant. This is typical in editorial photography or portraiture.

2. Tell Their Story – Answer People’s Questions With Your Photos

In creating an environmental portrait you want to answer questions viewers of the photo may have.

  • Who is this person?
  • What do they do?
  • Where do they live?

When you are setting up to make a portrait, look around. Look at what is in the background for elements that will support your subject’s story and answer question about them.

This can be challenging. But do your best to build up an informative illustration of your subject.

Atmospheric black and white environmental portrait photography of a Buddhist nun

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

3. Put Yourself in Their World

Sit where they are sitting. Stand where they are standing. See the world from their perspective.

Looking at the setting the way they see it may give you some more clues as to who they are and how best to photograph them.

We often become so familiar with our surroundings we take things for granted. Your subject may not be telling you all the significant details to enable you to make their portrait as well as you can. By putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak, you are seeing their world similar to how they see it.

In doing this you may find other interesting elements to include in your portrait.

An environmental portrait photo of a market butcher in Thailand

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

4. Engage With Your Subject

Talk to your subject. When we are in the markets with our photography workshop customers, I have to really encourage them to engage. Connecting well with a person you are making a portrait of will help you create a more dynamic illustration of them.

Most often I will ask permission to take a person’s photograph. Here in Thailand this can be as simple as a smile and a gesture at my camera. If I get a smile and nod in reply I know it’s okay to continue. At first I typically make a few photos without any conversation.

When I am happy with my initial photos I will show them the back of my camera. People love seeing their pictures. This usually leads into conversation and, when the situation is right, some more photographs.

Now that I have engaged my subject and they have seen some results of how they look, the dynamic has changed. As I continue making their portraits I am able to make a very different series of pictures than the first photos I took.

Approaching strangers is difficult for many photographers. Be attentive and pick people you think may enjoy being photographed. Chat with them a little, or, if you don’t speak the same language, even non-verbal communication will help you make better portraits.

An environmental portrait of a market mango seller in Thailand

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

5. Be Friendly and Relaxed to Keep Your Subject From Being Nervous

Don’t be focused on yourself. Your subject will reflect you like a mirror. If you are nervous this will show in your subject. If you are uncomfortable about making their portrait, they will most likely be uncomfortable with you.

The more you relax and enjoy the process, the more your likely it is your subject will relax too.

Be mindful to create a positive vibe. Smile, and chat if you need to stimulate the mood.

An environmental portrait photography shot of a Moken sea gypsie man in south Thailand telling us the story of how he lost his hand.

Portrait of a Moken sea gypsie man in south Thailand telling us the story of how he lost his hand. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

6. Have Your Camera Settings Ready Before the Shoot

Prepare your camera’s settings before you engage your subject. Thinking about what lens to use, your focus mode or exposure settings, will distract you once you approach your subject.

Stop and think about it and have your camera ready. Have the right lens on. Don’t use a tele lens unless you have loads of space, (and even then I would not recommend it.) Don’t use a super wide lens, unless you want to distort your subject. A mid range lens, between a 35mm and 70mm, (on a full frame or equivalent,) is a good choice.

I like to be at a comfortable distance when I am making environmental portraits. If I am too far back with a long lens, it makes it more difficult to connect with my subject. Being farther away may mean you have to talk louder, which may break the mood if you are trying for an intimate portrait.

The farther away you are, the more difficult it can be to hold your subject’s attention. This is particularly so when there are other people around.

Depending on the style of portrait you want, holding their attention may not be important. If they are just doing something and you want to capture the action and feel of the location, a wider to medium lens will still be best. Being closer in to your subject will bring a more intimate feel to your portraits.

If you are using a longer lens, especially in low light, you may struggle to get a narrow enough aperture. Using a wide aperture is going to give you a limited depth of field. You may not have enough in focus to clearly show what is in the background. You are less likely to encounter this problem using a wider lens.

The Lens I Use

My preferred lens for making environmental portraits is my 35mm f1.4, which I use on a full frame body. This lens gives me essentially the same view we see with our eyes naturally, (not including our peripheral vision.)

It also allows me to be reasonably close to my subject and still include sufficient background. It also gives me a good control over my depth of field.

An environmental portrait photography shot of a young Kayan girl beside the table of trinkets she sells outside the family home.

A young Kayan girl beside the table of trinkets she sells outside the family home. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

7. Fill the Frame

This is the best compositional advice I have ever received. Filling the frame with what is relevant to your photo is far more important than trying to follow a bunch of rules. You can attempt to enhance your compositions with leading lines, lovely framing, or making sure your horizon is straight.

None of these methods are significant if your frame is lacking essential elements to the story or if there are distractions in it.

You want to make sure that what is in your frame supports the story you are telling. Look carefully at everything you can see in the background and ask yourself if it is relevant and related to the person you are making a portrait of. If it’s not, do something about it.

You can employ various techniques to enure what’s in your background is beneficial to the portrait you are making. Some of these are:

  • Move your point of view
  • Have your subject move
  • Move the distracting element from the background
An environmental portrait photography shot of a cook working in her traditional Karen kitchen.

The cook in her traditional Karen kitchen. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

8. Try a Deep Depth of Field

A deep depth of field, where a lot of the image is in focus, is normal with environmental portraits. It is necessary to show what is surrounding your subject. Having a narrow aperture setting, (a higher f-stop number,) means a considerable amount of your composition will show the detail.

This can be problematic. With so much in sharp focus the main subject may become lost or blend in too much with the background. Careful placement of your subject in the frame and balancing of other elements is required to make strong portrait.

I like to use a medium aperture setting along with having my subject an appropriate distance from my lens and from the background. Naturally I will focus on the eyes of my subject. Controlling the aperture and relative distances gives me control of how sharp or how blurred my background is.

In my composition of this Karen lady cooking, her environment is clear, but it is not all in sharp focus. I made this portrait with my 35mm lens set at f 2.8. I did not want to have the background in sharp focus because it was quite cluttered. Enough of her cooking implements close to her clearly show her environment well. She is far enough away from the background for it to be sufficiently blurred and not be distracting.

If I had chosen a narrow aperture, say f8, the background would be sharp and become a distraction. If I had chosen a wider aperture, say f1.4, or moved closer to her, other elements in the composition would be unclear.

It is important to find a balance of how much is in focus. Everything does not need to be sharp in an environmental portrait for it to be an effective part of the composition.

9. Use Props If They Help Tell the Story

Sometimes you may have the opportunity to control what is in your portrait. Look around for something the person can hold or otherwise interact with that is meaningful to their story.

If you’re working with a dull background, introducing a prop can make a big difference.

An environmental portrait photography shot of a Lahu man outside his house smoking

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

The first few times I met this Lahu man I did not know he enjoyed smoking tobacco in a bamboo water pipe. He’s a real character and loves being photographed. He makes a becoming subject on his own, but the inclusion of his pipe makes for a much more interesting portrait.

Seeing him smoking in front of his home gives so much more story to him than this portrait of him I made with my natural light outdoor studio. We have a great article on environmental portrait lighting you can check out here.

An environmental portrait photography shot of a Lahu man smoking against a black background

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

10. Post Process to Enhance Your Story

In some circumstances you will not have any control over your subject and background. At times like this keep in mind how you might improve your environmental portrait during the post processing stage.

Removing distracting objects by cloning them out will often make the portrait stronger. If there is something behind you subject that you cannot move, consider removing it in Photoshop.

Often I will use the burn tool or a similar technique to darken the background. If this is done well the subject will be enhanced and the viewer’s attention will be drawn more to them.

Creating a vignette is also a popular method to help bring more attention to the subject. This involves darkening the edges of the frame so the viewer’s eye is drawn more to your subject. Be careful not to overdo this technique as you will not want to loose detail relevant to the story you are telling.

Anenvironmental portrait photography shot of a temple artist at work in Thailand

Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

A Few Extra Tips

It is not necessary for your subject to take up most of the frame. In my environmental portrait of the tricycle taxi rider (above) he is relatively small in the frame, yet remains the main focus.

Some stories gain strength with a little mystery. You do not need to show every detail blatantly. Leaving a little to the imagination can mean your portrait photo will hold a viewer’s attention longer.

In situations where you might be photographing a person in their workplace, think about making two different kinds of environmental portraits. One with them posed and looking at the camera. The other with them absorbed in what they do.

An environmental portrait photo of a street vendor in Khao San Road, Bangkok, demonstrating the product he is selling is genuine crocodile skin by pouring lighter fluid on the wallet and setting it on fire

A street vendor in Khao San Road, Bangkok, demonstrates to a group of tuktuk drivers and tourists that the product he is selling is genuine crocodile skin by pouring lighter fluid on the wallet and setting it on fire. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

Generally you will not want to have the background complement your main subject. Creating a balance in your composition where the main feature of your environmental portrait is the subject is what you want to aim for.

The subject is the most important in environmental portraits. Concentrating on the story and your subject, not too much on your camera equipment, will help you produce more dynamic photographs.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin's professional background is in editorial and commercial photography. Please enroll in his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography. Check out Kevin's Critique videos where he share's his views on what's good and not so good about viewer-submitted photos.

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