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The Environmental Portrait


Hasselblad 503CW camera and Hasselblad 65mm f3.5 lens with Kodak Portra 160VC film

Hasselblad 503CW camera and Hasselblad 50mm f4 Distagon FEL T lens with Kodak Portra 160VC film

Environmental Portraiture

Probably the most important shot within the photo essay, the environmental portrait has the capacity to tell a story within a single picture. The image should be constructed so as to contain something of the essential nature of the subject pictured. The photographer’s role is as much facilitator as artist as he or she endeavours to record the subject most expressive moment. Of course, as is the case in traditional portraiture, the photographer may have to provide significant direction to the subject to achieve the desired expression or pose.

Location is essential to a great environmental portrait. It’s important to select a location in which the subject appears to belong. This location will become an integral part of the final photograph. Consider this fact carefully in your composition and work hard to relate the subject to their surroundings.

Another way to help make the subject look and feel at home in their surroundings is to include one or more props in the image. So a butcher could be wearing their (once) white apron and be pictured holding a butcher’s knife, while the painter might be depicted wearing a smock and holding a brush and paint palette.

We now have a portrait where, thanks to the props, our subject seems to belong within the surroundings (environment) in which they are depicted. But to see the surroundings we often need to move our subject off centre (towards one edge of the frame) so that they don’t cover up or block the background. This approach will also allow the viewer’s attention to move around the frame, but it will always be drawn back to the subject, particularly if their eyes are illuminated and/or they are separated from the background through a shallow depth of field (DOF).

Both vertical and horizontal framing can be used to construct an environmental portrait. Usually horizontal framing provides the best option. But, on occasions (eg. religious minister inside church), vertical framing may be better suited to both the subject and the environment.


Hasselblad 500CW camera and Hasselblad 65mm f 4 lens with Kodak Portra 160VC film

Hasselblad 503CW camera and Hasselblad 50mm f4 Distagon FEL T lens with Kodak Portra 160VC film

Use of a mild wide-angle (eg. effective 35mm focal length) lens enables the photographer to move up close and engage with the subject while retaining much of their surroundings within the frame. The wide-angle lens also provides a more three-dimensional feeling of space by helping to separate the scene into distinctive areas of foreground, mid ground and background within the frame. More extreme points of view, often desirable with dynamic subjects, can be achieved through the use of an even wider angle lens and/or by shooting from an extreme (worms eye or birds eye) angle of view.

With attention now placed on both the subject and their surroundings, it’s important to ensure that the subject’s face remains the major focal point (point of interest) within the image. Make sure your subject is properly lit and close enough to the lens, particularly if a wide-angle lens is used, to remain the major focal point of the image. Don’t forget the objective is to make a particular type of portrait, one that places the subject in surroundings that describe something of who they are or what they do. But it’s still a portrait, so it’s essential to see their face clearly.

As a general rule interaction between the subject and photographer (camera) and, therefore, between the subject and the viewer, is achieved through eye contact. The eyes are the windows to the soul!

Photography is a communicative art and great photographs tell us as much about the photographer as they do about the subject. This interaction between the photographer and the viewer provides a link to the opinions, views and motivations of the photographer.

The environmental portrait has been with us for a long time. Many of Europe’s greatest painters created wonderful environment portraits of royalty, religious leaders and working class folk. Today photojournalists and wedding/portrait photographers frequently employ the environmental portrait. Including it into your own photography will allow you to better tell the story, within a single picture, and enhance your future photographic opportunities.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography 


2 Responses

  1. very poignant imagery

  2. Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for your feedback. I hope you come back and visit regularly.

    All the best,


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