Complete Guide to Environmental Portraiture

With a recently launched Challenge, I decided you might need a little background help to make sure your submissions are strong visually and will dynamically tell a story.

So what is environmental portraiture? Extremely popular in editorial and documentary photography, environmental portraiture is the art of capturing someone in a location where the setting plays an important part of expressing the narrative of the subject - maybe more than the subject themselves. Utilizing props and composition, you can intricately illustrate details that a simple headshot could not capture.

Although most environmental portraits look effortless and natural, there is a lot of thought and studying that goes behind capturing the entire essence of your subject. Here are some tips & tricks to get you started.

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Who is your subject?

Photo by: Peter Holliday

Headshots, you do not really need to know much about your subject. They are clean cut simple portraits that are used purely to illustrate base level personality. With an environmental portrait you want to study your subject. Why are you photographing them? What are you trying to say about them? What is their story? Dig deep and really hone in on the purpose of this photograph. You have a chance to share a story of someone, do it justice.

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Choosing a location

Photo by: ADVANCED | Héctor Mireles

Make your sure your location choice fits your subject and the narrative you want to share. Think of your location as your main subject. What is in the background? Where is the light coming from? How does it relate to your subject?  

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Photo by: Xavier Goins

Clean it up or make it dirty. Props can be incredibly helpful for story telling, but can also easily distract or clutter your photograph diluting the narrative. Go through everything in the background before taking your shot. If it doesn’t add to the story, take it out. Everything in your composition needs a purpose.

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Posing your subject

Photo by: Colin Dutton

Again, what are you trying to say about your subject? Camera angle and position of subject can change the perspective of who your subject is. Shooting from a lower angle can give your subject power and strength by making them look larger than life. The opposite happens when shooting down at them, humbling them or making your subject seem meek. Shooting at eye resonates humanity because it is a perspective we would normally see.

In environmental portraits, posing is usually pretty simple because the environment is expressing more of the story than the subject. With that said, place your subject intentionally. Where are they in the frame? Are they facing camera or looking away? How are they framed within the background composition? Pay attention to body language and cropping. How much of your subject do you need to show?


Lens choice

There is no rule to what lens you should use, but give your photograph room to breathe. Since you are utilizing a location as a main subject, you want to show it off. Consider using a wider lens, such as a 35mm. This will give you the space to express the environment and the clean depth of field to really showcase your subject’s narrative.


Inspiration: Gregory Crewdson

Known for his cinematic captures, Gregory Crewdson creates gorgeous narrative through single scenes. Obviously, I do not expect you to whip out a Crewdson level photoshoot, but what I want you to pay attention to is his intentional location, props, and composition. There is nothing in the imagery that does not have a reason to be there.


Now go create. Pick and choose what resonates with you from above and photograph an environmental portrait that tells a story stronger than any words. Always remember, what are you trying to say about this person? Be intentional and do not forget to submit your images to the new challenge.