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The Environmental Portrait

I suppose you could consider any portrait – even a studio one – to be “environmental”. Usually my studio ones consist of an environment of solid white or grey or black. Or a background cloth.

Typical use means that your subject is placed in interesting surroundings, and that element – usually meaningful to them, reflective of their life or interests – becomes a part of the image. The trick is to balance the two such that the subject is paramount, meaning your eye goes there first. Your viewer should then absorb the rest of the image and add the desired context. But the subject needs to be the hero of the shot.

In shooting Kindera in Iowa, we decided to use her brother’s home – a converted barn with a rugged, southwest/western style theme. Lots of ambiance. Colorado/New Mexico. Kindera rode horses, and this was after all her parent’s land, so this seemed an appropriate setting.

Being Iowa, as mentioned in my earlier post, and this being farmland, I wanted to incorporate that into the shot. A window on the porch, as seen in that post, and an open doorway, let me incorporate the land into the image as well as the interior. The trick here is to balance exposure between the interior and the exterior. Using a combination of a variable ND filter, allowing a wide aperture for less depth of field, and a portable studio strobe, allowed me to do just that.


I kept the color temperature warm, which seemed to fit the scene nicely and complement her skin tones. That ND filter can make focusing a challenge (think welding glass in front of your lens), and this is where I covet leaf shutters.

Environmental portraiture means location photography. Depending on how I get there, that means often having only one light with me. I travel with a small, DC powered studio flash and a small (16″) softbox, which can be configured as such, as a square beauty dish (-ish) using a deflector, or simply using the 5″ reflector/diffuser. Providing background separation can be quite important, especially indoors. As I only have 1 light, ┬áthis means, as in the example below, opening a window and slowing my shutter speed and letting the window light act as a rim light:


That window also serves to provide illumination to the background, providing depth to the image.

Environmental portraiture has its challenges, which can make photography fun. It also has its rewards.

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