Learn how to shoot environmental portrait photography, as we show you how to break out of the studio and take reportage-style portraits of people going about their everyday business.
Add a modern twist to your portrait photography by getting out of the studio and into the big wide world. Environmental portraits are shots of people taken in their natural surroundings, the places where they live, work or play.
This environmental portrait photography style is commonly used by magazines and newspapers as including background detail and elements of someone’s environment tells more of their story than a plain portrait shot.
As well as dipping a toe into documentary photography, environmental portrait photography is ideal if you’re ever asked to photograph a business, or if you just want to add something fresh to your portrait work.
The other great advantage to this type of environmental portrait is that your subject will be far more relaxed in their everyday surroundings, so it’s easier to get a natural pose from your model. It’s easy to take environmental portraits with impact with just your DSLR, kit lens and a bit of patience, and we’re going to show you how to do it.
We headed to Society Café in Bath to snap the coffee shop’s staff at work. A busy environment like this is an ideal place to practise taking portraits in as there’s plenty going on and the background is attractive and provides a narrative.
The key to getting environmental portrait photography right is finding a good balance between your subject and their background. Remember that the person is still the focus of the shot, and their surroundings are just there to add interest and hint at their personality and life.
Follow our guide for tips on how to use props and different setups to build a great collection of portraits, how to vary your shots with wide angle lenses and monochrome effects, and how to pick the right settings for great images every time.
How to shoot environmental portrait photography
01 Get candid
Warm up by snapping some candid shots of your subject going about their normal routine – here, barista Ash is making coffee. Try not to be too intrusive as the less your subject notices you’re there, the more relaxed they’ll feel. It takes people a few minutes to stop feeling awkward in front of a camera.
02 Add props
Add a prop to show more personality and to give your subject something to pose with, like Katie’s cake here. This is also a great solution if you’re working with an uninspiring background; tools of the trade or even pieces of uniform, such as a chef’s hat, instantly add interest and detail.
03 Simple monochrome
Further enhance the reportage feel by converting your photo to monochrome in post-production. Black-and-white has timeless appeal and is also a great way to make a busy shot like this one more restful to look at.
04 Perfectly posed
When you’ve taken a few candid shots, ask your subject to pose for you. Position them in their surroundings in a way that keeps them in the foreground as the main focus of the shot and keep chatting to them while you snap to keep their face animated and natural. If the background feels too busy, dial down to an f-stop like f/3.5 to blur it.
05 Widen up
For a different look, whip a wide-angle lens like our Sigma 10-20mm out of your camera bag and try including more of the surroundings in the shot. This is an especially effective trick if there are multiple people milling around as you’ll be able to capture them all in one photo.
06 Find the light
If you’re shooting indoors, like us, position your subject near a natural light source. We asked barista Alistair to pose next to the café’s window for a brighter final portrait, but another option in low light is to ask a friend to use a golden reflector to bounce more light onto your subject’s face.
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