George Wilson: 7 Tips for Shooting Striking Environmental Portraits

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My roots in photography are in editorial (newspaper) work. A genre, where environmental portraits for story or feature photographs are quite common. In the portrait photographer’s vernacular, these are often referred to as location portraits. This style relies on the person's surroundings to tell much of the story. Much more than can be told by a simple head and shoulders image. The goal of the environmental portrait is to create a mood that contributes to an understanding of that person. Sometimes this environment is directly connected to who they are. The location could be a home, a place of work or a setting indicative of the person’s individuality or the place where they feel most comfortable. Here, the natural “wall” or “barrier” that can be created by the camera, melts away.

When approaching and environmental portrait, there are several key elements that have consistently aided me in coming away with the best possible images with a minimum of equipment and in a minimum amount of time.

Tip 1: Travel Light
This starts with my camera bag. I use a small Domke F-3x bag which limits what I can carry and keeps me focused on the job. This bag enables me to carry three lenses; a 17-35mm f2.8, a 50mm f1.8 and an 80-200mm f2.8. I carry a small reporter’s notebook, cleaning cloth, hand held analog light meter, a white balance card and a Photoflex Multi Disc 5-in-1 reflector/diffuser – that’s it.

I rely a lot on my 50mm f1.8 lens. This lens is closest to the angle of view of the human eye and in my opinion gives me a true perspective on the subject at hand. I have to get up close with people and the 50mm forces me to stand back a bit to allow them some breathing room rather than the “in your face feel” of the wide angle. There are times, however, when the situation calls for a wide angle lens. I also do not often carry a flash for environmental work and instead try to focus on ambient lighting. As an editorial photographer I am supposed to blend in and be an observer. Use of a flash adds to my presence as a photographer and calls attention to me every time it fires.

Tip 2: Do your homework
To properly photograph someone in his or her environment, you need to know your subject before you arrive. As an editorial photographer, this is absolutely critical to give context to your images and to capture the essence of the story. In my own editorial work I often did not have the power of the spoken or written word to accompany my images. Each photo needs to speak to the reader and tell a story. A critical thing to note here is that the 50 cents you may drop into a newspaper box does not actually pay for the paper. Advertising does. The image you take must compel the reader to pick up your newspaper rather than the one in the adjacent box. Having done your homework before arrival is key to success.

For this images I was in Honduras at the Stone Castle Cameo Institute and would be limited to about 20 minutes of shooting time. Regarding jewelry, the cameo is an ornament carved in relief from a high-quality material such as stone, shell, coral and so on. In Honduras, at the only cameo factory in the Americas, shell was used. Specifically the Cassi Madagascariences, a very large, thick shelled conch found in the Western Caribbean.

Cameos are carved in relief which is a raised positive image contrasting in color to the background. At Stone Castle Cameo Institute and Italian Master Carver trains native Hondurans in a 5 year apprenticeship. Small cameos can be produced by skilled hands with modern tools in a few hours – more complex pieces take several days. Simply understanding these facts helped me develop an image quickly on location.

Tip 3: Get your subject talking
Even for someone who has been in front of a photographer before, people generally don't want a camera stuck right up in their face. For this assignment I found three people working on jewelry when I got to the Stone Castle Cameo Institute. One person was using string beads and chains in individual cameo pieces; not something that gave me the image I wanted. There were two people left carving cameos. The first person was wearing a baseball hat which obscured the fine detailed work as well as most of the person’s face. The third person was situated just right or what I call the “Goldilocks Zone” for photographs.

It was pouring rain outside and I was soaking wet and the institute had no air-conditioning. The rain created a slight cross breeze to the workspace/showroom with the open windows. The windows also provided a small amount of ambient light to light the background slightly. The secondary light source was my first thought. The young girl working on the cameo was lit only by a small incandescent lamp. This would be my primary light source. As I surveyed the scene further, the carver looked up from her work and caught me watching. I simply held up my camera indicating what I wanted to do, a slight nod yes and she was back to work.

For work like this you need to be polite, friendly and not too chatty. I did not speak Spanish and she did not speak English. I melted into the background and composed my shots. This is where the editorial photographer in me comes into play. I do not pose the subject, rather I let the scene unfold and watch for expression and gestures.

My own method is to have the subject focus on what they are doing and ignore me altogether. In this case, there was a helpful language barrier. If there wasn’t, I would begin a conversation. This is a critical skill for a photographer. Speaking with your subject lowers barriers and opens people up. Some people really enjoy talking about what they are doing. My goal is to make them forget that I am there shooting photographs. I have them talk about the spot they’ve chosen for the portrait, their hobbies, their families, their job, anything to get their mind off of the camera in front of them.

Tip 4: Shoot wide
Environmental portraits are more about the person and less about the surroundings but they do help - so shoot wide! Under normal conditions, I would have shot this at f1.8 with my 50mm. But I chose my main focus point as the carver’s hands and needed a slight bit more depth of field. I needed my future viewers to be drawn to the hands creating the cameo and the concentration of the carver.

I needed to bring into focus the facial features showing concentration, the unique braids in her hair and the cameo she herself was wearing. My choice was f4, which still gave me a slightly out of focus background. This provided the context of the location, but not the sharp focus to pull away the viewer’s attention.

Tip 5: Learn to read the light
Simply put, lighting makes or breaks a photograph. It’s important to figure out what you want the photograph to look like and make it happen with the resources available to you.

Cameos start as a rough-hewn piece of shell. The skill of the carver unlocks the colors and layers of the shell to produce a piece of art. Before I made my image, I wanted to establish white balance. Making this correction in the field saves time in post processing, but also closely aligns with my own philosophy which is to craft the image on location, do not create it later in the computer.

I use a white balance tool which is always folded and in my camera bag. Holding the 18% gray in the primary light source, I was able to make a reference photograph establishing a custom white balance. A second reference shot was made allowing the disk to be in both ambient light and incandescent. Making test shots using each white balance setting allowed me to choose the best setting for the image. The ambient light from the open windows would be about 5700°K. Overcast skies create a slightly blue tint to photographs, whereas the incandescent bulb I was working with puts out light at about 3200°K which is light with a yellow cast. The white balance disk allowed me to make a custom white balance setting considering both light sources which resulted in accurate color reproduction

Using the work light as my primary source, I metered with my hand held analog light meter for the light falling onto the carver’s hands and then under exposed by ½ stop making the adjustment in shutter speed so as to not affect the depth of field (I metered ISO640 @ 1/60 and f4 while my exposure was made at ISO640 @ 1/80 and f4) Between 1/100 and 1/60, there is one stop of light difference. By setting the shutter speed to 1/80, I created the underexposure.

The shot I was trying to achieve was a carver, seemingly emerging from the light, just as the cameo emerges from the shell. The brighter areas of the image on a dark background would also mirror a cameo’s appearance of a light design on a contrasting darker background.

Tip 6: Modify the light
In the image the carver had modified her light by wiring a piece of conch shell to the lamp. Light was now focused on what she was working on. Indirectly she helped me build this shot. The light fell off quickly around her, deepening the shadows on the left side of the image. On location I try to be a minimalist with gear for environmental portraits, using primarily the natural light on location. However, there are always times where the light is less than optimal, like this shot in Honduras, and you need to modify it in some way. This can be as simple as adding a reflector in a strategic location or a diffuser (even sheer curtains) across a window. You will have to read the light to determine how you need to bend, bounce, shape or diffuse as needed. My goal was to keep the light looking as natural as possible.

I only needed to add a small bit of light to the left side of the image, to lighten the carver’s shoulder and arm. The Photoflex MultiDisc 5-in-1 reflector/diffuser provides me with several options for reflective surfaces. Working in color I chose the soft gold, I have found this color works best when needing something between a harsh silver and warm gold. I positioned the reflector to my left, picking up a small amount of lamp light to fill in the darker area of the image. The amount of fill was controlled by the distance the reflector from the subject. I moved the reflector back away from the carver until just enough light fell into the scene for the brightness I wanted.

Tip 7: Don’t be afraid to shoot tight
Robert Capa once said: “If your images are not good enough, then you are not close enough”. Don’t waste space in your images. A good photograph must grab you, must make you stop to look just a bit longer and must make you want to explore it. Get as close as you can to your subject. While it’s true that an environmental portrait normally shows some of the area around your subject, you can get close and still show your subject’s environment. In this case, it was laid out in front of her on the carving stand. Be creative and try different angles, focusing on different aspects of your subject’s personality and character. Find out what makes the person in front of your camera special, and capture it!

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit wilsonphotographyfl.com

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