How To Photograph An Environmental Portrait

An environmental portrait of a worker I photographed in the grounds of the lovely Botanical Gardens in Kolkata, India.

Here's your guide to environmental portraiture that depicts people in environments to which they seem to belong.

Here’s the recipe for how I go about making beautiful, life affirming Environmental Portraits that explore the Human Condition.

I made the above photo of a worker in the Botanical Gardens in Kolkata India.

It looks very much like a clearing in the jungle when in fact the gardens are in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities.

But this is not England and there are parts of these gardens that do evoke a sense of the wild.

Photographing an interesting person in an environment to which they seem to belong makes for a compelling image.

This style of photography is commonly referred to as an Environmental Portrait.

When constructing an environmental portrait it’s important to compose your image around two essential elements:

  • The portrait, in a way that places emphasis on the fence

  • The surrounding environment so that it adds to the story you’re telling

To achieve the ideal composition simply move in close with a wide angle focal length lens on you camera.

Night Market, Kolkata, India

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The Best Way To Make An Environmental Portrait

The trick is to stand close enough so that the person in question is clearly identifiable while, at the same time, ensure you’re able to include a sufficient amount of their environment to better tell the story.

Of course lens choice is only the beginning. Just as important as the focal length is the way you use that lens.

Under normal circumstances the closer you get to the subject the more dominant they’ll become.

Be aware though, that the closer to the subject you get the more background will be excluded from your composition.

Environmental Portrait of a shopkeeper in his tiny, colorful shop in Kolkata, India.

The Ideal Lens For An Environmental Portrait

That’s the beauty of a mild wide-angle lens at our around a focal length of 35 mm on a full frame camera.

The wider angle of view associated with that focal length will include more of the surroundings (i.e., above, below, left and right) than would be the case with normal or telephoto focal length lenses.

A mild wide-angle lens always possesses are quite special property when it comes to photographing the average face.

When employed close to your subject it acts to draw the face in a relatively dramatic manner, while providing a sense of greater separation between the subject and the background.

Telephoto focal lengths, on the other hand, tend to compress the sense of visual space between the subject and the background.

The slightly more dramatic perspective associated with a mild wide-angle lens can produce a more visually arresting image.

That’s not to say you can’t make even more visually dynamic environmental portraits with focal lengths wider than 35 mm.

You certainly can, but the success of your image will be dependent, at least in part, on your ability to balance the following:

  • Producing a pleasing likeness of your subject

  • Controlling the perspective and how much of the surroundings are included in the frame

An environmental portrait of a young boy standing in the doorway of his home in the village of Maria Purem on the outskirts of Chennai, India.

The Environmental Portrait And The Customer

If you’re looking to sell the image to your subject or their mother the mild wide-angle focal length is usually the best option.

If, however, you’re producing images for a wider audience (e.g., photojournalism) than you might be better off employing an even wider focal length, up close, for a more dramatic look.

By selecting a mild wide-angle focal length and moving up close to your subject, you’ll be able to tell the story better.

You’ll do so by depicting your subject in an environment to which they seem to belong in a flattering, yet visually interesting way.

Environmental Portrait of a taxi driver at rest in the back streets of Kolkata, India.

Depth Of Field In Environmental Portraiture

Generally speaking you’ll want to blur the background in a portrait photo.

However, as the subjects surroundings are important to the story being told in an environmental portrait, you may choose to gently blur, rather than obliterate the background.

A fast lens is always appealing and a fantastic addition to any photographer’s camera bag.

However, you’ll often want to retain a reasonable degree of information in the background of many of your environmental portraits.

That might mean a more modest maximum aperture (e.g., f/4) may be sufficient for your needs.

And don’t forget that, by moving in closer to your subject, you’ll be creating quite a shallow Depth Of Field.

The above photo of a taxi driver at rest in the back streets of Kolkata illustrates this point perfectly.

A relatively modest aperture of f/4 was used to make this image.

We’re drawn to the sharpest parts of this image, his face, yet we can still make out important elements in his surroundings, that help tell the story, without needing to linger on them.

And check out the lovely bokeh (i.e., the quality of the shape of the out of focus highlights) in the top left hand corner of the frame.

The aesthetic associated with bokeh means that the more rounded the outside edge of the out of focus highlights, the more pleasing the effect.

A bright green and yellow wall provides a colorful background for this portrait of a child at a Kolkata railway station in India.

Placing Your Subject Off Centre In The Frame

A further tip is to place your subject off centre.

If they’re in the middle of the frame they’ll likely be blocking the background and, as a consequence, much of the environment.

That central positioning of the subject can obscure important elements of the story you’re trying to tell.

India Photography Collection Updated

The environmental portraits in this post are part of my updated India Photography Collection.

There are currently over 50 photos in the collection and more will be added over time.

You’ll notice the collection includes portrait, landscape, architecture and religious subject matter.

India is a tough place to travel around. But it’s an incredibly vibrant country with opportunities for great photos around every corner.

And let’s not forget the deeper level of story telling you’ll be able to explore in such a visually arresting country through the environmental portraits you make.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru