Environmental portraits. A picture worth a thousand words

It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words, and that can certainly be said of a good environmental portrait. One look at this still image, and you immediately know what this person does for a living. You also get a sense of how he feels about his work, and subconsciously your mind continues to build up a string of ideas about what this person might actually be like based on his job and this personal space that he’s in.

Environmental portraits are fantastic ways of telling a person’s story, or of showing something unique about a person’s character. They differ from your standard portrait because the background actually plays a significant role in the image, and is used to give a much clearer understanding of just who that person is. They differ from candid photography because every element in the image, from the person’s expression, pose, and clothes, to every item in the background, is used intentionally to build up that person’s story.

Their Environment

Everyone has their own personal space, whether it’s a single room, a house, a desk, an office, or even a car. And everyone leaves their personal mark on that space in how they decorate it, fill it, use it, organise it, or leave it bare.

For example, a desk that is kept tidy and neat says something very different about a person than a desk that is cluttered and messy. Someone who has a few old tools that are well worn gives a very different impression to someone who has dozens of the latest tools that are still brand new. Even the way a collection of CDs are sorted (alphabetically by artist, or first by genre then artist) tells you different things about their owner.

It’s these small details that build up a person’s story, yet most of the time when we look at a scene we don’t even consciously notice them. Our minds just connect the dots for us, associating more complex concepts (often stereotypes) with what we see at any given time.

This is the beauty of environmental portraits: choose your background wisely, and a lot of the hard work of story telling is already done for you.

The Story

A strong environmental portrait has a strong story, which comes about by having every element in the image (pose, expression, clothes, background, lighting) unified under a common theme.

Let’s take a farmer as a simple example, with farming being our theme. When I think of a farmer, I think of hard work, hot sun, long days. I think of farm animals and grain fields. Being from Australia, I also think of drought.

That’s a good basis for a story. Now what are some ways to show these concepts?

Hard work could be shown by having our farmer doing some hard work in the photo, but think about this: years of long days working hard in the hot sun has its effect on a person’s skin and body. We don’t need to show him actually working, because his face and body (depending on the farmer) can show that for us. What he’s wearing will also build on that concept, as will any tools he’s holding. And if you want to go a step further, photograph him after he’s done some work when he and his clothes are all dusty, sweaty, or covered with bits of hay.

We can then put him on his farm, maybe in a field with a few animals grazing in the distance. This sets our scene, but we still need to think about the story we want to convey. How can we build on the concept of hard work and long days? By showing just how much work this farmer has to do. Farms usually have an awful lot of land, so let’s find a spot to stand him in where we can see the rest of the fields stretching out “forever” into the distance. And to emphasise our drought theme, preferably ones that don’t have a lot growing in them.

Now what about time of day? First thing in the morning, when the sun hasn’t yet risen, could show how early the farmer has to get up to work the fields. At the end of the day, when the sun is sinking below the horizon, could show just how long the farmer has had to stay outside to work. But  to me, neither of those say hard work, drought, and long days as much as being out in the middle of the day when the sun is blazing hot, the light is harsh, and there’s no shade to rest in.

And what of the farmer himself? To start with, it doesn’t make much sense to have our farmer smiling at the camera if the story we’re telling is that he’s struggling through drought. So let’s keep him serious, have him put a boot on a shovel as if he’s just been using it, and tell him to solemnly contemplate a drought stricken future, or the hard work at hand.

All of that I just came up with on the spot. (Apologies for not having an image to go with it.) What it’s lacking is personality, but you can see how every element in a photograph can be put together intentionally to build on the same concepts, giving a better understanding of what someone’s life might be like.

Now take a look at the following two images. Both are of farmers standing in their fields, yet they were taken for different reasons and tell very different stories.

To me, one says more about the fields, and the other says more about the farmer. This is to do with camera angle, pose, and the other elements (or lack thereof) in the scene. Think about which image speaks more strongly to you, which story comes through clearer, and why. Being able to analyse other people’s photos is incredibly helpful when it comes to creating your own.

Tips for Creating Your Own

Posing

Remember, you’re shooting a portrait, and not something candid. The person doesn’t have to be looking at the camera, but neither should they be unaware of it or fully turned away. Have them pose in a way that fits the story you’re trying to tell. Try putting a prop in their hands, and get them doing something they normally would in that environment. This is a great way of getting your subject to relax if they’re not so comfortable in front of the camera.

Theme and Story

Keep the story you’re wanting to tell simple and unified around a common theme. The goal isn’t to tell the person’s whole life story, nor is it to show ten bare facts about them. In our earlier example, the theme was a farmer, and the story was hard work and drought.

Background

Choose your location wisely. Work places are brilliant for environmental portraits, because the space is already filled with stuff that is all related to the job (i.e. the common theme). Hobbies can be seen the same way. Someone’s home, on the other hand, will often have a whole bunch of random things cast around that are generally unrelated, so be careful here as these will only detract from your story. Pay attention to what’s in the background, and don’t be afraid to remove anything distracting or unnecessary.

Focus

Keep sharp focus on your subject, and use a narrower aperture (larger number) than normal to get the background in focus as well. It doesn’t all have to be sharp, but it certainly needs to be obvious what’s in it.

Subject

Be careful to compose your shot so your person is clearly the subject of your image. When so much of the background is sharp, it can be very easy to lose your subject among the rest of the clutter. Even though the background is important, you don’t want it dominating the scene. To help with this, you can light your subject a little more brightly than the background, or place them well in front of the scene. Wide angle lenses will help here.

Conclusion

There is an awful lot to think about when trying to tell someone’s story in one image, but environmental portraits are probably the easiest way of doing it. They can also be incredibly interesting and rewarding to shoot, as they give you an opportunity to discover more about someone else’s life, or profession, in a much more intimate way.

If you’ve done an environmental portrait and discovered something fascinating about your subject, or what they do, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Environmental portraits. A picture worth a thousand words”

  1. Lynn Carter says:

    So interesting – what you are saying makes perfect sense. I find myself focusing too much on the whole story and not allowing the viewer to fill in the rest of the story – or giving the viewer credit for being able to do so. I love photo journalism and rely on telling a progressive story through a series of pictures so telling the whole story with ONE picture is really a challenge. Thank you for your great article it has given me great insight into the minds of great photographs/photographers.

    1. Melissa Kee Tin says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Lynn. I love how you put it, that we need to give the viewer credit for being able to fill in the rest of the story. That’s exactly it! 🙂

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