7 Tips To Make A Classic Environmental Portrait

A man sits by a fire in the back streets of Kolkata, India.

The Photo Essay is a way to tell a story in a series of images. Probably the most important image within a photo essay, the environmental portrait has the capacity to tell a story within a single image.

The image should be constructed so as to contain something of the essential nature of the subject pictured. The photographer’s role is as much facilitator as artist as she endeavors to record the subject’s most expressive moment. Of course, as is the case in traditional portraiture, the photographer may have to provide significant direction to the subject to achieve the desired expression, pose or gesture.

I photographed this worker in the grounds of the lovely Botanical Gardens in Kolkata, India.

1. Location, Location, Location

Location is essential to a great environmental portrait. It’s important to select a location in which the subject appears to belong. This location will become an integral part of the final photograph. Consider this fact carefully in your composition and work hard to relate the subject to their surroundings.

A lovely environmental portrait, in black and white, of a young boy in his father's print workshop in Kolkata, India.

2. Incorporating Props Into An Environmental Portrait

Another way to help make the subject look and feel at home in their surroundings is to include one or more props in the image. So a butcher could be wearing their (once) white apron and be pictured holding a butcher’s knife, while the painter might be depicted wearing a smock and holding a brush and paint palette.

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

3. Photographing Your Subject Off Centre

We now have a portrait where, thanks to the props, our subject seems to belong within the surroundings (i.e., environment) in which they are depicted. But to see the surroundings we often need to move our subject off centre, towards one edge of the frame, so that they don’t cover up or block the background. 

This approach will also allow the viewer’s attention to move around the frame, but it will always be drawn back to the subject, particularly if their eyes are illuminated and/or they are separated from their surroundings through a shallow Depth Of Field (DOF).

An attendant cleans the interior of a church in Kolkata, India.

4. The Best Camera Orientation For An Environmental Portrait

Both vertical and horizontal framing can be used to construct an environmental portrait. Usually horizontal (i.e., landscape) framing provides the best option. But, on occasions (e.g., religious minister inside church), vertical framing may be better suited to both the subject and the environment.

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

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

5. Lens Choice For An Environmental Portrait

Use of a mild wide-angle (e.g., effective 35 mm focal length) lens enables the photographer to move up close and engage with the subject while retaining much of their surroundings within the frame. A more dramatic image may result with the use of an even wider lens (e.g., effective focal length of 24 mm or 28 mm).

The wide-angle lens also provides a greater three-dimensional feeling of space and depth by helping to separate the scene into distinctive areas of foreground, mid ground and background within the frame.

More dynamic images can be achieved by photographing from an extreme (e.g., worms eye or birds eye) angle of view.

A portrait of a young boy with his father watching on in front of their store in Kolkata, India.

6. The Primary Focal Point In An Environmental Portrait

With attention now placed on both the subject and their surroundings, it’s important to ensure that the subject’s face remains the primary focal point (i.e., point of interest) within the image. Make sure your subject is properly lit and close enough to the lens, particularly if a wide-angle lens is used, to remain the primary focal point within the image.

Don’t forget the objective is to make a particular type of portrait, one that places the subject in surroundings that describe something of who they are or what it is they do. But it’s still a portrait, so it’s essential to see their face clearly.

Black and white portrait of a yogi resting in the grounds of a temple complex by the banks of the Hooghly River in Kolkata, India.

7. Interaction Is At The Heart Of A Great Environmental Portrait

As a general rule interaction between the subject and photographer and, as a consequence, between the subject and the viewer, is achieved through eye contact. The eyes are considered as windows to the soul in a great portrait photograph.

Photography is a communicative art and great photographs tell us as much about the photographer as they do about the subject. This interaction between the photographer and the viewer provides a link to the opinions, views and motivations of the photographer.

The environmental portrait has been with us for a long time. Many of Europe’s greatest painters created wonderful environment portraits of royalty, religious leaders and working class folk. Today photojournalists and wedding/portrait photographers frequently employ the environmental portrait to tell the story at hand within a single image. 

Including the environmental portrait into your own photography will allow you to better tell the story, within a single picture, and enhance your future photographic opportunities. I hope this practical guide will help enhance your creativity by helping you make truly great environmental portraits.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru