If the idea of a great portrait is to capture the soul of the subject (an arguable proposition that is fraught with dissent), then a great environmental portrait could do all that as well as place the subject into the context of his life’s experiences.
Environmental portraiture can cover everything from the family having a barbecue in the backyard to exotic subjects
snapped in distant lands. It’s essentially the art of joining a portrait with a landscape (or an interior) to tell a more
Think about a shopkeeper in his shop, working hard. A close-up of his face may show weathered lines, concentration or tiredness, but there is no context. Why is his face weathered? Why is he concentrating so hard and why is he so tired?
Sometimes it’s enough to leave these questions hanging – to leave your viewer wondering. However, to give your
portraits more context and your viewers more insight, an environmental portrait makes great sense. It can add to the story and provide more clues.
However, it can also be deceiving if you choose an environment that is out of context, or if you create a composite environment. As with all genres of photography, technology is allowing our imagination to explore new avenues, but we don’t have to take this ride. For many readers, capturing a true representation of a person is art enough, without having to fabricate something imaginary.
Nevertheless, we should be aware of the power we have as photographers to tell a story, or to invent one. And when
it comes to portraiture, that power is amplified when the environment is included.
If we’re looking at the work of past masters, remember the technology with which they worked. Realise that in the
darkroom they would selectively work on their images to best communicate their ideas visually. They would not hesitate to lighten and darken, crop and tone. We should be prepared to do the same. Very few of the famous images we see are ‘straight out of camera’, but it’s also true to say that very few are composites.
The line in the sand seems to be determined by what we have captured, meaning you can use almost any level of
selective post-production to enhance the image, as long as it’s based on a single exposure.
When shooting environmental portraits, keep in mind that photography is still a two-step process: capture and post-production. For instance, if you can get great light on the subject, but the background is a little dark, post-production could help. Or if the background is wonderful, but the subject in shadow, again post-production can help.
By thinking differently, we can advance both the art and the craft of portrait photography - especially when the
environment is involved.
To read what's in the environmental portrait photographer's toolbox, subscribe to the current issue of Better Photography - visit www.betterphotographyeducation.com.