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7 Tips for Capturing Better Environmental Portraits

An environmental portrait is defined as a portrait executed in a subject’s usual environment, such as in their home or workplace, and typically illuminates the subject’s life and surroundings. Here are 7 tips for portraits that express character and context.

An environmental portrait is defined as a portrait executed in a subject’s usual environment, such as in their home or workplace, and typically illuminates the subject’s life and surroundings. By photographing a person in their natural surroundings, it is thought that you will be able to better illuminate their character and, therefore, portray the essence of their personality rather than merely a likeness of their physical features. It is also thought that by photographing a person in their natural surroundings, the subject will be more at ease and so be more conducive to expressing themselves, as opposed to in a studio, which can be a rather intimidating and artificial experience.

7 Tips for Capturing Better Environmental Portraits


1. Convey Grandeur

Paul in Dunes WEB

Conveying grandeur is number one on my list of tips for a reason. I believe it is the most significant way to improve environmental portraiture. Photographers, including myself, make the mistake of capturing too many portraits in tight on a subject’s face. Don’t get me wrong, tight face shots are beautiful and can be extremely moving in all situations; however, those portraits taken outside of a studio or for reasons other than a high school yearbook can be more interesting when the inclusion of the environment around a subject is included. This is evident in this image I captured of my friend, Paul Shea, in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. The inclusion of the massive desert dunes towering around Paul show the grandeur of the environment around Paul as well as scale and perspective. This image would lose so much, in my opinion, if it included just the dunes or a tighter shot of just Paul.

2. Use Reflections


I love using reflections in my photography generally. However, I believe that using reflections showing the surrounding environment in a portrait can make an image significantly more interesting and artful. In this image, I captured a boy that took a liking to my sunglasses while I was visiting a Samburu tribe in Northern Kenya. Here, the boy’s environment is conveyed untraditionally in the refection of the sunglasses (I also used black & white conversion and this is discussed in tip #4 below).

3. Capture Movement


Without question, capturing movement in a subject’s environment can greatly improve a portrait and make the image more interesting. In this image, I captured my friend, Chris Mundy, taking his best shot at the traditional Masai tribal dance in Kenya using a Nikon D3s body and a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II lens.

How to Show Artistic Motion in Still Photography

4. Convert to Black & White or Sepia Tone

Lady with Apple in Market 1 BW Master

Converting an image to black & white can make an otherwise ordinary image into one that is timeless. This is one of my favorite images that I captured in Morocco, which reminded me of the old witch handing Snow White an apple in the Disney classic. (For the record, by no means am I calling this this cute old lady a witch.) Like a black & white conversion, converting an image to sepia tone can make an image appear timeless. Sepia tone can also alter the mood of the viewer and project emotion, otherwise not achieved through traditional color processing.

Sepia Ali in Doorway 1 WEB

In this image, sepia tone adds additional value to this somber scene set by our Berber model posing despondently near an old wooden door in a Kasbah in Morocco.

5. Use Patterns or Textures

Tim in Harpa SLR 1 WEB

Patterns surrounding a subject can make a portrait a lot more interesting. This image was captured inside the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland. My business partner and world renowned Icelandic photographer, Tim Vollmer, poses inside one of the large glass lattices –which I included in the image to show the perspective and scale in the environment around Tim.


Like patterns, textures in the surrounding environment can also add tremendous value to a portrait. In this image, I used the contours of the Sahara Desert in Morocco to lure the viewer’s eyes in from all directions towards our Berber model. Incorporating the desert and its sweeping dunes also shows grandeur, scale, and perspective.

6. Illustrate Harsh Contrasts


For you photo journalists and street photographers alike, this one is for you. Illustrating harsh contrasts in the environment around a subject can be powerful in portraits. Here, I believe that I captured the essence of the cast struggle in India by the juxtaposition of the impoverished boy standing behind barbed wire in the foreground and the wealth and opulence of the Taj Mahal looming over him in the background.

7. Use Humor and Be Entertaining


Many of my colleagues and friends have captioned this image. To most, however, this portrait conveys a hilarious sense of being “lost in translation” as I try and figure out what these two Sadhu holy men are trying to tell me outside a temple in Nepal.


A Rwenzori three-horned chameleon, tries to figure out how to work a Canon EOS 1D X Mark II in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Ironically, this image was captured with a Nikon D5 and a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S ED VR II lens. No doubt that this portrait is entertaining to at least those photographers that engage in the never-ending battle of which products are better, Canon or Nikon. As you go out to put these tips into action with your own shots keep in mind that lighting is a very important part of any type of portrait photography. Utilize our aperture shutter speed iso chart and tips to understand all the components of light and photography. Being knowledgable will just make your photos that much better.

Looking for more tips? Assure you’re making the most of your portrait shots by taking a peek at our detailed guide for portrait photography tips as well as our guide to the best portrait lens.

Tags: , , Last modified: July 7, 2021