Getting Started: Environmental Portraits

Portrait photography is a very common entry port into a burgeoning photographic hobby or even career. There are several main categories of portrait photography, environmental portraits being one of the first attempted due to its accessibility. To accomplish a successful environmental portrait you do not need a studio, elaborate lighting techniques, or hair and make-up specialists. What you do need, however, is a vision or a story that you wish to tell that works in balance with the subject you are photographing. Read on to find out what to keep in mind when first embarking on this style of photography to increase your success of creating impactful photographs.

Let’s first start by explaining what we mean when the term ‘Environmental Portrait’ is thrown around. It is a portrait taken of a subject that interacts and has meaning with the environment it is in. The portrait not only relies on the subject but also the context, clues, and points of interest which are given to the viewer to determine a background story.


What is the difference between an environmental portrait, standard portrait, and candid portrait you ask? A standard portrait’s intention is to focus solely on the subject, relying on expression, physical characteristics, and lighting to communicate an impression. The difference with an environmental portrait, as the name suggests, is setting. It is generally shot with a wider lens to include more context of the scene, and offers the subject an environment that can put them at ease, sharing the attention with their surroundings. There can be a fine line between an environmental portrait and a candid photograph which is dependent on circumstance. The subject, whether a planned session or someone who has caught your eye on the street, knows their photograph is being taken and the objective is purposeful. Direction is given to your subject in terms of posing and props, as well as an intentional use of lighting to aid in visual storytelling. Candid photos, on the other hand, capture people in passing as they go through their daily lives, unaware someone is taking their picture.


Before you begin, invest some time in getting to know your subject. Doing so will give you a better idea of a location that will best communicate the story you are trying to tell. You can also gain understanding of where the subject will feel most comfortable having their picture taken, which ultimately will enhance the outcome. For example, if someone is timid you won’t want to choose Times Square as their discomfort will show in the results. The opposite is true of a person who thrives off attention; you can take advantage of their outgoing nature by choosing someplace their personality is triggered. Say you are passing by someone on the street and are compelled to photograph them less candidly: introduce yourself and inquire a bit about them as your are sharing your intentions of why you would like to photograph them. Both approaches communicate with your subject that you care about them and want to create an image that is reflective of them as they relate to their environment.  


Choosing the location of your shoot is crucial to the success of the environmental portrait. You want your location to tell more about your subject, whether it be a reflection of their work, home, passion, or connection to community. The location doesn’t need to be a clear linear relation to the subject, as long as it is being used to show who the subject is and contributes to the viewer’s understanding. You want to stay away from backgrounds that may compete for attention with your subject. Look for something that compliments your subject and assists the narration.


Posing your subject for an environmental portrait lends itself to to extracting a natural expression because it is in a less controlled environment, unlike a studio which has the potential to intimidate your subject. What you will want to keep in mind is that the expression and props must correlate with the scene and work in balance with one another. Ask your subject to experiment different actions or poses within the scene that feel natural. Don’t feel uncomfortable asking for gestures to be repeated if it enables you to capture an action that best communicates the story. Giving feedback to your subject is a great way to make it a team effort and will be a catalyst for teamwork, allowing the subject more involvement and you more opportunities to be inspired.


When considering the right gear for your shoot opt for a wider lens with a fast aperture such as a 35mm or Sigma’s acclaimed 50mm Art, rather than a standard portrait lens such as an 85mm. If you are shooting with an APS-C sensor then the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 or 17-55mm lenses are your best friends as they are formatted to fit your sensor to maintain a wide focal range as well have fixed/fast apertures. Keep a healthy distance from you and the subject to include more environment in the frame, since the goal is to include context and visual clues. When shooting with wider angles lenses, you must consider the angle of the sensor to the subject to avoid any strange foreshortening or elongations of the human form that are possible with this style lens. Keep the lighting simple when you are first starting out and rely more on reflectors and off camera speedlights if you want to incorporate more than what’s available naturally. Try shooting with a single speedlight and dragging the shutter to maintain that sense of ambiance and not isolate the subject from its surroundings.



Shooting environmental portraits are this magical place between photojournalism and portrait work. By learning how to compose for and execute this style of photography, it can be a breeding ground for all types of work including artistic series, reporting, weddings, and more. To set yourself up for success remember that understanding your subject will not only relax them during their shoot but also allow you to better understand the story you are trying to tell. Identifying what you want to communicate visually about your subject will then help guide you to picking a location that not only represents your subject but also highlights their character. It is all about the big picture- your background doesn’t have to be simple but make sure you are keeping it in balance with your subject and neither is overtaking the other. Shoot with a fast aperture to allow a quick shutter which will help avoid missing that perfect shot due to motion blur. Another option is to introduce simple off camera lighting techniques to begin with, such as a single speedlight to help freeze the motion.  Wide angles will help you push your boundaries in terms of composing the space around your subject while at the same time add context. Environmental portraits entail many considerations before and during the shoot. If you have a clear idea of the story you would like to tell and the forethought of how to best accomplish it visually, you’re bound to create compelling imagery.


Cortigiano is a food, lifestyle, and event photographer with a contemporary aesthetic. She received an undergraduate degree in photography at Drexel University and has gone on to work as a freelance photographer and teaching artist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get 20% your first rental with promo code BLOG20

Mirrorless, Medium
Format and more.

Anamorphic, Cinema,
Wide Angle and more.

Aputure, Manfrotto,
Profoto and more.

About BL

BorrowLenses is an online camera gear rental service that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. We offer a wide selection of camera gear ranging from camera bodies, lenses, lighting and accessories. We make it easy to rent gear by shipping your order straight to you.