13 Tips for Effective Environmental Portraits

Departing from the standard “torso-up” headshot portrait, an environmental portrait portrays a subject in a location that lends insight into who the subject is and what he or she is about. Although the headshot portrait is certainly appropriate in some contexts, it is generally agreed that the best portraits are the ones that tell stories.

Newspaper photographer David Handschuh has been shooting environmental portraits for more than 30 years throughout his career and has developed this list of 13 tips for creating effective environmental portraits based on his experience:

1. Case the shoot location like a hunter or a burglar to find several different spots. Have a plan heading into a given shoot and survey the location thoroughly. Note all of the important details, such as lighting and angles, and select places to pose your subject.

2. Learn to read the light. Lighting makes or breaks a photograph—figure out what you want the photograph to look like and make it happen with the resources available to you.

3. Fight with light and wrestle with it.

“I love to fight with light, to use shadows, to shoot into the light, to work on silhouettes,” Handschuh said. “Go 90 degrees, go 180 degrees, go against the light, look around.”

david handschuh environmental portrait

Following his own advice, Handschuh worked the contrast-y light here to his advantage, creating mysterious shadows.

4. Love color and embrace it. Handschuh believes that incorporating more color into your portraits will set them apart from other photographers’ work and even save portraits if you screwed them up in other areas.

5. You have three seconds to make your subject feel comfortable.

“The best asset that any photojournalist has is the ability to schmooze—the ability to relate to somebody else, the ability to talk to somebody else and to make them feel comfortable. If they’re comfortable with you, your pictures will clearly show it,” said Handschuh. “You can’t be shy if you’re going to play photojournalist. You have to talk to people.”

6. Empower your subject. First thing during a shoot, Handschuh asks his subjects where they want to be photographed. He has found that giving subjects the ability to choose allows them to feel more involved in the shoot, which relaxes them, and helps him to identify places where his subjects feel most comfortable.

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Asking subjects about props might be helpful too, such as in this photograph.

7. Watch your background, carefully and often.

“Nobody wants to get home and realize that every single photograph that you’ve taken of somebody has a streetlamp coming out of the back of their head or a tree or somebody photobombing,” Handschuh said.

8. Shoot in f/3.2 or f/4. Because the environmental portrait is supposed to impart a sense of place while mostly focusing on the subject, f/3.2 and f/4 are Handschuh’s choice apertures because they make backgrounds detailed, but out of focus.

9. & 10. Always give your editors and clients choices. Make sure to take as many different variations of waistlengths, full lengths, horizontals, and verticals as possible during any given shoot so that if editors and clients come asking for different crops, you have them.

11. Be a master of auto exposure. Handschuh compares using auto exposure to driving an automatic car.

“It allows me to concentrate on what the subject is doing, posing them, working with them, checking my background, composing my photograph,” he said.

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Without the added distraction of worrying about exposure, Handschuh could concentrate on positioning his subject in this photograph so as to avoid the many towers and buildings in the background.

12. Bracket your exposure and white balance. Photographers who work under time constraints and the pressure of capturing once-in-a-lifetime moments, such as celebrity, wedding, and news photographers, would be well-served by bracketing in Handschuh’s view.

13. Smile. Being bright and friendly will help to make your subject feel comfortable during the shoot—which will definitely pay off in your photographs.

Incorporating these tips into your technique can make all the difference in setting you apart from the masses of other professional photographers and amateurs with iPhones. They have certainly elevated Handschuh, who works as an acclaimed photojournalist for New York Daily News and has had the opportunity to photograph many celebrities throughout his career.

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