Environmental Portraits – loving ‘location’

The word portrait can conjure up a lot of mental images and strong opinions about what is the ‘best’ or ‘correct’ method or style. Personally, I don’t get too hung up on definitions or traditional viewpoints, but I have learned a few things over the years about taking flattering photographs of people – ones that my clients love.

My favourite photography projects always include people, and where possible are shot in a real location rather than in the studio. The studio is an extremely valuable place, of course, and I spend a lot of time there, but some of my favourite images (and those of my clients) have been shot on location. Here is why this method continues to work so well for me.

Location portrait of magician Tom Rose

Urban portrait of magician Tom Rose

 Why do I prefer environmental or ‘location’ portraits?

  • they give context to the person or people I’m photographing
  • they often give the viewer insight into the personality and lifestyle of the subject
  • they give points of interest to shots – much more engaging than yet another boring white studio backdrop
  • they help the person or people being photographed to relax
  • they allow spontaneous shots and ‘happy accidents’ to happen more easily

The best way to describe location portraits is to picture them sitting in the middle ground between posed studio portraits and candid ‘grab shots’ where the subject was totally unaware they were being photographed.

Girl going riding on a misty morning

Atmospheric portrait of a girl about to go horse riding, captured on a misty morning in the Yorkshire countryside

It always seems to start in a coffee shop!

A really important part of shooting great environmental people images is getting to know the person I’m working with. I always arrange for us to go for a coffee and chat beforehand – that way I can learn what makes you tick, what your interests are and the kind of images you like. You’ll also get to know me a little bit and discover that I’m completely on your side in getting some amazing shots.

Finding the right location

On occasion the right environment for the portrait seems immediately obvious. I love those times! But more often than not I need to be pretty  purposeful and deliberate in finding the right place.

Portrait of a distinguished gentleman seated in Treasurer's House, York

Portrait of a distinguished gentleman seated in the grand surroundings of Treasurer’s House, York

I make sure that the place we use:

  • makes a statement about you – you need to ‘fit’ and look like you belong in the scene
  • adds interest to the shot – I’m aware that anything that appears in shot can add or detract from its impact. So, I’m careful that an amazing location doesn’t take the focus away from the person I’m shooting

Calm the nerves – get out of the studio

Another major bonus I’ve discovered of working on location is that for people who are a little nervous in front of the camera, it creates a much more natural atmosphere. If you point a camera at me in a completely blank studio environment I’m right there with the worst of them in freezing and not knowing what to do! I get it!

Natural outdoor portrait of a young woman

Outdoor portrait of a young woman. I used natural light, blurred the background and allowed the sun to creep in and create a subtle lens flare

The truth is being in the studio is an unnatural place for many people. So, by shooting in a more familiar environment, much of the self-conscious feeling that being in a studio can create is removed – which in turn leads to more natural and confident looking photographs. Boom!