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Environmental Portraits

An environmental portrait or location portrait usually shows the subject in his or her natural environment or somewhere other than in front of a standard, plain studio backdrop. Using Speedlights for this type of portrait really makes a lot of sense: The lights are small and easy to set up, you can carry a lot of them in a single bag, the AWL capabilities allow you to adjust the light quickly (so you don’t waste the subject’s time), and the wide range of light modifiers available gives you a lot of options.

The challenge of an environmental portrait is that you have to not only make the subject look good but have to make the background and surroundings look good. More importantly, you need to light the environment so that you can add a sense of place and time to the portrait. You get to use the lighting to decide which elements you will draw attention to and which you will allow to fade into the background. It is up to you as the photographer to decide which parts of the image the viewer looks at based on which elements help to tell the story and which elements don’t. You want to be able to light the parts that matter and avoid the parts that don’t.

You get to tell a real story with these types of images as compared to a straight studio portrait, but it takes a lot more planning and forethought than just putting a person against a plain backdrop. You need to think ahead and plan out the shoot before picking up the camera or even setting up a light.

Before the Shoot

Environmental portraits take planning to make the best use of your time. There are some things you can do before the shoot that will save you time, keep you organized, and allow you to make the best of the limited time with the subject. Occasionally, you get an unlimited amount of time, but in my experience those shoots are rare. Often you get less time than you want.

Know Your Subject

The more you know about your subject, the easier it will be to tell the person’s story. A little research can really help, especially if the subject of the portrait does a job or has a pastime that you don’t know intimately. One of the best ways to get to know your subject is to talk to the person before the shoot. All the information you gather will help you come up with the best spot to take the portrait.

I wanted to photograph my friend Alex in his office since the first time I saw it. Alex is a color artist in the comic book industry and has worked on some of the most famous characters, including Batman, the Flash, and the Green Lantern. Before I set up for the shoot, I already knew that I needed to include some of his office’s Batman items in the photo. While talking to Alex, I also found out that the Captain America statue in his office has some personal significance, so it needed to be part of the shot, as well. I gathered all this information before I started setting up the lights. You can see from Figure 12.27 that Alex had quite a lot of Batman items to pick from. This shot also shows the two Speedlights with Rogue Grids on them that I used to control the lights striking the Captain America and Batman statues.

Figure 12.27

Figure 12.27 Both the Captain America and Batman statues needed their own light sources to separate them from the rest of the office.

NIKON D750 ISO 320 1/10 SEC. F/11

Tell the Right Story

To help tell the story in your environmental portrait, you need to decide which parts of the scene get illuminated and which parts need to fade into the background. The viewer’s eye will be drawn to the brightest, sharpest area of the image, so you can control where the viewer looks just by either lighting something up or keeping it in shadows.

A couple of extra Speedlights can come in handy for storytelling because you can strategically place them to selectively add some light or highlights just where you want them. If you have only one light, you need to make sure that it is on the main subject—but, don’t assume “the subject” means “the person.” For the purposes of your story, the subject might be the location itself or something that the person is working on.

Be Prepared

Many times shooting an environmental portrait takes place during work hours in a working environment, making it important to get in and set up as quickly as possible so as to not waste precious time. Here are a few things that I do before the shoot to cut down on the setup time:

  • Set up flashes early: Before I even get to the location, I decide which of my flashes are going to be remotes and what I am going to use as the Commander. Next, I set them all to the same channel and assign each of the remote flashes to the different groups I think I am going to use. I then use small pieces of white gaffer tape to note each flash’s group, not only marking the flash units but also the flash cases so that I know which flash I want to use where when I open the cases on location (Figure 12.28).

    Figure 12.28

    Figure 12.28 Each Speedlight and each Speedlight bag is labeled with the letter of the group in which I plan on using that light. Of course, this can all change on location, but it helps to keep me organized while on a shoot.

  • Charge and install batteries: I use rechargeable batteries that need to be charged up prior to use, so I make sure that the batteries are fully charged and in each unit I plan to use. This saves time when I get to the location because I know each flash is ready to go. Each step that I can save on location gives me a little more time to take photographs.
  • Pack smart: It really helps to have a system when you pack for a shoot. I use two Pelican cases for the actual Speedlights and the small modifiers. When I get to the location, I open the Speedlight case, and everything is exactly where it is supposed to be. This makes setting up easy, and if I need anything, I know where it is immediately.

Have a Plan, but Be Flexible

Before any shoot, especially one that will take place on location, I create a plan that describes the following:

  • What I want to photograph
  • Where I will place the lights
  • Gear I will need

This plan may be very detailed with the exact locations of the light stands, which flashes will be used where, which group each flash will be in, and what light modifiers will be used. Or, the plan may be more of an outline or an idea with a general concept of what I am trying to capture. The difference depends on how much information I gather before the shoot and, specifically, if I know the location. For example, the offices in Figure 12.29 were under construction, so I had a big open area that allowed me plenty of space to set up a background and lights.

Figure 12.29

Figure 12.29 A construction site made a great place to take a few on-location headshots. There was plenty of space to work and no reflective surfaces.

NIKON D750 ISO 100 1/60 SEC. F/6.3

Despite all the preparatory work that I do, I still know that my plan can all go out the window the minute the shoot starts. There are so many different things that can go wrong or need to be changed at the last minute. The best thing you can do is be prepared to change your plans on the fly.

Sometimes I have no idea what a shoot’s location is going to be like at all. One of the every first shoots I ever did using SB-800s in the field was for musician John Ginty. The shoot was to take place between the sound check and actual show at the San Diego House of Blues in one of the dressing rooms. I had no idea what the room looked like or how long we would have to shoot. Luckily, the dressing room had great couch, so I had John sit and turn slightly to me; then I placed a single SB-800 across from him on the counter using the built-in flash stand and triggered it with a second SB-800 on the camera acting as the Commander. Looking back at the photo now (Figure 12.30) more than 10 years later, I wish I had placed a flag between the light and the wall. This would have stopped the reflection from the flash from bouncing off the mural, but it was the first time I was using Speedlights on location for this type of lighting.

Figure 12.30

Figure 12.30 Musician John Ginty photographed in the dressing room of the House of Blues while I used a single off-camera SB-800 Speedlight for this portrait.

NIKON D2X ISO 250 1/60 SEC. F/4.5

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