9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits

Good environmental portraits tell a story. At a glance you will know something about the person in the picture. The best environmental portraits will provide a lot of visual information.

9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits Kebab Chef in Istanbul

Kebab chef entertaining passers-by with his constant banter. Istanbul, Turkey. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Here are 9 tips to help you create more illustrative pictures of people in their surroundings.

1. Do your research

Know your subject well. Not just who they are, but what they do. If you know who you’re going to be photographing, do some research and become informed about what they do.

At least have a conversation and show interest in them by asking questions. This will not only gain you insight, but your subject will appreciate you are showing interest in who they are.

Where they are located is important too. Know about the surroundings. If you’re not sure, ask questions. Hearing the answers, you may be surprised and learn things you didn’t know. Even if you are familiar with the area.

Copper Craftsman 9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits

Copper Craftsman finishes a new piece as his father proudly looks on. Istanbul, Turkey. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

2. Be aware of the environment

Have all your senses working. Listen and watch what’s happening around. You may see things you want to include or that you don’t want in your pictures.

Move around and take photos from different places so you get alternative backgrounds.

Try to avoid any bright lights or other distractions within your composition. It’s important to fill the frame only with what is relevant to the story you are telling.

9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits Mandalay Market Vendor

A vendor at Mandalay’s Ghost Train Market, Myanmar. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

3. Tell their story

Once you’ve chatted for a while, or at least observed keenly, tell their story.

Concentrate on what will communicate most visually about the person, where they are and what they are doing. This is the whole nature of environmental portraits.

Are they a quiet and reserved kind of person? Or are they a loud and boisterous character? Some people change when they get in front of a camera.

If they’ve been chatting away in an animated manner and freeze when you point your camera at them, it’s your job to help them relax. Frozen is not who they naturally are.

9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits Tricycle Taxi Rider

Tricycle taxis in Thailand are called Samlor, which translates as ‘three wheels. The riders enjoy the camaraderie the job brings. ©Kevin Landwer-Johan

4. Connect with your subject

I know this is difficult for many people. The more you can connect with your subject, the better photos you will get.

Pleasant conversation builds confidence in people you want to photograph. They will be more interested in what you are doing and compliant if you show interest in them.

Sometimes you’ll want to give your subject some instructions to help the composition. If you’ve already connected with them they will be more receptive to your ideas.

9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits Moken Sea Gypsie

This Moken sea gypsy was telling us stories of how he lost part of his arm in a fishing accident in the south of Thailand. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

5. Know your camera

Your subject is likely to lose interest in what’s happening if all they see is the top of your head as you peer down at your camera.

Preset your camera so you know the settings will be right. Do this as soon as possible so you will have time to concentrate on communicating with your subject and other important things.

Check that you have the best lens for the job on your camera ready to go.

9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits Hmong Amputee

Hmong hill tribe man who is an amputee after having his leg blown off by a land mine on the Laos/Thailand border © Kevin Landwer-Johan

6. Make a deliberate choice of lens

Showing the surroundings is important. So is communicating with your subject while you are working.

If you have a telephoto lens on your camera, you’ll have to position yourself a long way from your subject to include enough of their environment.

With a medium to wide lens on you can be close enough and also include more of the setting. I love using my 35 mm f/1.4 lens on a full-frame body for environmental portraits. It allows me to be close enough to converse comfortably and still show a decent amount of background.

Be careful if you are using a lens much wider than 35mm as you will be at risk of distorting your subject.

Shan Waitress 9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits

Shan waitress poses for a portrait at the entrance to the small roadside restaurant she works in near Mandalay, Myanmar. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

7. Control your depth of field

Making sure there’s sufficient detail visible in the composition is important.

If you’re a fan of taking photos with your aperture wide open, you may not make the best environmental portraits. Blurring out the background too much will not help you convey information.

Choose an aperture which provides a balance between too blurred and too sharp and distracting. Avoid extremes. This will help keep the main focus on your subject and enhance the story with what else is around them.

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Akha woman harvesting coffee in north Thailand. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

8. Make good use of props

There’s not always an opportunity to make use of props, but if you can they can make a big impact.

Having your subject hold something significant can add to the story.

This Lahu man is a fabulous subject on his own and I have photographed him many times during our workshops. He likes to smoke tobacco in his bong, which adds even more visual interest and tells us more about him.

9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits Lahu Smoker

Lahu Ethnic Minority man enjoys smoking tobacco in his bamboo bong near Chiang Mai, Thailand. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

9. Write good captions

A good caption will provide added detail that you may not be able to clearly convey in your photo. Informative captions help hold people’s interest by further stimulating their imaginations.

Offer a little more information about the person. This is another good reason to engage with them while you’re photographing them.

If you’re not clear on what to write, search the internet.

Recently I watched this documentary about the photographer Dorothea Lange. She is most well known for her work in the midwest USA during the Great Depression. The documentary emphasizes the need for the well-written captions she provided with her photographs.

9 Tips for Better Environmental Portraits Sea Gypsy

Moken sea gypsy fisherman biding his time on the bow of his boat waiting for a catch. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

Not all of these tips may be relevant each time you make environmental portraits. Make use of as many of them as you can to enhance your photography experience.

Make yourself a checklist with these tips and any others you can think of. Consult your list as you prepare to make your next series of portraits. This will help you grow as a photographer.

If you have any other helpful tips to offer about taking great environmental portraits, please include them in the comments below.

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