Environmental Portraits

In my job as a photographer I’m often asked to make environmental portraits for magazines and book publishers. It’s something I really enjoy because it means I get to meet some interesting people and see inside some amazing places.

But what exactly is an environmental portrait? Well it’s probably easier to say what it isn’t. It isn’t made in a studio with a simple background. Instead, the subject is photographed in a particular environment, perhaps the place where they work, their home, or anywhere that relates to who they are. Done well, the environmental portrait should give us further insight into the life or character of the subject.

Historically speaking, the grand master of environmental portraiture was Arnold Newman. If you don’t know his work then do check it out. His composition and use of light was always controlled and considered. But perhaps his greatest skill was incorporating found elements to give a psychological edge to the portrait. And that’s not easy.

Here I’ve used different elements to create a structure and ‘message’ for the portrait.
Top left – Franco Mussida, musician. Top right – Roberto Nicoletti, Architect.
Bottom – Geremia Vinattieri, sound designer, who I decided to kind of hide within the chaos of the studio.

For me the key to environmental portraiture is finding the right balance between the ‘environment’ part and the ‘portrait’ part. The focus would normally be on the person, with the environment taking on a supporting role, but that’s not always the case. Of course it’s never as easy as it appears. For a start you’re probably meeting the person for the first time, you’re entering their ‘space’, they might be famous and slightly intimidating and they will probably not give you much time to get the job done. So you need to think quickly, make friends quickly and know how to use your equipment quickly!

Let’s take each one in turn

1. Think Quickly.

The first thing I usually do is to check with the subject how much time we have available. If things go well then they will usually let the session go on for more than they agreed to. My client, a magazine for example, might need two or three options to work with so I’ll explain that from the start. If time is not a problem then I can relax a little  but not much. Professional models are used to posing all day without getting tired or bored. Most people, however, will start to get fed up with the whole thing after about an hour, so I need to bear that in mind and keep things moving.


A quick scout of the location will usually find a cool setting in which to place your subject.
This is Troy, a car breaker in South Wales.

The next thing I do is have a look around to find interesting elements, backgrounds and available light that I might be able to use. If I’ve done my research then I should already know something about the person I’m about to photograph. I’ll be looking for those elements that talk about their work, their life or their personality and I’ll be pre-visualising the scene and how the subject might be placed within it. Like I said earlier, I need to strike the right balance between how much importance I give to the person and how much to the environment. It’s useful to find a structural element like a doorway or a clean piece of wall that can provide a frame for the person within the scene. I like to leave some clean space around them, especially the head, that will allow them to be better defined within their surroundings.

Once I’ve got an idea for the first scene then I’ll set up the camera and lighting and shoot a few frames to finalise exposure and composition. Often I‘ll already know how the image will appear in print and whether, for example, I need to leave space for the centre fold of a magazine, some text or a title on a front cover. If I have an assistant with me then I’ll ask him or her to pose so I can check the lighting and their scale within the frame. Once I’m ready then I’ll ask the subject to come and take position – and that’s where the next part comes into play.

I spent a full day with Princess Niké Arrighi Borghese, shooting portraits of her in a range of settings at her home in Italy.  As an ex-model and actress she knew how to present herself to the camera and that helped me a lot. Here I’ve used a window light for her, a Lastolite reflector to the left to fill in the shadows, and a flash to throw some light on the wall behind. Client: Australian Women’s Weekly.


From the same shoot with Princess Niké Arrighi Borghese. In the centre you can see some tearsheets from the actual article. Notice how I left space in the composition for the text and gutter for the opening double-page spread.  Client: Australian Women’s Weekly.

2. Make Friends Quickly

When dealing with people there is no magic formula. Everyone that I photograph is different; some will be quiet and confident, some with be talkative and fun, some will be shy and stiff in front of the camera, and others will be so used to being photographed that they have their ‘standard smile’ ready to switch on at any time.

As a photographer you’ll need to be sensitive to the type of person they are and respond accordingly. I try to be friendly and relaxed from the start, and to show a professional enthusiasm for doing a great job with their portrait. I need them to trust me and to invest something in the shoot too. As an Englishman in Italy, I often play with the language to break the ice and I’ll sometimes explain to them the choices I’m making to involve them as much as possible.


Some celebrities or business leaders can be a little intimidating and give you little time to work. Renzo Rosso, head of Diesel Jeans, was quite the opposite and proved to be friendly and helpful during the shoot. Client: Maxim, Germany.

My aim is to get them to relax, or at least to appear relaxed, and the pose and positioning of hands, legs, head and eyes are all important. Concentrate on getting the details right and don’t be afraid to take control of the situation. Tell them what to do, how to move, where to look. They will be more relaxed and have more trust in you if they can see you know what you’re doing.

And while on that subject . . .

3. Use your Equipment Quickly.

The best way to make a bad impression is to be flustering around with the settings on your camera during the shoot. You should be familiar enough with your equipment that you can work it on auto-pilot while concentrating on the subject.

I shoot portraits with a variety of cameras, from medium format film (Bronica SQA) to a small Fuji X-Pro2. Most of my environmental portraits are made with a Nikon D800 and a 24-70mm lens. I’ll usually be somewhere between 35mm and 50mm on full-frame.


Notice how I’m creating a frame for the subject within each setting.
Left – a petrol attendant in Italy. Right – Chiara Pizzinato, clothing designer.

As far as lighting is concerned, the best light is natural.. no doubt about it. It’s not always there of course so I always arrive for a shoot with a couple of large flash units and modifiers. These let me create pretty much any light I like or enhance the available light. Again, I need to pre-visualise the effect of lighting when setting my scene. With lighting environmental portraits there two problems to think about: one is how to light the subject and one is how to light the surroundings. That’s double trouble. I’ll usually concentrate first on the subjects lighting, especially the angle and quality of light that is falling on their face. Once I’ve sorted that out then I’ll deal with the rest of the scene.

These are the organisers of the Lago Film Fest where short films are screened on the banks of a Lake in the north of Italy. For this shot I decided to make my lighting part of the actual scene as a reference to the film projections.  I combined the flash with a long-exposure at dusk to create atmosphere and show something of the surroundings.

Whether natural or artificial lighting, the only constant item on my equipment list is the tripod. I’m using a Manfrotto 055 carbon-fibre tripod fitted with a Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared head. This set-up lets me take precise control over the composition and gives me the stability I need. Just as important, however, is that working with a tripod adds a sense of calm and formality to the whole process, also influencing the subject and they way they present themselves to the camera. These things are important for my style of portraiture.

The stone collector, Luigi Lineri, shot for Art magazine, Germany. In this case a single, large soft-box to the right was enough to provide a beautiful light for both subject and setting.

In Summary

If you’re interested in environmental portraiture, my suggestion is to study some of the old masters.. and I mean painters as well as photographers. Look at how they’ve placed the subject within the setting, which elements have been included to help the composition or the ‘message’ and take note of what the light is doing.

I’m no master, but have another look at some of the images on this page. You will notice that nearly all the subjects are defined within their own space. See if you can work out where I placed lighting and whether or not it’s all artificial, all natural or a mixture of the two.

Once you’ve absorbed all you can by studying the work of other photographers then just find some interesting people and go do it your way. You’ll soon find the approach and the style that suits you best.

Colin DuttonOther articles by author

Born in London, 1966. After taking a Degree in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Colin moved to Italy in 2002 where he lives with his wife and children. A professional photographer with clients worldwide, he is specialised in interiors, editorial and advertising on-location. Beyond his commercial work, Colin continues to develop his own personal projects for books and exhibitions and he presents talks and workshops on photography.

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