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Shoot extraordinary environmental portraits
From finding the right location to using elements that say something related to the sitter, there are many ways to create successful environmental portraits.
Over many years as a features photographer in the magazine world, I've created thousands of environmental photographs of people, from the rich and famous to the more humble. In this article, exclusive to the Adorama Learning Center, I present five on-location portraits taken in environments that tell a story, and how they came about.
Find an environment that says something about your subject
• The Doo Wop Cops are a group of singing retired police officers based in Washington DC. To get my shot for a feature story, I wanted a background that clearly said “Washington.” I chose a spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial because it would provide good contrast for my subjects. Then I asked the group to meet me in their performing attire about two hours before sunset. The location and timing turned out to be perfect and I was able to take the shot outdoors using natural light with the group facing the sun to minimize distracting shadows. But the setting was not the only challenge. I also had to find a way to take the group portrait so all their faces would show without making them look like a line-up. After some experimenting, I opted for a V arrangement and used my 28mm lens so I could get reasonably close, see everyone in the group and still include the entire Lincoln Memorial behind them. Then I had find a way to keep them animated. I asked them to start singing their doo-wop songs and, as they loosened up and got into the spirit, I caught them at the peak of their moves.
Select the right elements in the environment
• The challenge for this cover assignment was to find a creative way to photograph craftsman Avner Zabari with one of his imaginative furniture pieces. The studio where I was doing the shoot understandably untidy – a work space where the pieces are cut, assembled and painted – so I wanted to eliminate as much of the surroundings as possible. My solution was to choose one of Zabari’s mirrored cabinets, positioning him so I could see his reflection, and to crop in on the piece of furniture with a moderate telephoto lens (105mm; telephoto lenses are available at Adorama). Since a reflection extends the depth of the image even though the mirror is flat, I shot at f16 with my camera on a tripod. Then, to maximize sharpness, I positioned a flash on a stand to the left to supplement light coming through window.
Set the subject in a characteristic environment
• Photographer Keith Carter is known for his portrayals of people and places in and around his East Texas home town of Beaumont. While there, I wanted to take his portrait in a location that reflected the type of setting his work is known for. This barn was just the setting I wanted. I positioned Carter in the doorway to get the contrast I needed on this bright day just after noon. I tried leaning him against the door frame but didn't like how that looked. Then I asked him to stand upright but put his hands in his pockets and that worked. To continue the homage to Carter’s work, I shot the photo in black and white, incorporated part of the barn to show texture and detail as he would, and spot metered the shadows on his face to get some detail in the darker areas of the image.
Adapt to the environment to get the best portrait
• To get a cover shot of these two Arthur Murray salsa instructors, I had to take a number of factors into account. First, I had to show the South Florida location, which meant it had to be an outdoor shot. I decided to crouch down low to get an angle toward the sky so the palm trees were visible. Next, I had to balance the bright, contrasting light of the surroundings with the soft light I wanted on my subjects. Solution: I positioned them in the shadows and used an off-camera flash with a warming filter to correct what would have been unnaturally pale skin color. Then I had to find a way to show them dancing so the image wouldn’t look too static. I asked them to start dancing but to pause periodically and look at me while I took a series of pictures. Also, I used a moderate telephoto lens (105mm) to give them space to move and still allow me to home in on them. This lens also threw the background slightly out of focus to set my subjects off while still showing the South Florida location. Finally, I had to leave space for the magazine logo and text.
Make the environment a key feature of the portrait
• When I was sent to photograph at Chick's in Anapolis, MD, I knew I wanted to show how the restaurant is decorated with portraits of famous people who have eaten there. This environment was just as important as the enormous sandwiches the restaurant is known for. But I also wanted to humanize the location and this young waitress was a perfect subject. I positioned her in an out of the way corner so we would not get in the way of the customers and busy staff. I chose a wide-angle lens, which you can purchase from Adorama, for this tight space so I could get close to my subject, show the oversize sandwich on her tray and include the all-important background. Then I stopped the lens down to f16 to maximize depth of field. Since this corner was quite dark, except for a bulb in the back corridor, I added two strobes on stands: one to bounce light off the ceiling and the other slightly to left to highlight the sandwiches and create some shadows for texture.
In his many years as a features photographer, Allen Rokach has created thousands of portraits of the rich and famous as well as of more humble folks. Photos © Allen Rokach.