The Importance of Using Your Environment in Portraits: Shooting tips for photographers

October 28, 2014 2 Comments

The Importance of Using Your Environment in Portrait Composition:

Hello! Today I am going to talk to you a bit about the importance of shooting with the environment around your subject in mind. So often many of us think the subject is the most important and don't consider the environment they are in as just as much of a priority. And you don't need to go to hawaii or Europe for great little vignettes!  It also makes a big difference when you are shooting with product ordering in mind as well. So here are my thoughts on the importance of using your environment in composition and portraits. I have always loved landscapes. I started painting landscapes at age 7 with Bob Ross (remember him and his afro and happy little skies?) yes I spent much time with Bob on TV trying to paint like him at a very young age. I loved the idea of creating worlds of my own. Landscapes bring mood and even life to our images. When someone looks at an environment, they picture themselves there. Why do people choose beautiful locations for vacation or celebrations? Why do they redo their kitchens and decorate their homes and work on their yards?   Because beautiful environments make us happy, we are all made to appreciate beauty and it does good things for our soul and our minds.   As image makers this is important to remember. Sometimes the beauty of an image is simply in your subject, a close up portrait of a face for example. But most of the time environment is important no matter what you are shooting. I was trained early on (by Mr Bob Ross) to look for vignettes, little environments everywhere I go, to compose them in my mind even when I am not shooting.  

 I look around and first try to compose the vignette of the environment on it's own...

  I look around and first try to picture the landscape on it's own, I compose it in my mind without the subject, then I add them in. This way I am making sure that the landscape is considered just as important as the subject. It allows me to make sure it remains a priority in the shot. This does not mean you don't consider your subject when looking around for the perfect landscape. If my subject is in green, I probably don't want to place them on a green truck for example, they will of course not stand out much, especially since the shot will be wider, making my subject a bit smaller in the composition. So be sure to keep this in mind.   Especially with a wider lens shot, I try to compose the shot in a way that will move your eye around the image. Not only is this just good compositional practice, but when you want your environment to play a part in the impact of the image, it shows your viewer that it is just as important. It also tells their eye to move around the image taking in the whole environment and not just the subject. Sometimes this means putting your subject off center, and sometimes it is right in the center, it depends on what else is in the image. Some people think that the subject always has to stand out the most. I disagree. I like to break the rules a little and I think that sometimes, there can be things in the shot that command a lot of attention as well. Like the truck below, I like that it stands out a lot, and then you see the little girl on it just after first glance. Sometimes it is ok to not have the person in the shot be the first thing you see. There are many different ways to photograph people. The traditional portrait is not the only way! Experiment with what works for you! but don't be afraid to break the rules a bit.  

The Effect of the Lens on the Landscape

  When it comes to shooting, I tend to grab for my 35mm f1.4 most because I love that I can get a lot of the surroundings in my shot. It is not so wide that the subject gets lost, but just wide enough to give a real sense of the world around my subject.  However I also love my 135mm f2 because I like the way it can make my environment look painterly with bokeh. As long as I can get far enough away from my subject to shoot with my long lens and still get some of the environment in the shot. shootingyourenvironmentWEB   Above is an example of the different effects your lens has on your environment. Notice how the wide shot includes the tall trees behind the truck. When I drove up to this client's house I immediately noticed how that truck and those trees looked amazing together. I composed that shot in my head first and then thought where could I put a 2 year old and still get those tall trees in. I had to use my 24mm 1.4 for it, but it does work. She is in white so she still stands out on the dark truck even though she is small. A shot like this is perfect for a large canvas printI will talk more in the next post about shooting for product and prints for your clients. But in general, if you want them to order big, you need to give them some shots that will look great large!   

A shot with a wide lens is perfect for a large canvas print!

  The shot next to it with my 135mm is very different. Shot 10 feet away from that truck, in this shot I was noticing the painterly light behind her and the dappled leaves. I knew with my long lens it would blur that enough to make the child stand out but still have gorgeousness around her!
 I have so much to say on this subject and will post more about it soon! Please comment below if you are interested in learning more about shooting with the environment as a priority. I love to hear your feedback!
xoxo Meghan Aileen

2 Responses


March 27, 2017

Very helpful info! I’m one of those photogs who gets caught up in the face of my subject. I have to remind myself that I should also shoot the environment of my subject. This helped me see what the wide angle can do for environmental shots. You made a good point that if we want clients to purchase large, we better give them some options of images that just need to be big!

Meghan Aileen
Meghan Aileen

March 27, 2017

Hi Lorelei! So glad you found this helpful thank you for commenting!

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