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Environmental Portraiture: A Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Like a Pro

This guide will discuss how to take your best outdoor/environmental portraits. It will cover the basics of professional photography and tell you how to approach a photo shoot in order to get stunning photos that stand out from the crowd.

What Is Environmental Photography?

Before moving on, let’s take a quick look at what environmental portraiture is.

Environmental portraiture is a style of photography where the subject is photographed in their natural environment. This type of photo shoot can be done both indoors and out, but usually it will happen outdoors for one simple reason: you want to tell your viewer that the subject has a connection with whatever is in the environment behind them.

Portraiture vs environmental portraiture

If you’ve spent any time learning photography, you might be wondering why we need a separate term for environmental portraiture when they’re so closely related. After all, environmental portraiture is just another form of portraiture, right? Sure it is, but there are many subtle differences that make them different arts. The main difference is that environmental portraiture is used to tell a story. Your subject has a great connection with the environment behind them, and you want your viewer to see that.

Environmental portraiture settings

First and foremost, you need to know that your settings will be dictated by the environment. You can’t change it – there isn’t an “indoors” setting on your camera – so you must adapt to all sorts of different lighting situations as best as possible. Your settings will depend greatly on the time of day, the weather conditions, and even the location.

For example, the mountains will be hit by the sun far earlier than lowland areas.

What to look for in an environment

Great environmental portraits are made when there is a nice connection between the subject and their environment. However, it’s not just about getting that perfect portrait and then taking credit for it afterwards. You need to carefully scout out good locations ahead of time in order to give yourself the best chance at getting a great shot.

You should look for a place that:

– Has an interesting background – Is large enough to be used as a full frame background and doesn’t have tons of distractions behind the subject.

– Has good lighting conditions – Look out especially for harsh shadows or silhouettes against bright backgrounds, which can create all kinds of problems. In addition, look for nearby objects that are painted with warm colors, which can create a nice, natural reflection on your subject’s face.

– Has the right time of day – If you want to create great lighting for environmental portraiture then you need to pick the right time of day. For example, if you want warm sunlight then you should look for a good location with the sun hitting it in the late morning or early afternoon. You should avoid places that are hit by the sun in the middle of the day because you’ll get harsh shadows and your subject will have to squint behind sunglasses.

Creating a mood board and planning your session

You can never underestimate how much planning goes into a photo shoot. Some photographers might take the attitude that they’ll go out and “see what happens,” but this goes against everything we know about what makes a good photo (and sometimes it even leads to disastrous photos!). Before you head out on location for your environmental portrait shoot, you’ll want to create a mood board that allows you to plan ahead.

In this mood board, you should have:

Pictures of the type of background and environment you want – This is critical! You need to pick a background with a connection to your subject so that they don’t feel out of place at all.

– A picture of the clothing your subject will be wearing – By having a good idea of what your subject will be wearing, you can plan accordingly with the background to make sure there are no problems. It’s even better if you can see pictures of them dressed in their normal clothing so that they look comfortable and natural just like they would at home.

How to work with your environment

Environmental portraiture requires a lot of patience and gradually working with the environment until you get what you want. Since environmental backgrounds can be completely out of your control, you need to slowly coax the environment into doing what you want it to do. Some of the things you might have to do include:

– Moving a few feet either way until you get the lighting just right – If your subject is being hit by horrible shadows or harsh sunlight, then move them around until they find a better spot.

– Waiting for the weather to change – Sometimes it takes a while for the clouds to come into the right place and block out the sun. Sometimes you might even have to try a couple different days before you can get great lighting conditions. This is especially true if you’re trying to capture an outdoor portrait on a gloomy day – it just doesn’t work very well!

– Waiting for passersby and other distractions to leave – You might have to wait for people in the background to pass by and leave the scene before you can get a great shot.

– Changing your own background – If you’re working with an urban environment, then this becomes necessary very quickly because there are usually tons of distractions around you. You basically need to find a new background or else everything just looks cluttered and messy.

Shooting techniques for environmental portraits

If you’re shooting an environmental portrait then you should use any and all means necessary to get the perfect shot. There are a few techniques that can help you out here:

– Shooting at eye level (or even lower) – To make your subject look bigger and more powerful, shoot them at their own height or even slightly below. This will also focus the viewer’s attention on their face and help keep them from being distracted by other things around you.

– Using depth of field to isolate your subject – If you want to shoot environmental portraits with a blurred background, then make sure you use a small aperture (like f/8) so that everything is in focus except for your main subject. This draws the viewer’s attention to the person in the center of your image and keeps everything else blurred. If you want to use a different depth-of-field technique then try shooting at f/22 so that just part of your subject is in focus. You can even experiment with creating double-bokeh and using it as a backdrop.

– Shooting details of your subject’s clothing – Instead of just focusing on the person themselves, try to shoot some pictures that feature their clothing or accessories. This is easier than you might think if you zoom in so that only a small portion of their outfit can be seen – it still works!

– Using an off-camera flash – If you’re shooting outside then this can help to bring out more detail in your subject’s clothing and fill out shadows to make them look better.

Editing Your Images For Maximum Impact

If you want to edit your images then there are a few things that you might need to do:

– Adding a posterized effect – This works really well if your subject is wearing a plain shirt or jeans – it will make the color more vivid and make the background look completely different. Just paint over their body with a nice solid color in Photoshop and then posterize it. Make sure you’re using a low-opacity brush so that the edges look natural.

– Adding color, texture, or noise – If you want to give your image more character, then try adding some small splashes of color here and there. You might even want to add some crazy textures or noise to make the overall image more interesting.

– Adding a contrast mask – If your image is looking too soft and you want it to look more crisp, then use the “contrast mask” technique by creating a new layer and painting with black or white as necessary. It works best if you only paint over objects that have a really bright or really dark color.

– Adding a noise effect to the background – To make your subject stand out more, try placing them on a plain background and adding some slight noise to it. If you want something even more interesting then try using a gradient instead of just one color.

– Adding grain or vignetting – You can also use these same techniques during editing if you want to make your image look more vintage or give it a neat old-timey feel.

– Toning down colors – On the other hand, you might also want to tone down the colors in your image and add sepia tones instead. This is especially useful if you’re shooting outdoors and your subject’s skin is looking too shiny and distracting.

How To Set The Right Expectations With Clients, And Deliver Outstanding Results Every Time

While it might be easy to take photos of people, actually capturing their personality and energy isn’t always as simple. Here are some great tips that can help you get the most out of your subjects:

– Always make sure that you’re planning your shoot in advance – this is especially important if you want to get something different or more creative.

– Avoid making your subject stand and pose in the same place for too long – this can get boring and it could turn them off from wanting to take more photos with you. The best idea is to mix things up by having them walk around, jump, lie down on their back, etc. (just make sure they’re aware of their surroundings).

– Try to communicate with your subject so that they know what you’re going for – otherwise, it can be a total waste if you take a bunch of pictures and none of them are quite what you were aiming for. You can even show them some sample photos or have them look through your portfolio if that would help them understand better.

– Try to shoot at multiple locations – the more variety you have, the better your photos will turn out. If you have a lot of choices then it’s easy to find something that fits your subject well and makes them look their best.

– It’s also a good idea to change up your background – this will broaden the variety of shots that you have and it could even help you discover something new.

– Don’t be afraid to tell your subject what kind of pose or expression would look best – otherwise, they might not realize that they’re standing weird or their facial expression is a bit off. For example: “Point your toes out more” or “Tilt your head to the side.”

– Don’t be afraid to take tons of photos – this way, you can narrow it down later and choose the best ones. The goal that you should have in mind is to get just one perfect picture but that will never happen.

– Make sure you have the right equipment – this is especially important if you’re planning to do any sort of studio photography or professional headshots. If your subject needs something specific then it would be wise to have that available for them.

– Don’t forget about post-processing – nothing ever turns out perfect straight out of the camera and this is equally true for photos of people. If you want to make your subject look their best then it’s a good idea to edit them slightly (or drastically) in Photoshop or another image editing software.

– Add props and accessories – if you want your photos to look more interesting then consider adding some cool stuff. For example, if you’re going for a whimsical or fantasy style then it would be a good idea to have your subject wear some cute hats and costumes.

– Have your subject bring their own props – this will give them more opportunities to get creative. Even something as simple as wearing an awesome hat that they already own could help you capture the perfect picture.

– Don’t be afraid to plan an entire shoot out in advance – this can help you get everything that you want without any hassle or stress.


Environmental portraiture is simple enough for beginners and powerful enough for professionals. Now that you’ve learned the basics of how this type of photography works, all that’s left is to get out there and practice. Once you do, I think the world will be very eager to see your environmental portraits.