Unlike head-and-shoulder shots in which the background is secondary to the subject, environmental portraits include the person's surroundings — beaches, a teenager's bedroom — to show the relationship between subject and territory.
FIGURE 17-1 Sometimes you must stretch the rules in order to capture unique shots. Your subject's face doesn't have to be the true focal point. Look for opportunities to exercise your creativity in portraiture.
While not necessarily essential, when composing an environmental portrait it is usually better to have your subject interacting with his or her settings rather than just standing in front of a workspace.
Just about any place you want to take a picture is fair game for an environmental shot. Consider both indoor and outdoor settings, and ask the subjects where they feel comfortable. As you're scouting locations, look for the setting that allows your subject to pose comfortably and safely. Think about the size of your subject in the frame. Keeping the subject large and close to the camera is usually a good starting place, given that the most common error in taking pictures of people is not filling enough of the frame with the subject. Experiment with a range of subject sizes: totally filling half or a third of the frame or even doing a full-length shot in which the subject's height is one-fifth the height of the frame.
Parking lots near wooded areas make ideal portrait locations. Not only are they convenient for both you and your subject, they offer pleasant options such as open skies and greenery and adequate illumination to light your subject, as well as a tree canopy to block out direct overhead light. You'll find the best light a few steps into the woods.
FIGURE 17-2 An example of a portrait taken outdoors under a porch, which blocks direct light. The subject's happy face is mirrored by the decorative figures in the setting of a child's 19th-century playhouse.
Gardens, porches, and the woods near your house are all possible places for taking environmental portraits. In fact, just about any location will work, as long as the light is right.
Open shade such as that found under the branches of a tall tree is the photographer's favorite because subjects are lit by the sky and the scenery around them. When looking for these settings, try to find them near something that will reflect sunlight into the shady area since light in the shade often lacks direction. Soft light, not direct light, that comes primarily from one direction is ideal.
If you have to shoot a portrait with the camera pointing toward the sun, put your subject's back to the sun and use something bright, such as a piece of white cardboard or portable reflector, to light the shadow on your subject's face.
Wherever possible, avoid shooting in overhead light, as it casts shadows in the eye sockets and under the lower eyelids (a particular problem with children). You can erase them to a certain extent by raising the subject's chin. Young faces prone to under-eye shadows might be able to tolerate up-lighting, which eliminates these shadows. Have the subject look down toward your feet or off-camera, not directly into the light.
It's often necessary to balance the light in environmental shots. Keep a piece of 2' × 3' (or larger) poster board in your car or bag when you go out on a portrait shoot. Use the reflector to bring light into dark shadows so they don't print totally black, or as a hair light from behind the subject. You can also use it as a fill light to add a bit of light from behind or bring a touch more light into the shadows, so they don't go totally black in the final image.
Flash also works well when shooting portraits outdoors. One neat trick is to take the flash off the camera. Have an assistant hold the flash to one side, close enough to your subjects to light them. Or, if your shutter speed is long enough (more than ten or fifteen seconds), you can release the shutter then run to the best spot to pop the flash. Feeling really adventurous? Have the subjects hold the flash and light themselves!
While scenery plays an important role in environmental portraits, it isn't meant to be the main subject of these pictures. Use the surroundings to enhance your subject, not detract from her.
If you're working in color, look for backlit foliage — greens and yellows are great for bringing out flesh tones. Choose colors to flatter your individual subject. If the subject has dark hair, you will want your background to be lighter than the hair so they don't merge. Backlighting can light up dark hair nicely so that it stands out from a dark background, making a dynamic portrait. Keep the background as simple as possible — if it's too busy, it will conflict with the subject.
Sometimes you just have to take a picture of someone right where they are standing — in front of your house, at the airport. Select a camera position that gives you a distant or low-contrast background. If the surroundings are very distracting, you can try a very low or high camera position to isolate your subject against the sky or pavement.
While you probably won't always be able to consider all these factors when taking shots, keeping them in mind as much as possible can do nothing but improve the photographs you take, even the quick snapshots. Eventually, most of these techniques will become second nature.
Avoid sharp lines poking into or growing out of your subject. The classic goof is to have a tree or telephone pole growing out of the subject's skull. You want to put the cleanest, least distracting part of your background behind your subject's head. If there is a horizon or any strong horizontal in the background, either lower the camera angle to put it above the subject's head or find a higher vantage point so you can drop the line below the subject's shoulders.