I am a firm believer in transmitting the natural or sense of place in travel photography. Certainly, portraits of locals are an important element when documenting a place; after all, what would Lake Titicaca be without the Uros, or Varanasi without the priests?
What is an environmental portrait?
But what does it mean, and how is it done? Well, contrary to traditional portraits, where the sole focus is the person, an environmental portrait also captures the subject’s natural habitat or surroundings. The idea of better representing the character and personality of the subject comes implicitly with this type of portrait genre. For travel photography this is truly important; what better way to convey an idea or sense of place than to wrap it up around a person?
One of the questions we often get on tours or from people starting to shoot is how to approach people. Needless to say, making any kind of portrait involves taking photos of strangers. I understand that for many getting close and personal in foreign places is not as easy.
I was there too, but with time I worked on my confidence. As long as you are respectful, you should not be afraid to approach your subjects. So here are some basic tips for your next photo adventure.
1) Learn about your subject, and build confidence
This is perhaps the most important tip. As you know, when traveling you don't always have the luxury of much time. Oftentimes you jump from location to location daily, sometimes even more than once per day. But that doesn't prevent you from getting to know your subject.
Getting to know that person will help them not only to relax but to also feel comfortable with you. Moreover, you’ll end up with a nice story and you’ll always remember that portrait. More often than not I am as interested in learning about them, what their daily life looks like, and what they do.
Most of the time I don't even show my camera when I first meet a person. I first engage in a conversation, even if I need to use my guide for translating, and then I ask if I can make a photo of them. I can’t remember the last time I got no as an answer. This doesn't mean you have to stay there for hours; just a few minutes are often enough, and you’ll truly end up with a much better overall experience. Better yet, once you build rapport, you can even ask your subject to move to a different location, pose, etc.
2) Use a wider lens, and include more in the frame
In traditional portraits when the primary subject is the person, a good medium telephoto lens with a wide aperture is the preferred tool of many professionals. This is mainly because it allows you to focus on the person by covering most of the frame and throwing the background out of focus.
On the contrary, with environmental portraits, you want to show more of the location and what’s around the person. While there is no set rule, I prefer to work around a 35mm (full-frame equivalent) or 23mm (on a crop sensor) focal length. This will allow you to get enough background and include your subject.
3) Get close
Let’s not forget that the main point in making these photos is the person being photographed. The wider lens is great, but if you don't get close enough, your subject won’t be prominent in the frame and could disappear from the photo. Hopefully, at this point, you have built enough confidence with them that this shouldn't be a problem.
Now, keep in mind that as you are using a wider lens, it is very important where you locate yourself and how close. If you go much wider and closer than needed, your person will look out of shape, like disproportioned. There is a delicate balance here, but with enough practice, this is not difficult to achieve.
4) Compose with your subject
As you probably well know, rules are to be broken, but this is a case where most of the time the rule of thirds works in your favor. By positioning your person either camera left or right, you will gain a good portion of your frame to show the surroundings. Make sure you are not using a really wide aperture so your background remains somewhat visible (try f/5.6 or f/8) and not blurred.
Overall, make sure that the person is the most prominent thing in the photograph, or that he/she stands out while leaving some space for the environment to show as well. Look for other elements that can also help to create a separation between the person and the background and direct the viewer's eye. Think of leading lines created by tools or elements they are using, body position, etc.
5) Look out for your background elements
As stated before, the background is as important as the subject as that is what defines the environmental part of the image. However, you need to be careful that the background is not very busy or distracting. What I mean is that in some instances the background can distract from the person you are photographing. The idea is to feature the person in their environment and not the other way around. Look and inspect your frame all around when you position your subject, and if you find protruding elements, just move yourself or your subject.
That’s all for now, but overall, get out there and enjoy photography, enjoy getting to know people and interacting with them; that’s the beauty of it. Travel and photography is truly a blessing and it helps us to be better human beings by getting to know other cultures and ways.
How about you – have you done any environmental portraits before? Show us in the comments below; we’d love to see them.
Daniel Korzeniewski is a Miami-based travel photographer whose work has appeared in several publications. He contributes to various stock photography outlets and often leads photography travel tours. Find more about his work, travel adventures, and upcoming tours at his website here. You can also follow him on Instagram.