How to Create Environmental Portraits

How to Create Environmental Portraits


On the birth of our first child we were given by a friend a gift certificate for a photographic family portrait. The deal included one photo shoot in a studio and some prints.

While I had taken thousands of shots of our baby I thought it’d be fun to go in for our photo shoot – after all it was free and I’m always interested to see how other photographers work.

There is a lot that I could say about the shoot and the photographer (I’ll refrain from getting too picky) but one of the main things I came away reflecting upon is how much more I prefer location oriented (or environmental) portrait photography than studio based photography.

While I know a good photographer can work wonders in a studio (I’m not so sure the photographer we had fit in the ‘good’ photographer category) shooting in a location where the subject is comfortable and has some familiarity with has a lot going for it.

What is an Environmental Portrait?

An environmental portrait is a portrait taken of a person or people in a situation that they live in and a place that says something about who they are. It is often a place of work, rest or play.

Before I get into some ‘how to’ tips for taking environmental portraits let me chat a little about ‘why’ I like them.


Why do I prefer environmental portraits?

  • they give context to the subject you’re photographing
  • they give points of interest to shots (something you need to watch as you don’t want to distract from your subject too much)
  • they help your subject relax
  • they often give the viewer of your shots real insight into the personality and lifestyle of your subject

These shots sit somewhere between the purposely posed shots of a studio portrait (they are posed and they are unmistakably ‘portraits’) and candid shots which capture people almost incidentally as they go through their daily life.

So lets turn our attention to some ‘how to’ tips on environmental portraits.

How to Take Environmental Portraits – the Tips:

Spend time getting to know your subject


Before you select a location and start shooting, spend some time getting to know your subject. Find out where they spend their time, what the rhythm of their life is like and observing their personality. Out of this you’ll not only find appropriate locations but will begin to get a feel for the style of shots that might be appropriate and you’ll begin the process of helping your subject relax into the photo shoot. If possible it might even be helpful to accompany your subject to some possible locations to see both how they look but also how your subject behaves and interacts there.

Choosing a Location

Sometimes a location chooses you (it’s easy) but on other occasions you need to be quite deliberate and purposeful in making your choice (and it can take a lot of searching). When choosing your environment you ideally want to get one that:

  • says something about your subject – after all that’s what this style of photography is all about
  • adds interest to the shot – as I’ve written in previous tutorials – every element in an image can add or detract from your shots. The environment that you place your subject in needs to provide context and be interest without overwhelming the shot
  • doesn’t dominate the shot – sometimes the location can dominate the image so much that it distracts your viewer away from your main focal point (the subject). Try to avoid cluttered backgrounds (and foregrounds), colors that are too bright etc. Keep in mind that you might be able to decrease the distractions with clever use of cropping, depth of field and subject placement.



Props can make or break an environmental portrait. If they are subtle and naturally fit within the context of the environment they can be very appropriate and add to the image nicely but you’ll want to avoid anything that doesn’t quite fit or that potentially distracts the attention of viewers.

The same goes for the clothes that your subject wears. Try to be true to the context without getting too outlandish.


What sets the environmental portrait apart from candid portraits is that you post your subject (it’s a fine line and you might end up doing a bit of both in any given shoot). Don’t be afraid to direct your subject to sit, stand or act in a certain way that fits with the environment that you’re shooting in. Some of the poses might seem slightly unnatural and dramatic but it’s often these more purposely posed shots that are more dramatic and give a sense of style to your shot.

The expression on the face of your subject is also very important in environmental photography and you should consider how it fits with the overall scene. For example if you’re shooting in a formal environment it may not be appropriate to have your subject with a big cheesy smile and you might like a more somber or serious look. Again – mix it up to see what does and doesn’t work.


Camera Settings

There is no right or wrong way to set your camera up for an environmental portrait as it will depend completely upon the effect you’re after and the situation you’re shooting in. You might find that shooting at a smaller aperture (larger numbers) will be appropriate as it will help keep the foreground and background in focus. I generally shoot with a wider focal length in these situations also to give the environment prominence in the shot. Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t shoot more tightly cropped or with a large aperture and shallow depth of field – ultimately anything goes and you’ll probably want to mix up your shots a little.

Have you done any environmental portrait photography? What tips would you give other readers? Feel free to share your tips below in comments.


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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Harri December 14, 2012 12:28 am

    That is my favourite also, but so difficult to accomplish.

    Som of my examples if you care to see:

  • Maneesh September 9, 2011 02:56 am

    I do a fair bit of environment portraits, shooting candid on location.

    Here is an e.g.

  • Sweet Ronit August 16, 2011 02:36 am

    Environmental portraiture is my favorite! Excellent tips and examples. I like to work fairly close with my subjects - we have conversations and get to know each other and that generally helps people feel more comfortable in front of the camera. Here's a recent shoot I did with a leather craftsman in his studio:

  • rio h. August 12, 2011 08:44 am

    I prefer "environmental" photography over studio.. I think studio photography can get boring and repetitive. But I don't have a studio so what do I know. I would only do it for occasional family portraits of my own family, it's nice to have studio photos for ourselves.. but as a photographer, I would prefer to shoot on-location. I haven't done too many shoots, but of the few I have done, the best and easiest one so far was with a family at a park close to their hearts (they got married there). The pictures came out so natural that I was even impressed with how great my own shots came out as I felt like I barely did any work during the time I was with them. Their 3 year old was a pleasure to capture in that environment.

  • edster951 August 12, 2011 04:26 am

    Here is one I took a surgeon.......surronded by his colleagues concentrating during an operation.


  • Tomasz Sokolowski August 9, 2011 01:27 am

    great article:) would that count tho:
    any comments more then welcome:)

  • Tom Kasinski August 9, 2011 01:09 am

    I have a flickr set that speaks to the theme of this article... it wasn't a "posed" set, because I don't even know the subject. I happened to be there when a busker set up shop and played her violin.

    I know they're not great, especially when I got her to smile for me, but I like that it captured a feeling for me.

  • Bekah August 7, 2011 08:57 am

    Love the idea of environmental portraits...I am in no way a pro photographer, at all. But if I ever get good enough I would love to be an on location photographer.

  • Justin August 7, 2011 08:57 am

    Curious if you could suggest some great budget lenses to use for these type of shots. I currently use a 35mm 1.8 and love it but i feel like expanding my lens beyond the traditional kit lenses. Some that i thought about looking into where listed below, and bear in mind that i am working on a small budget with likely the items i purchase being AI-s or Non-Ais lens or under $300

    Thank you :)

    Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8
    Nikon 50mm F1.8
    NIKKOR 105mm f/2.5
    Nikon 85mm F1.8

  • scottc August 7, 2011 06:56 am

    Interesting article, though I'm not a believer of props or posing for these portraits.

  • Lea August 7, 2011 06:38 am

    Wonderful article. Thanks!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck August 7, 2011 05:46 am


    For any portrait, inside, outside or in the studio, I use a 70-200mm and shoot wide open f2.8, This allows me to keep a discrete distance, the zoom gives flexibility and wide open allows for wonderful Bokeh! This is a simple shot but conveys the fun of the Environmental Family shoot on the beach!

  • wazari February 6, 2011 10:42 am

    This is really great article for environment photography, it really add a story and content to the picture and person being photographs...

  • Mathew S P November 12, 2010 10:27 am

    I am starting to love Portrait Photography, thanks to Darren. Do you always need a tripod in such cases, I wonder. Great work, I appreciate your hard work and creativity.

  • peyton murrpego April 21, 2010 11:38 pm

    hhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii people i love these pictures they are so cool i am a photographer and i own my own studio and i have learn't alot from this web site. But i am not fond of the man who is pulling out his hair i think that he needs to go to a MENTALLLLLLLL hospital.

    Thanks alot people i love u.

  • Mickie Spirit April 21, 2010 11:37 pm

    thank you for the tips :)
    I am in the middle of doing "enviromental portraits" in my class in school, so this has helped alot. thanks again :)

  • Mickie Spirit April 21, 2010 11:33 pm

    Thanks for the tips. You've helped me to understand more about enviromental photography for my photography class in school.
    "enviro-photos" sound alot more appealing and interesting that studio based photographs and I hope that I'll gain something from this. So thank you again :)

  • thousandwords April 6, 2010 08:01 am

    thanx for your wonderful tips i'm busy working on potraits for my school assignment,perfect timing,wish i cud have known about your website before enrolling,it cud have saved me a lot of money,everything we are learning is in here and your site is more informative.

  • Greg Norris March 28, 2010 10:34 am

    This article does a great job of showing why people need to get out of the studio and find the hidden beauties out in the world. For example, I have just recently finished shooting a short film adaptation of American Buffalo. A few specific scenes required our set to look like an antique shop. We spent probably about three hours moving equipment and set dressings out of our prop room and into the studio. It was only after we had moved a significant number of props out of the prop room that we discovered the prop room itself was a more ideal location for shooting, since it was already packed with shelf upon shelf of trinkets and furniture.
    My point being, take the time to see what your environment can yield. Studios are nice for portrait photos, especially when you have access to a few lights, and good backdrops; however I find the greatest beauty in photographs can come far removed from artifice.

  • bob March 26, 2010 06:08 am

    these pictures are amazing i loved looking at them

  • Jyotismita July 22, 2009 07:34 pm

    Thank you so much for your absolutely fantastic points of view. I'm so glad I found your site.
    It's safe to say, Mr Rowse, I'm a big fan!

  • J Pollard July 22, 2009 09:48 am


    Is it possible to have a photo sent in for critique? How might I do that ?

  • Kim June 18, 2009 12:20 pm

    I think both styles have their place. It doesnt need to be either / or. You can appreciate both styles.

  • ALBERT April 25, 2009 06:07 am


  • errol mc donald April 15, 2009 03:54 pm

    iam at school doing acourse in photography and my teacher is giveing us the same project on environmental portraits indoor,your insight is good.

  • Myles April 14, 2009 01:40 am

    This approach to photography is precisely what I love most.

  • Macro Photography April 12, 2009 01:09 pm

    Great tips. I love photos that show real life.

  • Stunner April 12, 2009 10:00 am

    Great tips, will sure to use them.

  • Len Dobrucki April 10, 2009 10:26 pm

    Great article! I didn't even know they were called "environmental portraits" until know! and I will have to do some serious stuff in May. Because of an article I did a while ago on

    a pioneer village,

    I am now their photographer, and my first assignment is to take shots of their 40 or so interpretation staff.

    I feel that this article just got me started, and now at least, I know what they're called!

    I thought the comments were also good, and I invite any tips from the commenters.

  • Lucian April 10, 2009 01:13 pm

    Thx, great article !!

  • Peter Bryenton April 9, 2009 10:56 pm

    Good piece, thank you Darren.

    By a strange coincidence, I was exploring similar areas, in a minimalist way, last night.

  • Eric Mesa April 9, 2009 10:05 pm

    Greats tips. This was also featured in the latest issue of Digital Camera Magazine (from Future Publishing) to arrive in the USA. Those tips combined with these tips make it much easier to attempt these shots. Thanks! Very well written and illustrated.

  • Keith Watson April 9, 2009 03:25 am

    This is one I took in the Distillery District in Toronto, Ontario.

  • Bob Raisler April 9, 2009 03:01 am

    Brilliantly illustrated! The shots of the weaver and the very pregnant mother are wonderful, but for me the old man in his store gives us everything we need to understand about the environmental portrait. The hopeless clutter of the store contrasts perfectly with the serenity in the face of the (perfectly lighted) subject. You look and you just know how very long this scene has been there and you appreciate the photographer who realized his opportunity. And the violation of the Rule of Thirds is absolutely appropriate here.

  • Ilan April 9, 2009 12:54 am

    I fell totally in love with the example in this article. Splendid works.
    I recently bought a compact camera (gx200) which allows me to be more "agile" when I "hunt" around for photos.
    One of the first one I took was actually an environmental portrait of a garage worker, here it is -

    Even though it was dark, I tried to have the background even darker, the create a feeling of gaping mouth - The late work "swallowing" the diligent work and thus covering some of the pointers (# says something about your subject # adds interest to the shot etc) in this post.

    Great read!

  • Matt Preston April 9, 2009 12:34 am

    Great article! Perfect timing too as I was only discussing the merits of environmental portraits over studio based portraits earlier today.

    I have recently found a real passion for it. I think it offers so much more to an image. In fact i've realised the only studio portraits i really like usually involve props of some sort to give the image some kind of purpose and environment.

    Another bonus is that it's usually much cheaper for us photographers. There's some examples of my latest environmental portraits taken outdoors on my flickr account.

    All i had was a external flash and a gold reflector. In some of the shoots I didn't use either. Depending on the location and time of day you really don't need all that much to produce compelling results.