Environmental Portraits

OrionsByte

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I'm mostly just rambling here so there's a TLDR version at the end if you want to skip the babble...

I've been working on my photography for a while now and though I still have a long ways to go (choose your own metric), I feel like I've lacked direction recently. I've been trying to figure out how to get myself excited about photography again and maybe even find a way to make a tiny bit of money from it.

Often what happens when I get in this mood is I end up taking some sort of self-portrait just to test a lighting concept or something, just for fun. After goofing off a bit yesterday (current avatar) I decided I wanted something that showed more of my professional side, and did a little brainstorming. I've taken plenty of portraits and self-portraits that are studio-esque but that gets boring; I wanted something with more context.

So I finally came up with an idea, though I won't be able to shoot it for a couple days (and I'll share it when I'm done so y'all can berate it :icon_lol:), but the overall process got me wondering if this may be a direction worth staying on for a while. Generally speaking when I start thinking through a shot (whether it's me, or my kids, or whoever), I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the background... mostly how to get rid of it or make sure it's not distracting. I think that's why I kind of hit a wall with my photography; it was frustrating to want to shoot something but felt like I was constrained by where I could shoot it. Environmental portraits would take that thought process in a different direction: incorporate the background, make it a part of the portrait, use it to give context, instead of trying to figure out how to get around or avoid it.

I think that environmental portraits also play to some of my other personal strengths and weaknesses:
  • I'm a good listener (important for learning about the subject and what context you want to place them in)
  • I prefer thinking creatively rather to "sticking to a script"
  • I hate location scouting. Hate hate hate it. I'd much rather meet someone at a location that they've scouted, especially if it's a place that's important to them, but using my previous thought process (minimize the background) that was really difficult to work with (so I never really tried).
  • I dislike artificially posing people, especially groups (i.e. the shot of the family walking hand-in-hand through an orchard in autumn - it's pretty, but feels so fake). I much prefer a more candid feel, which doesn't always lend itself to studio portraits, but can be incorporated in to environmental portraits, especially if they're in a location they're comfortable in.
  • From a business model perspective, I've never even come close to trying to get paid for my photography, and generally speaking never really felt that I had reached a point where I could. However, this feels like a niche that could maybe be monetized if I worked on it for a while first.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think that working on "environmental portraits" before I'm tried-and-true at more conventional portraits is putting the cart before the horse? Have you ever attempted to focus on environmental portraits as a business model, or known someone who has? Do you see any gaping holes in my logic, or simply think I'm crazy to even think of this as a potential avenue for development (pun intended)?

TLDR; What is your opinion of environmental portraits as an art form, as a business model, and what would you say are the biggest challenges to overcome?
 

cherylynne1

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I think finding a niche that plays to your strengths is about as smart a business move as you can make.

I kind of feel like you're looking at environmental portraits as a new fad or something, though. They're actually older than photography. Oil paintings frequently featured people posing in their homes or with beloved objects or pets.

Now it's true that it's very common in photography for business portraits to have plain or painted backgrounds. But for magazines and more artistic outlets, that hasn't been the norm for awhile. And I think it's pretty rare to see it in family portraits at all anymore. Even in studios, children are placed on the (often fake) floor where you can see the (often fake) baseboards and get the feeling that you're in a home rather than a studio.

Anyway, I think the biggest problem will be lighting. You will need to be a master of lighting, and able to Macgyver yourself out of any situation. If you're not scouting out locations, you have no idea what you're walking into. You won't know if the light will be usable at all, or if you'll be able to fit in enough lighting equipment to fix it, or if you're going to have crazy color casts from who knows what.

But if you can pull it off, I think it's a good idea. Not everyone can do it, which is why it's worth something.
 

tirediron

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I do a bit of environmental portraiture, more as personal work than paid, but I find it a very interesting sub-specialty.

...I think that environmental portraits also play to some of my other personal strengths and weaknesses:
  • I'm a good listener (important for learning about the subject and what context you want to place them in) More than important; essential!
  • I prefer thinking creatively rather to "sticking to a script" Creativity is important, but even more so when you're doing paid work is "Plan the shoot, shoot the plan". "Winging it" will take you down a rabbit hole in a hurry!
  • I hate location scouting. Hate hate hate it. I'd much rather meet someone at a location that they've scouted, especially if it's a place that's important to them, but using my previous thought process (minimize the background) that was really difficult to work with (so I never really tried). Hate it all you want, but you HAVE to do it. You cannot expect a client to be able to suggest camera or light placement, or understand that a particular time will or won't work in a particular location due the angle of the sun, etc. It's great to use the client as a source of inspiration, but you HAVE to have boots on the ground ahead of time.
  • I dislike artificially posing people, especially groups (i.e. the shot of the family walking hand-in-hand through an orchard in autumn - it's pretty, but feels so fake). I much prefer a more candid feel, which doesn't always lend itself to studio portraits, but can be incorporated in to environmental portraits, especially if they're in a location they're comfortable in. Again... dislike it all you want, but it's a big part of what people come to a professional for. Posing doesn't always mean "Stand here, turn this way..." Often it's more about subtle adjustments to the person's position, moving a head or limb slightly, shifting weight, etc. Not only do you need to be able to do this, you need to do it in such a way that the client feels comfortable.
  • From a business model perspective, I've never even come close to trying to get paid for my photography, and generally speaking never really felt that I had reached a point where I could. However, this feels like a niche that could maybe be monetized if I worked on it for a while first. It can; bear in mind however that environmental portraiture is first, and foremost portraiture.
 

tirediron

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]...Anyway, I think the biggest problem will be lighting. You will need to be a master of lighting, and able to Macgyver yourself out of any situation. If you're not scouting out locations, you have no idea what you're walking into. You won't know if the light will be usable at all, or if you'll be able to fit in enough lighting equipment to fix it, or if you're going to have crazy color casts from who knows what. .
Very, very true! I typically use more lighting equipment on an outdoor/location shoot than I do in the studio!
 

vintagesnaps

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Doesn't this still involve using backgrounds? and positioning people? I've done events and sports and it takes moving around to figure out good vantage points and noticing backgrounds. I don't know if there'd be a market for this or not but I don't know that you can think about making money at it til you see if you're good at it and how you like it.

Maybe you need to take a break from it for awhile and you might come back refreshed, or just get out and have fun with your camera for awhile.
 
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OrionsByte

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Anyway, I think the biggest problem will be lighting. You will need to be a master of lighting, and able to Macgyver yourself out of any situation. If you're not scouting out locations, you have no idea what you're walking into. You won't know if the light will be usable at all, or if you'll be able to fit in enough lighting equipment to fix it, or if you're going to have crazy color casts from who knows what.

I agree, lighting will be essential, and figuring out lighting is one of the things I find most fun and challenging in photography, which is kind of one reason this idea appealed to me. Regarding scouting locations, well first let me quote TiredIron's post...

I do a bit of environmental portraiture, more as personal work than paid, but I find it a very interesting sub-specialty.

...I think that environmental portraits also play to some of my other personal strengths and weaknesses:
  • I'm a good listener (important for learning about the subject and what context you want to place them in) More than important; essential!
  • I prefer thinking creatively rather to "sticking to a script" Creativity is important, but even more so when you're doing paid work is "Plan the shoot, shoot the plan". "Winging it" will take you down a rabbit hole in a hurry!
  • I hate location scouting. Hate hate hate it. I'd much rather meet someone at a location that they've scouted, especially if it's a place that's important to them, but using my previous thought process (minimize the background) that was really difficult to work with (so I never really tried). Hate it all you want, but you HAVE to do it. You cannot expect a client to be able to suggest camera or light placement, or understand that a particular time will or won't work in a particular location due the angle of the sun, etc. It's great to use the client as a source of inspiration, but you HAVE to have boots on the ground ahead of time.
  • I dislike artificially posing people, especially groups (i.e. the shot of the family walking hand-in-hand through an orchard in autumn - it's pretty, but feels so fake). I much prefer a more candid feel, which doesn't always lend itself to studio portraits, but can be incorporated in to environmental portraits, especially if they're in a location they're comfortable in. Again... dislike it all you want, but it's a big part of what people come to a professional for. Posing doesn't always mean "Stand here, turn this way..." Often it's more about subtle adjustments to the person's position, moving a head or limb slightly, shifting weight, etc. Not only do you need to be able to do this, you need to do it in such a way that the client feels comfortable.
  • From a business model perspective, I've never even come close to trying to get paid for my photography, and generally speaking never really felt that I had reached a point where I could. However, this feels like a niche that could maybe be monetized if I worked on it for a while first. It can; bear in mind however that environmental portraiture is first, and foremost portraiture.

All very fair points.

When I say I don't like scouting locations, what I meant was that I don't like going out to find places to bring potential customers to. For instance, I'm not good at going to find a nice park or an orchard or a train track or whatever that I can file away in my mind and say, "hey this would be a good location for a shoot someday." I'm not saying I'd never scout out a location before a shoot once I knew where we were going to do it, I just like the idea of going to someone rather than bringing them to me. Your point about "having boots on the ground ahead of time" is well taken.

Same basic feeling about posing people - I'm not trying to get out of it entirely, but I feel like I'd be more comfortable adjusting a pose and giving direction when the context is more natural, as opposed to treating them like a mannequin with no regard for who they are (which I recognize is not a good practice for studio portraits either, I just present it as the opposite extreme). Of all the skills I need to work on to better my photography, this is #1.

Doesn't this still involve using backgrounds? and positioning people?

Of course, and I didn't mean to imply otherwise. I guess I just had a change of heart about how to use backgrounds and position people, to explore a different style in my photography.

Anyways, thank you all for your thoughts and your time. Gives me plenty to think about!
 
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OrionsByte

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Here's the thread where I posted the shot I mentioned I was planning. My enthusiasm for the whole thing has waned a bit. I still feel really inadequate to the task, but that would get better with practice... but I can't get practice doing nothing but self-portraits all the time, so I need to find some victims. ;)

Self portrait at work | Photography Forum
 

vintagesnaps

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So what about those kids in the picture frame, unwilling subjects?? :laugh2: Daaad... (insert moaning and groaning sounds)

The photo of you looks good, what I see is extra stuff in the frame that probably doesn't need to be there - back edge of monitor and cord, etc. What seems like it should be there is the helmet (obviously!), the framed photo etc. If there's something that I can't make out what it is to me it makes for a visual distraction; if something is in the frame it should add to the picture (tell viewers something about you). I guess I learned to go for a 'clean' composition.
 
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OrionsByte

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Thank you for your thoughts.

I actually debated about whether or not to unplug that blue cable from my monitor and made a conscious decision to leave it there. Besides the elements that you pointed out are obviously there because they say something about me, the slightly random elements also say a bit about me, but I totally understand that photographically, that doesn't necessarily translate and I should have cleaned up the composition before shooting. I may play with removing it in Photoshop to see how I like it.

The original as-shot composition included a lot more of the monitor (and more empty space on the right side of the frame) to attempt to give it a just-walked-in-to-my-office feel, but it was too dark and the negative space unbalanced the photo. Perhaps by leaving just a tiny bit of it in the square crop, it just made it distracting in a different way.
 
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OrionsByte

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I kind of feel like you're looking at environmental portraits as a new fad or something, though. They're actually older than photography. Oil paintings frequently featured people posing in their homes or with beloved objects or pets.

I can see how I came across that way. I realize it's not really anything new, and I've even done them before myself. It just never occurred to me before to really focus on it. When someone asks me to take their picture my first thought is almost always, where can I do it so I don't have to worry about the background? The realization I had was that the background can be a part of the subject if I want it to be, and from an artistic standpoint I find that much more challenging and rewarding than churning out identically-styled portraits for everyone that might ask.
 

paigew

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I do a lot of both paid and personal "environmental portrait" work. It's very much my style of shooting. I use all natural light and that is pretty much number one thing I look for when planning my shot.
 

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