Anatomy of an Environmental Portrait

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Tuesday, May 9, 2006; 4:47 PM

Two good rules of thumb when attempting to photograph people in their surroundings:

1. "Half of all location photography is moving furniture."

2. "'Available light' means any light that's available."

Both sayings have been attributed to the great location portraitist Arnold Newman. More importantly, each can help spell the difference between a good environmental portrait and a great one.

If I had to pick, I easily would list environmental portraiture among my very favorite kinds of location photography, right up there with available light, black and white street photography.

One reason I like environmental shooting is that it lets me say something about my subject or, more correctly, lets the environment say something about the person or persons in the photograph. Then too, since a lot of our location work is done on deadline (sometimes for magazines or similar clients) there is a certain frisson of excitement in showing up at a place and having to quickly figure out a way to turn an unfamiliar background into a pleasing backdrop for a portrait.

When I was photographing for my 1998 book, Down East Maine/A World Apart, I did a fair number of environmental portraits. Some were shot on the fly by available light, some were made with a single flash held either at arm's length or on a flash bracket. And still others were made with a full complement of lighting gear, including studio strobes, umbrellas and softboxes. But in every case my goal was to make the final portrait look as much as possible as if it had been shot with no additional light.

One of my favorite images from the whole Down East project was a portrait of a husband and wife in their wonderfully rustic country kitchen in the tiny town of Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point in the United States, and where my wife Judy and I have spent every summer for the past fifteen years. The step-by-step process that I followed to get to the final portrait is in some ways a mini-lesson in moving furniture and in using any light that's available.

Back then (in the mid-90s), most of our environmental portraits were made on film and in medium format. Today, Judy and I might just as easily shoot a job in color or black and white digital as on 35 mm or medium format film.

Another big change in the way we work on location has been the move away from Polaroid proofing--to check exposure, lighting ratios, composition, etc.--in favor of so-called "digital proofing." With the former, especially in the much larger medium format, I would place a special Polaroid film back on my Hasselblad and shoot Polaroids from exactly the same camera position that I would ultimately use for the "real" (i.e.: film) portrait. Inevitably, Judy and I would burn anywhere from four to as many as dozen Polaroids before coming to a perfect final proof that would make us confident that we would get an even more perfect "real" picture when we loaded the Hassy with the good stuff.

The downside to all this Polaroid proofing--aside from the fact that the stuff cost at least a buck a shot--was all the time it took. Each time I pulled a Polaroid we had to wait 30 seconds (or a minute and a half if using color Polaroid). I used to tell clients this was "the longest 30 seconds in photography." Multiply that four to a dozen times and you actually can run the risk of losing a shoot's spontaneity.

Today, with digital, the "proofs" come up instantly, making it a cinch for one to quickly make corrections to exposure, lighting and composition, then blithely shoot away. But--and this is a big but if you regularly teach and/or write a photography column--the digital proofs tend to get erased and forgotten. Those old Polaroids may have been expensive and time-consuming, but they sure provided a great teaching tool.

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