The Reasons You Should Do ‘Environmental’ Portraits

In the Fall of 1992, I began a 22 year long career.

September 1st, to be exact.

It all started with a friend, at the time, who purchased a local Theatre Magazine that had become a growing concern.

“Cityscope” as it was known back then was a ‘free-stand’ magazine with a local distribution of 60,000 copies.
This was to be my trial by fire.
I had done very little editorial work and frankly was not in the least bit comfortable photographing people.
Cityscope was all about shooting people and thus it began.

There was no ‘studio work’ involved. Everything was shot on location and, like Forrest Gump, you never knew what you were going to get…
Until you got there.

In retrospect, as well, everything was shot on film, there was no real Photoshop work being done at the time, (1992), so you absolutely had to make certain it was done perfectly—in Camera.
Larry, the publisher, had an almost zero budget so I was tasked with shooting the entire magazine, cover to cover.
I grew to love it.
I was shooting movers and shakers, Gorillas at the zoo before opening hours with studio lights, stunt plane adventures, (*I learned about the need Gravol in a very dramatic fashion).
I photographed beautiful women in latex dresses that you’d swear had been painted on by airbrush, politicians, ballerinas, food photography… and all the while I was learning, learning, learning.
I soaked it all up like Bounty’s Quicker Picker Upper.

The wonder of it all was that you never knew what to expect.
I shot the entire publication for $1000/month – everything including some of the ads.
It was an intensely fertile training ground and I benefitted enormously from it all.

The ‘Gift’, as it were, became the ability to shoot on location and make it work. Every time.
I had no choice, so I grew to adore the challenges and rewards of ‘environmental portraiture’.

Although I taught Studio Photography here in Calgary for a number of years and enjoyed it a very great deal, I seldom shoot in the studio.
Personally, I believe that everybody has their ‘story’. Their environment can and generally does speak volumes about them and make the entire photo session a ‘narrative’.
It lends considerably more weight to the image than a white bread plain backdrop.

I got a call from a gentleman a while back named Norville.
He’d received a lovely referral for Portrait Photos from one of my previous ‘victims’ and asked if I’d be available to do some work on the weekend.
I agreed, we worked out some numbers and I showed up bright and early on a Saturday.

Environmental Portraiture

Now, I’ve evolved a great deal over the years… remember it’s been 22 as of today’s date.
Today I use Alien Bee’s by Paul C. Buff for lighting. They weigh virtually nothing, and do a very respectable job.
Much in contrast to my ancient Speedotron Brownlines— They used to weigh somewhere in the neighbourhood of 85 pounds and every shoot I ever got when I owned them was in a three story walk up with no elevator.

Norville had a beautiful old ‘heritage home’ in an upper end neighbourhood here in Calgary and we spent about two hours in total working on different ideas.
This image was my favourite.

Now. There’s two, distinct, approaches to lighting on location that a Photographer can take.

1.) Use multiple lights and completely light the environment – foreground, subject and background.
2.) Drag Shutter, slowing the shutter speed down to somewhere close to what it would be for the available light you’re working with.
Let the light in the space become your light and augment it or FILL IT with the equipment you bring with you.
I prefer this approach.
This shot presented some real challenges.
The ‘Gorilla in the Room’ was the bright window behind Norville.
It,essentially, dictates your exposure. Everything has to be based around that or it will flare like crazy and blow out with absolutely no detail.
I based the entire shoot on a spot meter reading of the window.

Now. Shutter speed is your available light control, it has no effect whatsoever on your flashes. Zero, Nada, Zilch. None.

Aperture controls the intensity of your flashes along with the output you dial in on the units.
I used a basic two light setup, mounted on stands at slightly above eye-level. *You can see them in the Globe.
The illumination from the table lamp was equally important in establishing the ‘mood’ as well.

All in all, it was simply an exercise in setting up the gear and experimenting with progressively lowering the shutter speed to allow more and more ambient light into the mix.

Norville was running for the local Liberal Party at the time and these images were very important in conveying a little bit about the man.

It presents him perfectly for that purpose.

Canon 5D MarkIII 24-105/4  35mm

John Sharpe/ Sharpeshots.


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