Tips For Lighting Environmental Portraits with Subtlety

Tips For Lighting Environmental Portraits with Subtlety

Oh, what's that? I'm using flashes to take a portrait? Well let's turn those bad boys up to 11 and make that subject pop! When you're first learning to light with flashes, the temptation can be overpowering to drown out all the ambient light in your scene to make your subject stand out. I'd argue that, at least for environmental portraiture, sometimes subtlety with flash is a more compelling way to go.

I'm just as guilty as the next person of doing it: vastly underexposing the background to bring out the cool contrast in the clouds/sunset/buildings/(insert cool, contrasty background here). The problem is that I get a portrait that looks like a person in front of a disembodied backdrop. The two don't look connected. I might as well have put my subject in a studio and taken the photo of the background at a different time and place. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily. Using composites in photography has become a banner business, with people creating some really incredible photos, some of which would be difficult or impossible to create in camera. Aaron Nace over at Phlearn and Joel Grimes come to mind for excellent resources on the subject.

Using flash as an accent in an interesting room. Softlighter above and camera right. Fuji X-Pro 2, 35mm f/2

That's not that I'm talking about.

I'm talking about that old school approach. Portraying a living, breathing subject that's really part of a space can be difficult to pull off in tricky environments, but that's part of the fun. Believe me, I fail all the time. However, here are some tips for executing convincing shots using artificial lighting that looks like it's part of the scene, not overpowering it.

Don't Ignore the Scene

This is probably the first mistake that I make when walking into a new environment: I completely ignore the environment. If you go to grab your flashes and start setting them up before scouting the space, you're doing it wrong. What light sources are in the scene? Are they hard? Soft? What's the color temperature like? Is it a warm space? Is there furniture? What's the character of the furniture? Are there people? If you're outside, where's the sun? Where will it be when your subject arrives? Is it overcast? Mid-day sun?

These are just a few things to take into consideration when you're scouting. Enjoy the integrity of the scene so that you're not in such a rush to leave it out of your photo. It's called an environmental portrait for a reason.

That being said...

Don't Be a Slave to the Scene

While the integrity of the scene is nice and all, don't feel like you have to keep it pristine. If there's a garbage can in sight and it isn't adding anything to the shot, move it. If there are garish lights that aren't adding anything, turn them off if possible. Are you in noon day sun and don't want that high contrast look? Create shade. Have someone hold a reflector between the subject and the sun (or throw one on a light stand and sandbag it), then recreate your key light as you see fit.

Don't be afraid to flare the light a bit. It sometimes adds a bit of grit that can really sell the image. Lit with a softlighter camera left and another strobe in the back hall to simulate the sun. Fuji X-T1, 23mm f/1.4


Don't get in there and just start shooting. See the shot in your head before you begin, then begin to place lights. If you start shooting without seeing the shot first, not only are you going to take way more shots than you need to take, but while you're running around setting up and taking down lights you run the risk of looking like you're inept in front of your client.

Light Broadly, Accent Specifically

The world is made up of a whole ton of broad lighting. Light big. I like big modifiers that put off a beautiful light. They imitate what we see in the real world every day. It's very rare that we come across focused light in the day to day. That being said, specific, pinpoint lights show what you want to show. You are the director of the scene. Where do you want to draw the eye? Put light there or take it away everywhere else. I like to think of my broad softlighter as writing the text for my story, while the smaller, more focused modifiers provide punctuation. Draw the eye where you want it to be.

Doing a portrait behind a DJ booth. The funky colors, though not in the original scene, are acceptable and perhaps even expected. Softlighter for ambient glow, gelled strobe behind subject camera left and another above and right. Fuji X100s

Look Up, Look Down

This is one that I screw up regularly. I walk into a space, spend a couple hours shooting, and never notice the amazing chandelier or brass tile ceiling that's been above me the whole time. Or perhaps I'm out in the desert and never saw the texture of the dried, cracked dirt that would have been an amazing spot for my subject to lay.

Don't Be Afraid of a Tripod

A tripod, like every other piece of equipment, is a tool. There are times when you really should be using one. If it's night time and you don't want to push up your ISO setting, you need to be on a stable surface to ensure that your subject is looking sharp. Sometimes, even with the amazing high ISO performance of today's cameras, a tripod is a better option in flash photography. Namely, if you're shooting at 3,200, you might find it very difficult to fire a flash at a low enough power setting to not completely overpower and/or overexpose the scene. But if you keep your ISO low, using flash won't be as much of an issue. I like to shoot handheld as much as humanly possible, but even I will pull out the tripod if it's going to help the shot in the long run.

Subtlety is key. Use the light you're given, but then add your own to make your subject pop. Large softlighter camera right. Nikon D800, Sigma ART 50mm f/1.4.

Light That Background

Those strobes aren't just for lighting your subject. If you've managed to get the general background ambient where you want but there are still a few dark spots, light them. Use small strobes that you can hide easily. I routinely use a few $35 Neewer flashes with optical slaves for just such a purpose. They're also handy for creating catchlights in your subject's eyes. Think of the background as your canvas. Put the light where you want it.

Use Shallow DOF to Isolate Your Subject, But Not Too Much

With all these new-fangled lenses promising creamy, luscious bokeh, it's tempting to want to throw the background completely out of focus because, hey, bokeh is the coolest.

Resist the temptation. First of all, it's environmental portraiture. Think of the environment as a character in your movie. It has something to say. If you make it unrecognizable, how does it inform your subject? It doesn't. The background becomes a pretty blur. And that's cool and all, but what does it say about your subject? Not much. Might as well be in a studio.

Also, most lenses are at their best stopped down a touch, so let those lenses show themselves off. I know, I know, it's a f/1.2 lens so why bother paying the premium if you're not going to use it wide open? In my opinion, that f/1.2 is there for when you need it, but just make damn sure that you really do need it. Use ND filters if you're having trouble cutting the light so that you can get wide enough to give a healthy amount of separation.

A healthy bit of separation is nice, but it's good to know what's in the background as well. Softlighter above and camera right. Shot with a Mamiya RZ67, 110mm.

Interpret the Light, Don't Imitate It

You are an artist. Just because you see sunlight coming in at a certain angle, intensity, or color doesn't mean that you have to rigidly stick to it when using your flashes. Ultimately when you set up a shot, you want the light to look like it could have come from what's already there. It should look like it's an organic part of the scene. So, if you are in broad daylight in the middle of the day and you have a blue gelled subject, people will be confused as to what in the world you're trying to say. But, if you are in a diner at night and you have a red gelled light just kissing off the window, it stirs the imagination. Is it a neon sign casting the light? A car's tail lights? Make your audience think. Tell a story. As always, when shooting fashion, all bets are off. Gel away! 

Don't Always Put the Key Light in Front of Your Subject

In real life, people aren't always lit from the front. Try putting that key light behind or to the side of your subject. You'd be surprised how it can change the dynamic of the shot completely, yet still be pleasing to the eye. If you need a bit of fill, that's what reflectors are for. And more flashes of course.

Got any other tips for bringing together your subject with the environment? Sound off in the comments!

Thanks to Orench Lagman at Awaken Gymnastics, Armando Garibay of The Circus HouseAsh RadElizabeth Marsh, and Abby May.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Hans Rosemond has been known to fall down a lot on set. Thank goodness for the wireless revolution, else Hans might have to learn to photograph in a full body cast. His subjects thank him for not falling down on them.
He is looking to document the every day person in an extraordinary way.

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I also like to "drag" the shutter speed down to about 1/20-1/30. This allows the background to recieve the light in your portrait (inside or out). On a tripod of course.

Some really good tips here. Thank you, Hans.

Of course! I hope to do more like this soon!

Very nice article and photos Hans!

Hey, thanks!

See, this is what happens when you write articles when you're drunk. Or me.

very informative article! thank you!

Glad you found it useful!

shit, now i might have to look into a softlighter... but i suppose a large octa will suffice all the same. excellent photos!

absolutely. If it's big and soft it'll work. And thanks, man! The softlighter is nice because it uses an umbrella mount so you can put any light in it and not worry about speedrings. But I use Paul C. Buff PLMs as well

What kind of gel did you use for the shot of the DJ booth? I like that shot the most out of all of them.

Would have been great to have seen the featured images without flash as well, to really see the difference the flash does. But with that said the imagery is absolutely beautiful!