While you can use almost any lens to make an environmental portrait, there are a combination of features that make the 35mm a great choice for this style of portraiture.
The thing I love about environmental portraits is that the viewer is given clues about the subject’s job or character through their surroundings, while the subject humanizes the environment, both imparting context and purpose to the other.
I believe that gear should always be chosen to fit the vision and the circumstances of any given job, and that’s one of the reasons using a 35mm makes so much sense. It’s flexible. It’s wide enough to capture the subject and their environment, even in tight spaces, but not so wide that distortion becomes a deal-breaker. The photographer also gets to stay within comfortable speaking distance, able to chat with or direct the subject, while still fitting the scene in frame.
Finally, portraitists can even use that slight distortion to their advantage, as photographer Sue Bryce has, by using the lens angle to help flatter her subjects.
For this shoot, rather than photograph an experienced model in a pretty dress in an extraordinary landscape, as is common for photography articles and tutorials (not without reason), I wanted to work with a local business owner in their place of business. Holly Von Winckle is the kind of client many portrait artists will have in their local market. She’s got a budding business, she’s building a name for herself, and environmental portraits are an asset that will let potential clients get to know her and what her business is all about. I wanted to show my subject naturally, how she would appear to clients in her own environment.
Since Von Winckle isn’t a working model, the Tamron 35mm f/2.8 for mirrorless let me stay within comfortable chatting distance, which allowed us to establish rapport and keep her feeling comfortable. Asking her to make small adjustments in posture was as easy as the rest of our conversation. Her smiles are genuine and warm, because we chatted and laughed while we worked.
With longer lenses, staying within comfortable conversational distance would have required me to lose some of the background or the subject. Not so with the 35mm. Whether you’re working on location outdoors or have to meet a client in a space you haven’t had the ability to scout first, you can be certain the 35mm will get the shot for you.
I had the advantage of scouting the location beforehand and was able to find some areas that gave a good sense of the environment my subject works in, while not overwhelming her. I also had a good idea of where the sun would be, so I was prepared to compensate or adjust light as needed. With the addition of a Flashpoint XPLOR 600 and an Elinchrom Rotalux 39” Deep Octa, I had enough light to give me all the separation I wanted while remaining very subtle and natural.
While all creative choices in photography come down to personal taste, there is much to be said for a lens with such flexibility, especially when working in and around environments you don’t have complete control over.
What are your experiences with lens choice for environmental portraits? Do you have a preference? Sound off in the comments.
Lead Video Courtesy of Brian Spencer