Using a 35mm Lens for Environmental Portraits

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.

Holly Von Winkle of Cut and Dry Lumber

Holly Von Winckle of Cut and Dry Lumber

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

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Francisco Hernandez's picture

Great shots, Nicole. I have used wide apertures and long focal lengths for years and sometimes you want to incorporate that nice background. I started using a 35mm for a year now and love it a lot.

Nicole York's picture

Much appreciated, man! It's definitely a different aesthetic. There's something of a feeling of honesty that I really like.

Jeff Drew's picture

Nice images to support the story! Fwiw, 35mm focal length lenses have been used for these Tasks for several decades. Analog rangefinder kits commonly incorporated this focal length because of its appeal & flexibility! The friendly debates around focal lengths 35mm vs 50mm (nifty fifty) continue beyond today! All a matter of your perspective! 🤔

Nicole York's picture

Thank you! And you're absolutely right, they have.

jay holovacs's picture

I like these. In a world where most are obsessed into (mindlessly) blurred backgrounds here are shots that make the background part of the story.

I would argue this should be the norm. If you're photographing someone, parts of their life or their world belongs in the photo.

Nicole York's picture

I'm glad, thank you! And I agree. Sometimes a portrait is just about how a person looks, and the blurred background works. But portraits that show how a person is related to their environment and vice versa have kind of been ignored, which is a shame because they're so rich.

Dana Goldstein's picture

I love 35mm, about 95% of my work is shot on it, and I also do environmental portraits. It took me YEARS of shooting to finally realize I see in 35mm. A decade ago, I also thought everything needed to be at 85mm and super shallow DOF, but in learning, doing, and studying the history of the medium, my eyes were definitely opened.

Nicole York's picture

That's awesome, Dana! It's great when we finally come to that realization in our work. It changes everything.

Jan Holler's picture

Very sympathetic and very good looking portraits! Instead of blurring out fore- and background a flash is used to separate the subject - It is very well done.

Nicole York's picture

Much appreciated, Jan, thank you!

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

“Since von winckle is not a working model”. Sad.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

Nevermind. Sorry, I guess I didn’t know what I wanted to say. Too much celebrating.

James Mlodynia's picture

During the time I have been involved in event photography, there are times when you want to have your subject and surroundings in focus and other times you want isolation of the subject from his or her surroundings, weddings or formal events are times when you will find your self photographing a subject both ways and that is why you need glass that can do both.

Captain Jack R's picture

Great work! I just wish the video also included the lighting setup and position. Really, lighting is really the key to making these photos stand out which you did. I see too many people doing good composition but they lack good lighting and the knowledge of how to use strobes to light up their subject. I use to fear flashes and strobes because I didn't know how to use them. Now I don't know how to live without them. I also understand its another tool to make our photos stand out from the millions of Smart Phone photographers.

Nicole York's picture

Thanks very much!
We didn't focus much on light for this article because it was centered around using the 35mm, but that's certainly something I can put on the list for future tutorials!

Alon Koppel's picture

Nice work. I love the 35mm lens so much that my favorite camera is the Sony RX1rII. With a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens and a full frame sensor I can shot wide enough environmental shots/portraits and crop down to 50mm if I need to. Thanks for sharing your work with us.