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4 Tips on How to Take Interesting Environmental Portraits

9 min read

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Taking an interesting environmental portrait requires you to include location-specific elements. It may also involve what your subject is doing. Environmental portraiture contains more information about the person than a regular portrait does.

Including some of the environment the person is in, such as their workplace or home, tells us something about who they are. We catch a glimpse of their lifestyle and location.

By showing some of the environment a photographer puts their subject in context with it. This helps build a story about the person.

How to Make an Environmental Portrait?

Making a portrait, your photography will naturally concentrate on a person. To make a great environmental portrait you also must consider the location and what the person is doing there. Think about their story and how you can present this in the pictures you take. Choose your lens so you can include enough of their surroundings. 

Karen mother and child portrait.
Sgaw Karen mother and child on the porch of their village home in north Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

In the photo above, you can see a woman holding a small child. From this photo, it’s not possible to know much about them because there’s no frame of reference as to where they are. They look Asian and the fabric her skirt is made of might give you some clues. But, apart from this, there’s very little information you can derive from this photo about them. This is not an environmental portrait because it does not contain much information about who is in the picture.

Karen mother and child on the porch of their very basic home in a northern Thai village.
Karen mother and child on the porch of their very basic home in a northern Thai village © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

This second photo gives a wider perspective on my subjects. It includes more of their home. This photo provides much more relevant information about the mother and child. We can see they live in a very simple home that’s raised on stilts above the ground. It’s obvious they are poor. There are no signs of any paving around the home or electricity coming into it. This is an environmental portrait because it shows the mother and child in their surroundings.

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Compose Your Environmental Portraits Carefully

Environmental portraiture is not merely made by including more rather than less in your frame. You need to be aware of what elements you include and ensure they are relevant to the person or people you are making the portrait of. 

Fill your frame. Take care to include only what will add to the story you are telling with your photo. Including more space around your subject may result in having too much stuff in your portrait. This will not help, but often it will distract attention away from who you are photographing.

Move around your subject if you can. View them from every possible angle and consider what’s around them. From some positions, you might see things that would help make a more interesting environmental portrait. You may not notice these things from other angles.

Take your time. Look above your subject. Look around at either side of them. What can you place in the foreground to help lead the viewer’s eye into your portrait? Are there elements that would be better not to see? What compositional techniques can you use to make your environmental photos more interesting?

By observing the location you’ll see what elements you need to include to build an interesting story. Watch how your subject interacts with what’s around them. How do the move and connect with the elements that are most meaningful to the image you want to create?

Look to include aesthetically pleasing things that will work together to create a strong image. View the scene through your camera. This will help you compose portraits that include what’s most meaningful and leave out what is irrelevant.

It’s a great practice for a photographer to visualize their image in the location that they will make the portrait. Environment photography done in this way produces stronger portraits of your subject.

young woman clothes shopping at a market.
Woman clothes shopping at an outdoor market © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Use a Wide Lens

Portrait photography is often made with a longer focal length lens rather than a wide lens. For environmental portraits consider choosing a wider lens. This will allow you to include more of the surroundings in your composition. 

With a longer lens means you have to move further away from your subject to be able to capture much of their environment in your composition. A 105 mm lens or a 135 mm lens are popular choices for regular portraits. However, with one of these lenses on your camera, you’ll have to be a fair distance from your subject to be able to show a significant amount of their location. 

I love using my 35 mm lens when I am taking environmental portraits. With a 35 mm or wider lens you can include enough of the environment to help your portrait communicate about where your subject is. The wider angle lens also allows you to do this and remain relatively close to your subject

When you do have the space to take photos further from your subject and include what surrounds them, be careful though no to include too much. Remember that you’re making a portrait, so your main subject should not get lost in the details.

environmental portrait of a market vendor selling vegetables.
Market vendor selling vegetables © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Sometimes, as with this image of a man who sells vegetables at a local fresh market, it’s not possible to get further back from your subject. With my 35 mm lens I was able to be close enough to avoid the motorcycles and foot traffic passing just behind me. I could include enough of the vegetables in the foreground and his scales to provide context. 

By choosing a low angle I cut out distractions in the background behind him. If had remained standing to compose this portrait, I would have included the space under the tables behind him. This did not add anything meaningful to the composition.

environmental portrait at a Thai cattle market.
At the cattle market I used a 105 mm lens. I did not need to (or want to) get closer to my subject © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

A Wider Lens Allows for Better Communication

My 35 mm lens allows me to remain at a comfortable distance from my subject to be able to communicate with them. If I’m further back with a longer lens, I’m not going to be close enough to have a conversation from a natural distance. 

Taking portraits with my 35 mm lens on my camera I am at a comfortable distance from someone. I can have a conversation with them and include enough of their surroundings to make a good environmental portrait.

If your preference is to make candid environmental portraits, being so close is more challenging. In a candid portrait, the person you’re photographing is not aware that you are taking their picture. This type of image can include or exclude their environment.

Not wanting to communicate or even be noticed as you photograph your subject makes choosing a longer focal length lens an easier option. The physical separation from your subject when using a longer lens does tend to result in less intimate photos.

With practice, it is possible to use a wide lens for candid environmental portrait photography. It’s easier when you’re in a busy location, like a market, where there are a lot of people and a lot of activity. Get close to the person you want to photograph and look like you’re not paying attention to them. Pretend to photograph something else. If they appear comfortable with you benign there, then find an opportunity to take a photo when they are not focused on you. You could also start a conversation and ask if you could take their portrait!

Portrait photography with lenses wider than 35 mm (on a full-frame camera) becomes a bit risky. The distortion that can occur using a wide lens is sometimes not flattering to your subject. This is more of a problem when you place your subject close to one edge of your frame.

environmental portrait of an Akha woman picking coffee.
Portrait of an Akha woman harvesting coffee made with a wide angle lens © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Manage Your Depth of Field

One key aspect of a great environmental portrait is how much of the image is in sharp focus. 

Street photographers often prefer to use a narrow aperture setting because this gives them more depth of field. This makes it easier to capture their subject in focus. With environmental portraits, this is not often so necessary because your subject is likely to be stationary. They’ll also be aware that you are taking their photograph.

Using a DOF that is too shallow can mean there’s not enough relevant information included of the portrait environment. So you need to find some middle ground. Pick a lens and aperture setting that produces a sufficient amount of your portrait in acceptably sharp focus. This may mean only your subject is truly sharp. The rest of your photo may be slightly blurred. This will create a portrait where the main subject is clear what surrounds them is not.

Finding that sweet spot you can make images where there’s a good balance between the clear focus of your photo and a background that’s supportive of it. If you are not used to working with your camera and lens like this, it may take some getting used to. Often a photographer will go for one extreme or the other. Either with their aperture wide open or very narrow.

Everything in environmental portraits does not need to be sharp for you to still see what it is. 

A young man plays a French horn during during a parade
A young man plays a French horn during during a parade in Chiang Mai, Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

While photographing this street parade I wanted to make an environmental portrait of this young guy with his French horn. I did not need to use a narrow aperture for more depth of field. This would be distracting. 

Instead, I adjusted my camera settings to allow me to photograph him so he was sharp, and let his bandmates in the background be out of focus. But not so out of focus that you cannot recognize them. Doing this I was able to create a portrait where the French horn player stands out but is not completely separated from his surroundings. This makes the portrait environmental.

Arrange the Scene for an Environmental Portrait

Sometimes it’s best to take control of a situation. Not everything you want in your picture will be where you want it. 

As a photographer, you need to become an expert at rearranging furniture and accessories. Learn to place them precisely where they will enhance your images. Take control of a situation when you can and make a stronger photo because of it.

You have to often think beyond your camera. Setting up a portrait is more than about getting the right settings and making sure you click the shutter when your subject has their eyes open. 

By including or removing objects from the environment you can alter the meaning and context of a person in their surrounding. This is okay to do unless you are covering a story for a news organization. This means any manipulation of a situation becomes contrived and unnatural. Knowing how your photos are likely to be used is important.

Thai sea gypsy environmental portrait.
Southern Thai sea gypsy fisherman in his element © Kevin Landwer-Johan.


There are many portrait styles in photography. Portrait photos are always images of people. Sometimes photos of animals are also considered to be portraits. With a formal portrait, the photographer interacts with the subject and poses them. Often the subject is isolated from the surroundings.

Environmental portraits are not about environmental photography; that’s an entirely different subject. It is a picture of a person located in a setting that’s meaningful to who they are. The story the photographer wants their images to convey is also important to an environmental portrait.

The key aspects to consider when creating this type of image are the person and their surroundings and what elements you’ll include in your photography composition

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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