New Look for My Environmental Portraits

Environmental Portrait Pittsburgh PA

New Environmental Portrait Look for me

For the last few years, I’ve been in love with the look of location portraits and headshots taken with a telephoto lens, shot at its widest aperture. This creates what I call the “minimum-focus” look that I really like.

As a matter of fact, I like this look so much that I’ve bought a couple of “really fast” (read expensive) prime lenses that accentuated that “shallow depth-of-field” look.  I love the way the background gets really soft and the objects in the background tend to become just shapes and colors.  In contrast, the sharply-focused subject in front of all this softness, really tend to “jump off” the page.  The look is very appealing to me, but I’m finding all my environmental portraits are starting to look too similar to one another. I feel like I’m in a rut.

So what do you do when you’re in a rut? You try something new.  I thought I’d experiment and play with shooting wide-angle environmental portraits and after a few experiments, here’s what I learned…

With wide-angle lenses, the “minimum focus” look just isn’t there, no matter what aperture you use.   This makes it a bit harder to isolate the subject from the background using focus, but there are other ways of emphasizing the person in the photo.

The wide-angle portrait is MUCH better at using the background as “information” to help tell the story behind the photo. If the environment is an important part of the photo, then using a wide-angle lens makes a lot of sense because it shows more of the background.

The third thing I’ve learned about shooting with a wide angle lens for portraits.  Since I’m so much closer to the subject, I’m able to use lights for outsides shots.  This enables me to get great lighting, no matter if it’s sunny or overcast.  When using a telephoto lens outdoors, I often had a difficult time getting the lights close enough to make a difference to overpower the sun.  But now that I’m closer to the subject, it’s possible to get the lightings where I want them.

Commercial Portraits Pittsburgh, PA

Besides using the wide angle lens, I’ve been shooting more and more outside with my new high-speed sync flash system. This allows me to create beautiful lighting, no matter what mother nature gives me.

Pittsburgh Portraits of Parkinson Foundation shoot

When using wide angle lenses, it’s important to realize that objects neared the lens will appear larger than those farther away from the camera. Note how the subject’s right-hand looks a little out of scale. I don’t think it’s too distracting in this shot, but it’s something I consider when selecting a wide-angle lens and deciding on a pose for the subject.

Pittsburgh Portraits Environmental shots

With this new “wide-angle” style, I had to give up the minimum focus look. In this photo, I warmed up the color of the background in Photoshop in order to help add interest to the shot. Another advantage to using a wide angle lens is it enables me to shoot in confined spaces like this sound studio.

Business Portraits Pittsburgh PA

Here is a portrait where I used a telephoto lens, shot wide open. I still love the way the background turns into beautiful shapes and colors. This technique will continue to dominate my style of shooting portraits, but now I better understand the different looks available to me.

The “old” Environmental Portrait Look

Don’t get me wrong.  I still love the old look too, and I’ve learned how to better use the look. The main thing I learned is that with this look, it works out a little better if there are background elements that lead from the foreground into the background.

Pittsburgh Corporate Portrait

Here’s another example of a portrait using a telephoto. I’ve learned that unless there is some object close to the subject that goes just a little out of focus, the subjects sometimes look as though they were outlined and pasted into the environment.  In this case, the flowers to the left of the frame make the shot look real.

Executive Portrait 2

I guess every environmental portrait technique has its place. I still love the old way and I’m intrigued by the new as well.

If you like what you see here and think that you might be interested in having me shoot some environmental portraits for you, please drop me an email or call me at 412-232-4444.  If you’d like to see more of my portraits, visit my Pittsburgh Portraits Portfolio.

Michael Ray Photography
2820 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, PA  15222

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