The art of the environmental portrait

In numerous cases, we as marketers ask those we are marketing to become the voice of the company or institution they represent. Their stories give meaning in a deeply personal way. And, in many cases, we ask those that give voice to the story to be photographed to represent their story.

Nine times out of ten, these subjects are uncomfortable, wary, and uncertain about their image being used, knowing their likeness will be seen by every visitor that comes to the website. Most people are simply uncomfortable being in front of a camera.

So, the challenge for the designer becomes, ‘how do I represent these individuals in the most respectful and truthful manner?’

The environmental portrait

The environmental portrait is just as it says — a photo that represents the subject in their natural environment. Whether it is in their work location, personal home, or a location that is representative of the narrative, the choice to shoot an environmental portrait over a formal portrait shot in a studio adds another layer of credibility and truth to their story. Also, the familiar space is more comfortable for the subject.

The face behind the story

Most recently, we were developing a number of websites that represented three diverse offerings — an insurance company who provides stop loss coverage, a successful liberal arts college business school, and a higher education institution who was creating a dynamic, new, technology-charged powerhouse school.

In each case, we identified a number of individuals who would help tell the story of their representative institution and needed to photograph them in locations that would best represent their personalities and stories.

Plan, then plan some more

Know that ninety percent of a successful environmental portrait is completed before the photo is taken. Logistics including time of day, wardrobe, access to the location, identifying the location, staging the site, and more are required prior to the shoot date to avoid surprises when the subject arrives to be photographed.

Listed below are some hints to follow for a successful environmental portrait photo shoot:

1. Rely on the content to provide the location for the shoot
The content of their story will help to identify the location of the photo in both a visually creative and compelling manner. Allow the location and the environment to frame the subject as the hero.

2. Know your subject
Consider a quick call to the subject to hear their voice, to establish a connection with them, and to learn as much as you can about them before meeting them for the shoot. Share your plans for the shoot and let them know what to expect. Their buy-in is important for success.

3. Visit the site prior to the shoot
Once you think you have identified possible locations for the shoot, arrange for visiting the sites in person prior to showing up for the actual shoot day. Take snap shots of various angles and look at lighting and access to the space. (Share all of this with your photographer.) If it’s not possible to do a site visit prior to the shoot, ask your client contact to do it for you. All they need to do is photograph the possible sites and to share those images with you.

4. Be nimble and have alternate plans
In many cases, weather conditions, lighting, and unforeseen interferences are factors that may undo your best-laid plans. I always suggest having a plan B and plan C in place to be able to pivot quickly without unnerving yourself, your photographer and most importantly, your subject.

5. Hire a qualified environmental portrait photographer
Many photographers are highly qualified to shoot environmental portraits. These are shooters who can adapt to changing conditions and can move quickly about a space. Once you award the shoot to the photographer, engage them in the conversation early on and share with them whatever resources you gathered to enable your photographer to plan accordingly.

1: ©2015 Terry Clark
2: ©2017 Annie O’Neill
3: ©2017 Alisa Garin
4: ©2017 Chandler Crowell