Environmental Portrait

Environmental portrait is a very challenging project. I had couple thoughts on who I could photograph, but I decided to photograph a student who is studying "Ba Complimentary Therapies". The reason for this choice is that it is a very interesting profession and also challenging. My goal was to successfully use the portable lighting equipment and the light itself combined with wide composition of details which would tell a story about the person. My scene was partially staged, I did move the table close to the window in order to catch the sunlight behind and use it as the kicker light therefore I did use my flash with shoot through umbrella as a fill light to even the exposure.

Here are other photographer's work which I came across during the research and become inspiration to my own work.

Sander August

Pastrycook, 1928 by August Sander


Hod-Carrier, Koln-lindenthal, 1928
Circus People, 1930

Farming Generations, 1912

Children Born Blind

August Sander, "Albert Fischbach as a Hunter with Dog, around 1910    This is one of my favorite environmental portraits by August Sander. I really like the way he is framing and presenting the subject matter. It directly reflects the hunter and his environment making this portrait with a strong story and aesthetically pleasant to view.
Overall August Sander is one of my favourite portrait photographers. His work is unique and high quality, reflecting the person in a special way. Especially his composition technique is carefully considered and created.

Newman Arnold

Here is the example of cropping the final shot of Igor Stravinsky, 1946 | Arnold Newman
The final image, composed of a few strong, simple shapes, resulted from a severe cropping of this original negative.
Although I am not a fan of cropping at all in this case this cropping is very beautiful and makes this photograph more stronger and aesthetically interesting. He is emphasizing on the form, shape, contrast between blacks, whites and grey tones.

Here are few other portraits by Arnold Newman

Arnold Newman, Portrait of President John F. Kennedy, 1961

Arnold Newman is noted for his environmental portraits of artists and politicians.  He also has some noted images of abstract still life.  The above photograph is of Louis Kahn, famed architect.  Newman has photographed such greats as John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Pablo Picasso, Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mantle, just to name a few.

Few portraits by Gordon Parks, I really like the way in how the lighting is used. Example below reflects my favourite effect created by ambient light. It is very moody, contrasty and low key lighting makes it stand out!

Gordon Parks, New York City, 1948
Harlem gang leader “Red” Jackson, 17, trapped in an abandoned building by a rival gang.

American Gothic, Washington, D.C.

A Woman and Her Dog in Harlem, New York, May 1943 Gordon parks

Here are two contact sheets of shots which I consider as good starting point.

Some of them are repeating, but there is retouch difference

The hardest part of this shooting process was to constantly adjust the exposure. I tried to use the sunlight as a separation light ( kicker ), however I did not get the shot I wanted within that time window.
See the contact sheet for example.

Regards the lighting, it was pretty simple setup, the flash was used a a fill light and the correct exposure was metered for the background (sun light through the blinds).

As the colour does not look too punchy I decided to go with black and white, which works better for me.

Here are my final winners of the series.I did not emphasize on retouching. My goal was to keep it simple and more realistic.

Here are the original RAW files before retouching converted to 600kb sRGB JPEG files.

Original RAW

Original RAW

Original RAW
Although they are not that bad in terms of colour and sharpness I don not see them to work in colour too well, so I decided to convert them in black and white.

I am working only with my 3 best shots.

The lighting diagram is pretty easy. I did use camera meter to meter the ambient light. In order to capture it I had to increase the ISO sensitivity to ISO 200. I did use the light meter to adjust the flash to correct exposure and did quite few test shots to see how things are working. Then adjusted the flash output by experimenting with aperture and distance between subject and the flash itself. Closer it is to the subject more powerful it becomes vice versa. I also tried to use the flash in the fill in mode so it would determine the correct flash output automatically, although it is the fastest and easiest way it is not always the most reliable and constant therefore I did stick with full manual mode.

The Lighting diagram.

Once the best composition was set, I was able to concentrate on the person, the ongoing process. I wanted to capture very natural look, without tension or feeling of being photographed. At first it was all about the breaking the ice, and creating very calm and nice atmosphere. I really like the kicker light from the sun shining through the window. I did not notice that the umbrella is reflected on the window, however it is not as visible to cause any problems. Even the saturation is pulled a bit, it does not seem to improve the overall tones, therefore I did go Black and white. 

I did explain what I am going to do and how.  I did move bits around to achieve the optimal results. The books are pointing towards me so I could read and get a sense of the person and its environment in everyday life. also the oil bottles are set-up for the same reason.

I like this shot, however it is not as strong as other because the books are pointing away therefore I cannot read their labels which is an important detail to the whole story and photograph.

It is the same photograph as above, I did drop the saturation to achieve this effect. But it is not as good as pure black and white. And yet the composition has some downsides.

This is the final version of the environmental portrait.  I would like to get this shot tighter but then I would start to loose important details which are telling the story and making this photograph to work at its best.

In order to make this project more successful I could do another session and fine tuning all my mistakes I had done with the first attempt. However due to lack of time and resources I was not able to do it on time. I am happy with the final output. It was very interesting, challenging and educational project. The essence is in the communication and personal confidence. Knowing my camera was a very good advantage, but also some difficulties occurred with the constantly changing light conditions. It was much harder to achieve the optimal shot than in the studio environment. I had to keep adjusting the exposure every 10 minutes or so. Timing, preparation and anticipation were the key elements towards success. All of my photographs were edited in Adobe Lightroom.

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