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Environmental Portrait Photography

Lesson 3 of 48

Environmental Portrait Purpose


Environmental Portrait Photography

Lesson 3 of 48

Environmental Portrait Purpose


Lesson Info

Environmental Portrait Purpose

The environmental portrait purpose. So why do we do these, what's the point of them? So again, the purpose... This story could continue on to be multiple images, but the whole point is that if you only had one image to show, can you wrap that entire story up, tell that story of that person within that place and have the viewer understand what's going on from a single image? Here's another example, and we'll get into this more, I show you the details behind this shot as far as technicalities when we go over the raw processing. But this is another shoot. It was personal work. Again, this was a shop I've been into many times in Omaha. It's called Stoysich Meats. And this is Ken Stoysich. He's been making all these different varieties of sausage and custom-cut steaks for who knows how long. Decades. Again, it's a shop I've been into multiple times. The minute you walk in the door it has that feel that it's just a throwback to like the 1960s or '70s. It's as if nothing on the walls has chan...

ged over the years, and whenever they first decorated the place several decades ago, they just left it as is. So to me, those are the kind of things, as soon as I see them I'm like, that needs to be in one of my photos. And after going there shopping a few times, I started getting some ideas as far as angles and what I wanted to do with it, and meeting him and getting to know his personality, just on the surface of purchasing meat from him. I approached him with an idea, you know, would be down? I'd love to photograph you in this space and get a couple different scenarios where you're showing off your product but also we're telling the story of the history of this place. And I want photos that people... I always want the subject to be kind of proud of the photo, or feel like, wow, that's pretty cool. I wanna create flattering photos that people wanna show off, that they're proud of their space, and that also they feel comfortable in. But from my side I also want it to be interesting to me visually. I love different graphic compositions. I love cinematic-style lighting. I definitely have a color palette that fits my work, so I wanna make sure that all the reasons that me as an artist can capture that mixed with what they wanna be seen as and images that they're proud. So it's definitely a collaborative effort to get to work with these people in their environments. And again like I said, they're not models, so being able to kind of feel out their personalities and know how far we can push it to get something interesting, or just make them feel comfortable but also get that shot so I don't come away and get back to my studio looking through the images and be like, oh man, I wish I would have done this or that. And we'll get into the process of making sure you cover all your bases when you're out shooting so you don't get back to the studio and feel like you left something on the table back at the locations. So again, this shot, I had seen this location multiple times. It was a little tricky with the glass cases and all that, but I knew what I wanted the lighting to look like. It was also tricky because we have this really dark and moody area, and then we have Ken wearing all white. So there's these technical aspects of bouncing your light, bouncing the contrast, and that's where shooting tethered came in really handy because I could get instant feedback of what it was going to look like. And how much I could pull from the shadows, how much detail was left in the highlights, those type of things. So and even knowing, there was a lot of glare on the glass and things like that that you have to deal with from the photo side, but also getting a real moment where, you know, we went through all these different poses of him standing different directions, and all this stuff, until he finally was just waiting for me to set up a light and he just started leaning there. I was like, that's it. He was overthinking it and he got comfortable because I was working on something else and I was like, "Do not move. This finally feels like it works." So, you know, and even placement, we have the sign, we have the scale, capturing those three overhead lights, so kind of balancing the ambient light with the strobes. This was a two-light setup. Two pro photos, mixed with all the ambient light, like how do you let the lights within the case illuminate the sausages but not overpower them with the strobes? So these are all things we'll talk about when we're shooting, but they all go into the different environments because it's not like a studio where you have all this control. There's always these unknowns that you have to account for. And I always keep a notebook with me, and we'll go over what I put in that notebook, but it's something I bring to every shoot. Write down all these different ideas I have and all the different things that could either go wrong or things that kind of trigger me to have a little checklist of, you know, make sure you do this, make sure you shoot with that lens, and make sure you bring an apple box to stand on to get a different angle. Things like that that, you know, you might have 30 years of experience as a photographer but sometimes as soon as you get on set you all of a sudden forget everything you ever know and it's just a rush. So I like to have the notebook to keep me balanced and keep me, you know... Slow it down a little bit, take your time and go through it. This guy wasn't going anywhere. He's like, "You can stay all day, I don't care." So there isn't that rush, you know, that perceived rush that we always think. Sometimes you just gotta slow down and feel it out and let it work itself out. So that's just another example of an environmental portrait, and that one's a new one. That's just from like a month ago or so. So I did a whole series with him as we'll show a little later. So again, back to the purpose of the environmental portrait. It could be editorial. This is for different magazines. It could be commercial. Again, usually to sell something. It might be an ad for an ATV out in the field. It might be an ad for insurance. Who knows? There's all these different things that bring environmental portraits out. And if you're looking through magazines or looking at a billboard, you know, how many ads do you see that are on location with people in them? They're either some sort of lifestyle or portrait, and they're selling something to you, or at least the idea of something. Photo journalism. This is a great example and probably the first example for me that got me into environmental portraits. One of my first jobs as a photographer was at Iowa State University back in 2004 or '05. I started working for the Iowa State Daily. So I had basically zero photo experience. Not really any idea of what I was doing, but I knew I wanted to be a photographer. And even previous to this what I would do, when my career first started around 2003 or '04, when I was really getting into photography in college, I'd go and sit at the Borders bookstore. And I would go through all the different magazines from ESPN Magazine to GQ to W to Men's Health, whether it was portrait or fashion or sports or automotive. And what really spoke to me was these cool portraits of people that didn't look exactly how you see them in real life. So there was this little bit of, you know, surreal look to them from the lighting and the lens choice and all these things. You know, we all have the same focal length with our eyes, so we all kinda see things the same way. Same with the way the lighting looks naturally. And to know that you can manipulate that with your lens choice, with your camera, with your lighting, was really cool to me. So that was where this love of environmental portraits came out, because you can really tell a story and add different mood and give the viewer a different experience if you use your equipment in different ways and experiment. And that first came out with photo journalism because I had some assignments working with athletes at Iowa State for the newspaper. So one of my favorite jobs there was, every Friday they'd release a little part of the newspaper called The Gridiron. And it was on football weekends, they'd feature a different player, and then that would be handed out in the Friday newspaper. And they'd always do an environmental portrait for the cover. So whether it was the field goal kicker out on the field and somehow incorporate footballs and field goals, or, you know, another guy with his pads off sitting in the stands up in the upper deck of the stadium, or anything like that. So that was kinda my first intro. And one of the things that I tried to do, there were so many photos I had seen, especially in photo journalism, where you just go out, you take the camera, and then you shoot what's right in front of you. But I thought, how can we make these look different but still follow the rules of integrity within photo journalism of not being able to Photoshop, not manipulate the images at all as far as post work, but be able to give that look in camera? So I actually went out and bought a studio strobe kit, but a battery-powered one. This is almost 13, 14 years ago. So I had my little battery light with my soft box or umbrella, and I'd haul that out to the football field, and it was a way for me, and this was way before I knew how to tether or had any of these things, so it was kinda figuring out how to balance that light and make these surreal portraits that I'd seen in ESPN Magazine, and bring them to the local student newspaper. So that was kinda my first foray into environmental portraits. And obviously that stuck because here we are 14 years later and I'm still doing it every day. And that's what I love doing. So again, photo journalism, you'll see tons of examples of environmental portraits there. Maybe those portraits tell the entire story, or maybe they're supplementing a story within the newspaper or magazine. And then lastly, personal work. For me this is the most important. Like I showed you that butcher with the sausages, that was all personal work. A lot of the work previous to that was personal work. Yes, the goal is to get paid to create these portraits. But at the same time, I didn't get into photography thinking right away, this is how I'm gonna make a career. I got into it because I thought, it's really satisfying to me, and fun, and challenging to make these images. And it is that combination of, you know, finding a story, building this puzzle of light and composition and all the aspects of a photo. And then also telling that story and showing it off and having it all come together. So for me, I love finding different stories, whether they're athletes or people in small trades and local businesses, or who knows what? But basically creating creating personal work and coming up with these narratives and these stories that I can add to my portfolio. And then the whole goal is that, hopefully somebody at an ad agency somewhere or a magazine somewhere views that and loves my vision and wants to work with me to create something for their client. So that's the importance of personal work, and it keeps you creative, it keeps you expanding your horizons. I feel like a lot of times photographers who only do paid work get stuck in this rut where they're not feeling creative anymore because they're only doing the safe shots. They're not trying new lighting because it's too much risk. They're not working with new subjects because they're not available, they're just being assigned. So I'm always trying to get out there and create new personal work and give myself self assignments to just do something different, whether it's using a new lens, a new lighting setup or an entire new story. So I think that's the most important thing, and I also think that people who view the work know that it's your personal work because it feels a little more authentic. So we'll get into personal work even more here shortly. And to go with personal work, just another example, last June I think it was, the end of last June, I photographed this guy. And basically what this is is outside of Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, there's two fireworks stands. And I had driven by them a few times. This is like a small town of a few hundred people. And there were these two corrugated metal and wood fireworks stands. And one of them said Batman, and one of them said Big John's. And I always wondered, what's the story with these? So I was talking with some people, and I was telling my brother and he's like, I know this guy whose grandpa owns those. So I was like, really? So we had a conversation. I was like, would he mind if I photographed them, and also told me the backstory of these. And he said, well, he's had them since the '60s. He opens them up for six weeks every summer. And now the grandkids run them, and he named one of them Batman because back in the day that was when Batman first came out, so he was using it as a marketing ploy, obviously not totally ignoring any copyright rules and trademarks. And then the second one was Big John, and that was because John Wayne was the other big character in pop culture at the time. So these are right next to each other, but he made them look like they're competing stands even though they're the same material and fonts and everything. And then behind is an old semi-truck trailer with flattened tires and all that, and that's where he stores all the fireworks. Which safe or not, it made for a good story. So basically I went out there one day, and this is the owner. I chatted with him for probably an hour, kind of showing him some samples on my phone of work I've done to gain trust and things like that. Here's what I wanna do, here's why I wanna do it. I love these aspects of Americana you can see on the back roads of the Midwest or anywhere in the US. And as far as from a photo standpoint, just having this perspective and this graphic element of the firework stand, this character sitting here. And you know, him being proud of his stands, but also giving me this whole rant about new fireworks laws in Nebraska and how they're killing his business and all this. You know, just hearing his whole story, and then getting ideas of where to take the photos. So this is just another sample of personal work. And for me it was balancing this harsh sunlight with studio strobes that I brought on location and making all the technical side happen. That's really fun for me as well. So it's definitely a combination and definitely a collaboration with the subjects.

Class Description


  • Confidently create environmental portraits
  • Light any portrait, indoors or outdoors
  • Compose strong environmental portraits
  • Cull and polish high-end images in post
  • Develop a portfolio and marketing tactics


Create dramatic images anywhere by mastering on-location scouting, planning, lighting, and composition. Join professional photographer Dan Brouillette in a start-to-finish course on the art of environmental portraits. From planning and scouting to post-processing and portfolio building, gain the skills to shoot high-end portraits, anywhere. While designed for environmental portrait work, this class is also for any photographer that wants to create better light, on location.

In this light-intensive course, learn how to craft environmental portraits using photographic lighting techniques working with both natural light and studio lighting equipment. Work with multi-light strobe set-ups and natural window light to turn difficult lighting conditions into beautiful light. Then, learn how to mix natural light and studio lights for dramatic effects that complement the scene. By incorporating light in new and inventive ways, Dan will help you push the boundaries of your portraits and improve your workflow.

Finally, work with culling and post-processing. Learn how to polish images using a combination of Capture One, Photoshop, and Alien Skin software. Then, gain insight into building a portfolio and marketing your work to work in editorial and commercial areas for environmental portraiture.


  • Budding portrait photographers
  • On-location portrait photographers
  • Photographers eager to learn on-location lighting
  • Photographers branching into commercial and editorial work


Capture One 11, Adobe Photoshop CC 2018, Alien Skin 2018


Dan Brouillette's high-end editorial style has lead to work with celebrities from Anne Hathaway to Scarlett Johansson. A commercial, editorial and senior photographer based in Nebraska, he's known for giving everyday people the Hollywood look. His previous work as a lighting technician helped him build his signature style using dramatic lighting techniques typically used for commercial work. With an insightful and easy listening teaching style, he helps photographers learn to craft with light.


  1. Class Introduction

    Jump into environmental portraits with an overview of the class. Prep for the class with an overview in this lesson.

  2. Introduction to The Environmental Portrait

    What is an environmental portrait? Environmental portraits tell a story using a single image. Gain insight into the genre in this lesson.

  3. Environmental Portrait Purpose

    Why shoot environmental portraits? Environmental portraits encompass history, story, and personality -- and they are more interesting than plain backgrounds.

  4. Personal Work

    Personal work conveys your unique passion for photography. In this lesson, Dan discusses using personal work -- even for photographers with paying clients -- to avoid burnout and stay true to your passion.

  5. Find Your Process

    Every photographer's workflow may feel a little different. Start finding your own process by brainstorming, planning out personal shoots, scouting locations and more.

  6. Tethering

    Tethering allows your camera to instantly talk to your computer for review during the shoot. In this lesson, learn how tethering can boost your workflow and can help you easily pre-process your images during the shoot.

  7. Purpose For Action Editorial

    Ahead of the live shoot, walk through the purpose of the action editorial shoot in the photo studio. Learn why studio-like shoots are often a requirement.

  8. Prepare for Shoot

    Preparation is key to successful environmental portraits. Master what's essential to the planning process and learn how Dan prepared for the upcoming live shoot.

  9. Action Editorial Process

    Dive into the workflow for an action editorial shoot. Walk through Dan's process for this type of image, from working with the client to delivering the photos and invoicing. Read through an actual editorial assignment from a real magazine and learn how those details spark the planning process, including preparing the dramatic effects from studio lighting.

  10. Set Up Action Editorial Shoot

    Set up for the live shoot, beginning with the tethering software. Go behind the scenes as Dan sets up lights and explains the gear and his vision for the shoot. Work with studio lighting placement, including angles and the height of the light stand. Control strobe lighting with different angles and modifiers.

  11. Shoot: Action Editorial With Athlete

    Begin the live shoot with a test shot to adjust the studio lighting and camera settings. Here, Dan shares his camera settings, like the 1/200 shutter speed and a white balance of around 5500K, then works with the "first layer" of lighting with the key light. Add fill light using a strobe modified with a silver umbrella and an accent rim light. Then, move into action shots.

  12. Studio Portrait Shoot Overview

    Take a brief break from the live shoot and learn why studio shoots are often included to supplement the environmental portraits. Gain an overview of the process before heading back into live shooting.

  13. Shoot: Athletic Studio Portrait

    Set-up the studio portrait using strobe lighting and V-flats with a bright white background. Learn how to manipulate the light to brighten the background without spilling over to the subject using side lighting and "cheats" with V-flats.

  14. Shoot: Manipulate Light to Mimic The Sun

    With the right modifiers and light source, you can mimic natural light with studio lighting. Learn how to create hard light to mimic the sun in the studio.

  15. Shoot: Change Background Color With Light

    Using the same white background, learn how to manipulate the color of the background with light. Remove the lights to create a gray background. Work with several different studio lighting set-ups to manipulate the background color.

  16. Shoot: Create Soft Light with Umbrella

    After working with hard light, work with soft light by using a black and white umbrella with a diffusion sock to light the subject. Set-up the side light to feather on the subject without falling onto the background.

  17. Shoot: Create Intentional Shadows

    Working with studio photography lighting is just as much about the shadows as it is the light. Learn how to create intentional shadows using studio equipment.

  18. Shoot: Action Shots In Studio

    Go behind-the-scenes for studio action shots. Watch as Dan works with a handheld light without a light stand to replicate the look of on-camera flash.

  19. Review Images in Capture One

    Review the images from the live studio shoots inside Capture One. Cull photos quickly with keyboard shortcuts and see the results from the live shoot.

  20. Raw Processing

    Move into post-processing by working with the RAW files. Pre-processing with tethering offers a jump start -- learn the process of fine-tuning RAWs and organizing files.

  21. File Handling

    Organizing files helps streamline the process and make invoicing easier. In this lesson, Dan shares his process for sharing and organizing digital images.

  22. Retouching & Color Overview

    Strategize for post-processing in this overview lesson. Learn Dan's process for editing, including finding your style, and working with color.

  23. Retouch Images in Capture One

    Work inside Capture One to perfect the RAW files from the live shoot. Find tricks and tips to working in Capture One, working with exposure, contrast, and basic color temperature.

  24. Retouch Images in Photoshop

    Moving into Adobe Photoshop, remove distracting elements like stray hairs and acne. Work with the patch tool and clone tool to clean up images in Photoshop.

  25. Retouch Images With Presets

    Work with cropping inside Adobe Photoshop. Then, move into Alien Skin to work with presets to work with different colors and dramatic effects. Work with film-inspired presets, then learn how to fine-tune the effect.

  26. Advertising Vs. Editorial

    Editorial work and advertising work have several distinct characteristics. Learn the difference between the two and how to please both types of clients.

  27. Indoor Location Shoot

    Move into the second shoot of the class with an indoor shoot on location. Gain an overview of the goals and process for the shoot.

  28. Indoor Location Shoot Process

    Prepare for the shoot with tips on the process of the environmental portraiture. Work with a checklist and a shot list, then jump into the first in a series of behind-the-scenes videos in an artist's studio.

  29. Get to Know Your Subject

    Understanding your subject helps create unique, authentic images. Learn how to collaborate with the subject. Find the essentials to quickly getting to know the subject.

  30. Test & Frame Your Shot

    With a shot list and understanding the subject, Dan then moves into analyzing the location and the natural light or ambient light that's already in the space. Work with testing the light and framing the composition.

  31. Create Natural Light

    Placing lights where they'd naturally be in the space helps create flattering, dramatic lighting that doesn't look terribly out of place. Work in the shooting space with initial lighting and start shooting.

  32. Natural Light & Alternate Light

    Every portrait doesn't need studio equipment lighting -- work with natural lighting and window light. Alternate lighting can build variety into your environmental portraits.

  33. How to Shoot Indoor Location Portrait

    Along with action-based environmental portraits, a more formal, looking-at-the-camera shot is often part of each shoot. Work with shooting portraits on location, from setting up the studio lighting to composing and getting the shot.

  34. Indoor Shoot Results

    Review the results from the indoor shoot in this lesson. Dan explains everything that went into the shot and why he made some of the decisions that he did.

  35. Outdoor Location Shoot Goals

    In the third shoot of the class, head out to a location with natural light inside a garage and outdoors. Learn how Dan prepared for the session and the goals for the shoot.

  36. Indoor/Outdoor Light Setup

    Work with outdoor and semi-outdoor locations by tackling the lighting. After scouting and settling on a narrative, work with studio lighting tools to create dramatic effects. Go behind-the-scenes for the three light set-up using artificial lighting.

  37. Studio Light On Location

    Mix the natural light with the ambient light in this shoot outside the garage, continuing the third project of the class. Learn why you might use artificial lighting outside and how to mix the sunlight and a studio light kit.

  38. Create Location Portrait

    Work with the location portrait from the third shoot of the class. Learn how to spot locations for the more formal portrait and work with graphic compositions and more dramatic light.

  39. Outdoor Shoot Results

    Take a look at the results from the final shoot. In this lesson, Dan shares his thought process behind creating each shot and why he made the lighting and composition decisions that he did.

  40. Post Processing Overview

    Make a plan to polish the images from the second and third shoots. In this lesson, get an overview of the editing process before jumping into the post-processing.

  41. Choose Selects & Sort Images From Indoor Shoot

    Cull the images from the artist's studio and the garage inside Capture One. Review the images and go through the process of choosing what photos to edit and deliver.

  42. Edit Raw Images from Indoor Shoot

    Learn how to polish those indoor shots inside Capture One. Work with exposure, contrast, and color with the shots from the artist's studio.

  43. Finish Images in Photoshop & Alien Skin

    Work inside Photoshop to remove scuffs and scrapes on the walls and other clean-up tasks. Then, work with files in Alein Skin to color using presets.

  44. Portfolio Management

    Moving into the portfolio and marketing segment, gain insight into building a strong portfolio. Dan shares tips on building a portfolio, from what order to use to choosing what images to include.

  45. Importance of Website

    Websites serve as a first impression of your work. In this lesson, learn the dos and don'ts to building a photography website, like focusing on images and simplifying navigation.

  46. Marketing 101

    Your portfolio doesn't do much good if no one is actually laying eyes on it. Develop strategies to get your work in front of potential clients for editorial and commercial work.

  47. What About Reps?

    Reps work with the numbers while you focus on the photography. Learn the basic pros and cons to working with representatives or agents.

  48. Bring it All Together

    Wrap up the course with a final chat on environmental portrait photography. Once you've built a successful business, remember to take the time to get back to your roots and shoot for yourself.


Julie V

I had the chance to sit in the audience for this class and absolutely loved it. Watching Dan create amazing images from start to finish in front of us was so inspiring. I've learned so much from this class. It actually gave me the confidence to start playing with lights in my studio. It was really useful to see how he sets his lights and how he can easily mix ambient light with artificial. I also love how he focuses on getting the image right in the camera to only do light edits after. I recommend this class to anyone wanting to learn more about lighting, shooting tethered and editing efficiently!

a Creativelive Student

I love this guy! I so appreciate his honesty while he is explaining his thought process, admitting that his “shoulda/coulda/woulda’s” - which I experience ALL the time. I am now going to dust off my light meter and start using it on location as I’m convinced that it works now that I’ve seen Dan’s class. I enjoyed the detailed way he sets up each light individually, checking to make sure it adds the amount and quality of light he wants. Definitely recommend this class - especially for those people who have experience using studio lights and want to see how they can be used to get specific results. Dan’s clear, simple explanations, his unabashed humility, and his sense of humor made this a truly enjoyable way to spend my time learning his methods.

a Creativelive Student

Dan is an excellent instructor! He's completely transparent with his thought processes, from technical to creative. He doesn't waste time horsing around or getting off topic, but is structured and sticks to his outline. Every minute watched is on topic, and is understandable. He's sincere and likable. The course is great for anyone interested in this genre!