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Environmental Portrait Purpose

Lesson 3 from: Environmental Portrait Photography

Dan Brouillette

Environmental Portrait Purpose

Lesson 3 from: Environmental Portrait Photography

Dan Brouillette

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Lesson Info

3. Environmental Portrait Purpose

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


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


Introduction to The Environmental Portrait


Environmental Portrait Purpose


Personal Work


Find Your Process




Purpose For Action Editorial


Prepare for Shoot


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.

Ratings and Reviews

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!

Student Work