Skip to main content

Find Your Process

Lesson 5 from: Environmental Portrait Photography

Dan Brouillette

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2200+ more >

Lesson Info

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.
Next Lesson: Tethering


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

Find Your Process

Finding your process. So this goes to personal work. It goes to just figuring out everything as a photographer that you wanna do. Maybe you're a new photographer and you're just trying to figure out what it is you like to shoot or maybe it's that you've been shooting for years and you're kinda in a rut or feeling a little stale or stagnant and you wanna re-create yourself. So brainstorming ideas that speak to you as an artist. Plan out the shoot, goals, shot list, location scout, and production. So with any shoot no matter how big or small you need to be organized. I don't care who you are. You can go out and take your camera on a little photo walk and that's fine. But at the same time, to create more meaningful work I always feel like there needs to be some sort of goal within that work. So when I'm planning out personal shoots like the butcher, I'm thinking there are goals for this guy. I went through his shop and shopped but I was also location scouting at the same time. And in my h...

ead I'm thinking, all right, I'm gonna frame these up. I'm taking some iPhone snaps. This wall that could be a background I'm paying attention to the fact that there's a lot of framed pictures with glass so we're gonna need grids to minimize reflection. I'm thinking, okay, if I can tell a full story here, we have portraits of the butcher. We also have pictures of the meat and the product. We could have details of hands slicing. I'm gonna ask him what else they do as far as a business standpoint. How can I tell this whole story so I can make a shot list and when I go in there I can kinda present this to them. Here's my ideas, what do you guys think? How can we make this happen? Anything you don't wanna do? Anything that I totally don't know about that we should do? And getting their input as well. And one of the things I'm excited to do that I haven't shot yet is at the butcher he told me on Monday afternoons at 4:00 o'clock they bring a giant five-foot rack of 400 sausages out of a smoker. And he's like, "There's smoke pouring out. "There's glistening meats; there's all this stuff." And I thought, okay, that might really round out this story. But I was there on a Wednesday. So he was like, "You need to come back on a Monday "and we'll do that part." So that's the next part, so hopefully you guys will see that on my social media or my website one of these days. But again, that was part of the shot list. And that was a shot I didn't know existed. But when he told me that I'm like that's awesome. So location scouting, you know, whether you're in your car driving around looking at spots. I used to go take my dog on walks and we'd go down random back alleys or around routes I normally wouldn't take just looking for spots or businesses. There's a couple more that I wanna photograph here in the next few weeks, one of them being an old locksmith. I went in there because I had to get a key made and I saw this wall, it's probably like 10 feet wide and five feet tall, of keys, like a key every inch. And to me graphically I'm thinking that is a cool photo in itself, now how can I have this guy filing down a key in front of this wall of keys and create another portrait. So that's just an idea I have in my head right now that I'm gonna take and go look at the location, talk to them, plan out the lighting, and go shoot that hopefully in the next few weeks. So there's all these ideas. And again, it doesn't matter if you're a food photographer, a sports photographer, there's ideas and you kinda know the direction or have a start of where you wanna take it, you just need to get out there and get the work out there after you create it as well. And we're gonna get into more of the marketing aspects later on. But it's like once you make these photos they're great for you to look at and feel satisfied but why not put them out there because similar to that one with Chris and the bags you can get hired to do this stuff, especially when you really love what you're doing and you take the time to do it right. So putting it on your portfolio, social media, et cetera, it's great ways to get people to see the work. And again, do the shoot. I had years, and I mean years, where I didn't create any meaningful personal work. And it's because I was really good at finding excuses. It was like, well, I don't know, I was hoping it would be sunny and it looks like its' gonna be cloudy for a few days so I guess I probably can't do it. And then after that I have to go out of town. And I would push these excuses and then never do the shoot. And it's never going to be perfect. And think of it this way, if a client hires you for a shoot you have a perfect scenario. It might be a football player out on a football field and you're thinking, oh, I'd love an overcast day with ominous clouds and I can add lighting and you get there and it's bright and sunny. Well, you still have to do that shoot because it's paid client shoot. You can't just say, well, it's not gonna work out today. At least I can't do that. I'm not that great to be able to tell a client that stuff. So you need to go out and do the shoot. Quit making the excuses, and get out of your own way. And at the same time, don't overanalyze. There's this saying of overanalysis is paralysis or something like that. And that's the other thing. So many photographers look at these amazing photographers' work on Instagram, on their websites, in magazines, and you think I could never create something that good so why even bother. Or there's all these factors. And again, if you do the shoot, even if it goes totally horrible, you're gonna know why it went horrible and it'll give you some experience to take into your next shoot and know, okay, I need to remember to charge the batteries before I go into the next shoot because I can't be rushing. And that's actually happened to me. I need to remember to bring the gear. I need to consider the weather or any factors or maybe I wanna use a different lens. All these things, just get out there and do it because you won't know what could go wrong until it actually does. And it's not the end of the world. You'll learn and bring it to the next shoot. So do the shoot, get out of your own way. And just make the pictures. Because as soon as you start doing that, they'll improve, you'll improve. You'll gain confidence. And I always feel like one of the best ways to be creative is to keep being creative. And what I mean by that is as soon as you start doing one personal shoot, at least for me, it kind of drives me. It's like, oh yeah, that felt pretty good. I love the images we came out with. I can't wait to go do it again and try this other idea. So even if I didn't feel like doing it that day, making myself get out of bed and go do the shoot makes me wanna continue and do more. And it makes me excited about photography and my own work. Plus, from a marketing standpoint, content is king. You need to be able to show people new work. People like to see whether it's personal work or not that you're working, you're expanding your portfolio, and you have new stuff to show. And I made myself an email marketing campaign calendar a while back where every six weeks and maybe every 10 weeks or so I send out a new promo. I have a list of about 5,000 potential clients all over the country. And it's an email list and my social media. And I need new content. Because that email's gonna go out either way, so I need to create new work to add to that email. And it's a good way to force myself to create new work. Maybe one month I know I won't have time because I have some things going on. But that means the month before I need to do double because that email or that promo's still gonna go out the next month, I need that work to show them to stay consistent to myself and know at the end of the year that I gave that year a full marketing effort to try and get work and create new work. Yeah, we'll go into a couple more personal shoots before we get going here. This is another one. This is a art gallery in Omaha. This guy's name is Larry Roots, and he is an artist, a painter. That's one of his paintings there in Omaha. Interesting character. One of my friends had an art opening. He owns a gallery and he hosts a lot of other artists. They had an art opening in his gallery. I went to that show. And when I was there I met Mr. Roots here. And as soon as I saw him I was like, this guy needs to be in a photo. He kinda has this really interesting look. A bit of a villain from a movie. But also he has this interesting story to tell, and he has lots of stories to tell and he likes to tell them, so I talked to him forever. I went back to the gallery a few times because I always like to feel people out to know that when I do approach them to be in an environmental portrait there's a psychology aspect to it of some people love themselves and they wanna be in front of the camera. Other people are leery. They think why do you wanna take a picture of me? And other people just hate the entire idea. But my thought with him was, well, he is an artist so he understands that part of the deal, why I wanna create. I brought my portfolio in one day and I kinda showed him this is what I do, I would love to take a portrait of you. And I talked to his son about it too because he's probably close to 70 years old. His son is now working in the studio as an artist as well. And I thought wouldn't it be cool to have these photos because your dad's had this studio forever. So I got him onboard to kinda help me push it through. And basically when I approached him he thought, you know what, I haven't had a photo taken in a long time. I love this idea of collaborating with you in my space. Let's do it. So he's like we'll take about two hours some afternoon. He said we always set up the gallery for new shows. They have a first Friday type of thing, so it can't be that week. So he kinda gave me a schedule. We set up a time; I made a shot list. I went back into there and browsed around the gallery. Had him give me a quick tour so I could get an idea of what equipment to bring. And created these portraits of him. An environmental portrait here of him in his space putting on his glasses, taking them off, mixing paints, basically doing his thing within the studio. And then also lighting it to create this, when you look at the studio in real life it has these bright spotlights on his artwork because he's painting and he wants to see the detail. It doesn't look like this. So I overpowered that light with the studio strobes to create this aspect that really makes him pop off the screen. But the composition is that his artwork is shown, all the materials are shown, so you get the entire story within the portrait. But it also shows personality. It's like, what's he looking at? He has this look on his face like maybe he's thinking about his next artwork. Maybe he is a movie villain, or I don't know. And then with that I always like to push people similar to the guy who is cutting all the wood to get him to do a lit close-up portrait at the end, and some people don't say yes to that. But I said how about we put a blank canvas behind you and you're gonna see we did something like this with the artist coming up. And he's like, why don't we just use the gallery wall. It kinda had this texture to it. And I wanted to do some really strange lighting using gels and some other aspects of gritted lights. So this is actually a three-light setup on the left. And I just, again, since he had been messing with his glasses here, he kept adjusting them thinking he was helping me with glare but really it didn't really matter because the angle of his head. So I thought why don't you just keep messing with them. And he got to a point where his son was over to the camera and he was talking to him, looking over the top of his glasses and I just started snapping away because that was just kind of the look. So again, it was getting the lighting how I wanted it, getting this portrait that supplements the other portrait, and getting a shot that really feels great. Even photographing him, I probably took 100 at least, I take a lot of portraits because I'm looking for a moment that feels real. And the only way to get it is to talk people through it, try different things, and there's a lot of pictures of him I love, but that was the one that kind of, everything came together perfectly and it fit. With that said, we've talked about a lot of stuff so far. Is there any questions you guys have about the environmental portrait or the process? Oh, my goodness, Dan, there are so many questions coming in and so many incredible comments from people realizing that environmental portraiture is their style without really knowing or what they wanna do more of, without really knowing what that meant and what it was and lots of conversation about how to approach people and all of this. But the number one question so far is about releases. And so people are wondering at what point in this, since you are approaching a lot of strangers, you're not necessarily sure what you're gonna do with the work, personal work, how are you approaching people about releases? Yeah, so one of the things I do is I just have a generic model release. It's the most basic type of release. It's just telling, I don't know all the legal jargon, I'm not an attorney. But years ago I think it might be from PPA or something. I downloaded a model release. And I just keep that on hand. I basically tell them this is just personal work for me. I'm shooting, this is going to end up on my website. If there is any commercial purposes later if somebody wants to buy this, we'll certainly touch back and make sure that's okay. And in the case of Chris at Artifact Bags, the client reached out to him before me because they loved the photo. So he was all about it. So they actually handled that side of things. Other people are just friends of mine that I know, so I'm not too worried about it. But as far as random strangers, a lot of times, I used to have one on my iPad and I would bring it out and it was just kind of a quick sign where they could read through. It was, again, super basic, but just let them know, here's how the copyright works. Here's how the image works. I'm just sharing this on my social media. All that type of stuff. Nothing too crazy really. And I don't make it about that. I try and talk about that with these people for about 20 seconds because I don't want them to start thinking like, what's this for, are you getting paid? It's no I just need to do this because if I put this up and something happens I'm covered. But again, I also tell them I'm gonna bring you prints or digital files so you can use them for your website or give them to your wife or whatever you wanna do. So I brush over that lightly. We do get that release, but at the same time it's not a big part of the shoot at all. And again, with some of my friends I don't even bother doing it. Whether I should or not, probably another story. But it's definitely a secondary thought compared to creating the actual work. Great, thank you for that. And you talked about you do offer them the images. Because the second part of that question for people was what is in it for the people who you're photographing. Do they ever ask you for something? Yeah, so with all of these places I usually print off a number of five-by-sevens or whatever they want. Generally it's just some five-by-sevens. I'll print a few of each. I'll take them back to that location. I'll say, hey, I wanna show you what we did, the final images from that shoot. Here's a couple prints. You can put them on a frame on the wall in your back office or give them to your kids or whatever. But here's also a download link. I just send them a Google link where they can download the high-res images. And I tell them, I'm like, you can put these on your website, you can throw them in the trash, I don't really care, but here's the images. Really that's all that's in it for them. Occasionally I've had people that wanted to be paid and then I have to kinda balance that is it worth it, is the shoot worth it? Are they gonna cooperate? Then does it get a little weird? And there are people that I've given $50 to or $200 to use the location for the environment. But it's all different. For the most part, if you come across it and it's authentic from you as the photographer, as I approached these people I let them know and I show them the work too. Like I said, I always bring up my phone with sample images, whether it's my Instagram feed or an album on my phone. I say here's what I did for so-and-so down the street. You might have heard of their business. We did a similar idea to this. They were all about it. And who knows what can happen. And now that I have Chris and he's on a few billboards in town I'm also like, and you never know, somebody might see these photos and wanna advertise for you. So it's one of those things where it's pretty lightly glossed over and for the most part I don't get any flack from people or resistance of people wanting to be photographed. If they're really adamant about not being it, then I just move on to the next project and we don't do it. Great, thank you. Do we have any questions in studio? Yeah, grab the mike. So with regard to your personal work and personal projects I was wondering if you have any sort of system or processes in place to help ensure that your personal work, A, actually gets completed, and two, that you're getting rubber to the road, so to speak, and you're ensuring that you're getting the most out of your personal work in terms of marketing and actually putting it on your website and things like that. Do you have any sort of process you use traditionally? Sometimes for me you kinda start, finish it, it gets lost, so I was wondering how you keep it all together. Yeah, well I think having these self-made deadlines and anybody who's ever worked with me knows that I'm a deadline guy. I never wanna disappoint you, so you're gonna get the work done, but it's probably not gonna get done early. So I have to do that for myself, too, because I know how I work, I know how I operate. That's why I make these deadlines up. This promo is pre-scheduled to go out on May 15th, which means on May 13th I'm working my butt off to make sure all the images I shot are now prepped and ready to go or maybe two weeks before is the deadline. Like, hey, you need to do this shoot because this works gonna go out. You need this content to put out there. And like I said, I used to not be that way. There was a number of years, probably 2012, '13, ' where I was really stagnant and just finding excuses and lately over the past two years I kinda came to those processes of okay, I work better with deadlines. I need to create these false deadlines or whatever to make me have that feeling of needing to get things done. So that's what works for me. Other people just work different ways. But for me it's having an outlet. And things like social media have helped too because you need content. And you can only recycle so much of your old work before people start to wonder if you're actually doing anything new. And I know I follow people and I'm like I think I saw that photo five years ago and now they're acting like they just did that shoot. So I don't wanna have people looking at my work having that feeling. I wanna have fresh work. Plus it's exciting to be able to shoot something, look at the computer and be like I can't wait until I put this out there and hear what people have to say about it or at least just get their feedback and go from there. So that's one of the things that I like to do and one of the things that makes me actually get out there and do the work. And one other note on that; two other notes. One is that I also signed up for portfolio reviews. So there's some out in Palm Springs. That's actually coming up next week. There's some in New York. So I'll sign up and invest a decent amount of money into these portfolio reviews. I might sign up for 15 meetings for $1200 in New York in October. Well, there's a hard deadline there that I've invested my own money into so I better have new work because I went to that portfolio review a year-and-a-half ago and I don't wanna bring the same portfolio. So things like that. I had one other note about, I think it was regarding one of the questions you asked or something. But one of the times I went to a portfolio review in 2008 and it was about finding what you're passionate about. Kenna, you mentioned someone said that they didn't even know they loved environmental portraits. Well, I didn't either. I knew I loved doing it, but I didn't actually realize that. I went to a portfolio review in 2008. My very first one in New York. I had a portfolio that included landscapes, models, cars, motorcycles, environmental portraits, blah, blah, blah. All of this stuff where in my head I thought man, I can do anything. I am the jack of all trades photographer. Any assignment they can think of I can handle. Well, that's not a good idea. Because what happens is as soon as you start doing that these people were looking at my portfolio someone from Men's Health, and they're thinking what do you shoot? You shoot everything. These are all satisfactory pictures of stuff, but I don't really know what your point of view is. I also don't even know what you shoot. And I thought, well, I can shoot anything. And I met with a rep, a photo agent. And she said, "Let me give you a little advice. "You have all this work in here, "but if you could only photograph one thing "and if all these jobs paid the same "and you got to pick, they were all in front of you, "which one would you photograph "because it's the most challenging to you, "it speaks to you?" And that's when I thought, well, the things that brought me to photography were sitting in the old Borders bookstore looking at ESPN magazine wishing I was shooting athletes or people in these environments and making these cool lighting setups. Because from a technical standpoint I loved the light. From a storytelling standpoint I loved the content of the environment. And she said, "Great, then do that "and get rid of all this other stuff. "What I want you to do is go out, "get rid of this portfolio, "create a whole body of work "that has one genre of photography "and go from there because people will look at it, "you'll enjoy shooting it, "and then people who are looking at your next portfolio "will have an idea if they send you on an assignment "what you're actually gonna come back with." So it's more of that don't be a jack of all trades. Be a master of one and really figure out what speaks to you, and for me that was environmental portraits.

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