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Get to Know Your Subject

Lesson 29 from: Environmental Portrait Photography

Dan Brouillette

Get to Know Your Subject

Lesson 29 from: Environmental Portrait Photography

Dan Brouillette

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Lesson Info

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.


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

Get to Know Your Subject

The next area I wanna talk about is getting to know your subject. So with any environment there's always a subject, whether it's a model, whether it's someone who naturally works in that environment, whether it's anyone at all, there's a always some sort of subject within that photo, and I wanna know more about them. I know I covered this just a few minutes ago about using your resources, but I can't stress it enough because there's so many times where you have this idea in your head but you don't truly know what that person does, so letting them kinda help tell that story. And again, letting them fill the frame for you is a great way to do that, and the best way to do that is to get to know them. So I wanna know a little bit about their history, I wanna know about, you know, how did you end up in this space? How long have you had it? What do you do here? What vibes do you get from this space? So all these types of questions. For one it's showing that I actually do care. Two, it's show...

ing that this is a true collaboration. Because people wanna be a part of the photo shoot, for the most part, especially when you're photographing other artists in this case. She probably has ideas in her head about how she wants the space to look, and I want her to look at those photos afterwards and think, oh yeah, that really, that's a unique take on the space, but I do enjoy, it's a flattering photo of her and it's a great photo of the space. So I always like to get to know the subject, even if we only have a few minutes, just to kinda get a feel, and plus the psychological aspect of it is, everybody needs to be directed differently, and you can get a quick read on people if you know this person's not gonna take direction well. Or this person I just need to make them feel really good. Or this person needs to be told exactly what to do or else they're not gonna do anything. So you can kinda get a quick read by having a brief conversation with the subject. And then that will help you steer the rest of the shoot and make it a little easier. This will help you bring the shoot to the next level, because again, with all these pictures you have in your head beforehand, things happen and the subject might give you something that you never thought of. So being able to take it there it's always great. And again, I always start with a safe shot. It might be a posed portrait, it might be something that's a little more boring or a little more obvious. But getting to know them will help you push to the next level and get the shot that shows a little more personality or a little more genuine action. So, with that we'll get to know Alicia a little bit better here, and she'll kinda steer us to some ideas of what we should do during the shoot. So we'll watch that video next. Alright, so now we're with Alicia here in her studio. And I kinda wanna go through the process of what it is she does, because for me when creating environmental portraits I want to put people in natural settings where they feel good about what they're doing, they don't feel like it's awkward. I mean there's always some sort of that, you know, a little bit of that when you're getting your portrait taken. But at the same time, I wanna know exactly what it is she does, so what I wanna do is walk through. And one of the first things I do with any introduction is, especially not so much this, but a lot of times I find people off the street that I think, ooh, they look interesting. Or you know, when I'm driving around in travels I might see something something that looks, a location that might look like a great place for a portrait. And a lot of times when I'm approaching these people they're a little bit curious or leery about why I wanna photograph them. Or they don't have the same eye that I do, so they might see the value in this portrait. They're thinking, what's the point of this? Why would you ever want to photograph in this old gas station or this diner or this studio? So a lot of times I'd pull up my phone and I'd say, well, here's a little bit of what I do. I pull up my Instagram or my website. And I kind of show people, you know, different photos that kinda speak to the actual shoot we're gonna do. So here's the backstory with this. I know this guy from buying a bag from him, and I saw his space and I thought, this is just great. I really wanna do photos here. There might be any different story, but I wanna show people the final product on my phone, so that way, not only do they get an idea of what it is that I wanna create but they can also see that I'm legit with what I do create, and that I know what I'm doing, that they can feel comfortable getting their photo taken by me. Because if they can see what the final product looks like they'll know, kind of building a little bit of trust there. And again, I am genuinely interested in what it is that any of my subjects do, whether it's artwork or cooking eggs, it doesn't really matter. So there's always something there and there's always a photo to be made. So I guess the first thing I wanna do is kinda go through your process. Because everything is so pretty but it also looks like there's definitely a lot of process and skill involved. You said you've done this for a year. Tell us just a little bit about what it is you do, how you do it and kinda show us the steps that go from start to finish, and then I'll get some photo ideas along the way. Alright. Well, I'm an encaustic painter. And encaustic painting is working with wax. And I also use a blowtorch to fuse it in. So it's not like a normal art medium where you're working wet and dry. With encaustic you're working hot and cold. So I have to keep everything molten. I have a series of hot pots where I keep all my paints hot and liquified. And then once I lay that wax down on the surface I have to fuse it with heat. And my preference is to use a blowtorch. Alright. So there's a lot of wax flowing and heat going. Alright, I like it. Sounds like it'll make for some great photos. So, just kind of walk me through, you know, when you start with a blank panel, where you might be within the space. Because I have some frames set up in my head, but I just wanna see where you're gonna be along the way. So then that way I can pair that up with when I'm setting up lighting where I need to put things. So, I guess when you're first starting, we'll say a mid-size, you know, panel here. Where do you place that, what do you do first? Well, everything starts out with a raw wood panel, that I usually prep the sides. This is one that I've just taped up the sides, and it already has several coats of clear wax. And this is what I call a primed panel. And from there I use my other molten colors to lay down more wax on the surface, and build that up. With this process you have to work on a rigid substrate, so I choose to work on wood. And I work in a variety of sizes. I'm currently working on this larger panel as well that I'll be working on today. Yeah, no, that sounds great. So my question then for photo purposes is you say you lay down the different colors and whatnot. Is that with a brush, is that with, I'm just trying to think. And also are you right or lefthanded? I'm ambidextrous. Okay, that makes it easier. So... So what I'll be doing is I'll be loading up from my molten wax here. And on a panel that doesn't have any white on it yet, so that's the first color that goes down is white. So what I'll do is I'll have my panel here, and then I'll load up my brush with molten wax. And you can see that this is melting, and it's liquified now. I apply the wax. Okay. And then I use my blowtorch, and I'll use this to re-liquefy that surface and blend that wax down. And then that's my whole process is doing that repeatedly. Loading up my brush, laying down that wax. It cools almost instantly, so as soon as this brush lifts out, that's already cooling. Once it gets to my panel it's almost solid. And so in order to bond it to the surface I need to re-liquefy it with my torch, which is kinda fun too. Yeah, sounds like another good photo. So that's how I build up the painting surface, just applying wax, burning it in, applying wax, burning it in. Alright. And that takes place right here. Throughout. From a photo standpoint I'm thinking windows are over here, that's where we can make our main light for this bright and airy, sun-filled shot. While she's working right here in this space, so I can kinda picture, you know, I asked if she were right or lefthanded because that would make a difference to which way she's facing. Obviously being ambidextrous really helps my purposes. But you know, if you have a subject who's working on something, let's say it was an overhead painting and they're righthanded and they're reaching above their head here, you're not gonna wanna photograph them from that side because there's gonna be arm in the way. So these are just little details I ask people to try and visualize what the photo is gonna look like with the subject, and also where I need to be to get the shots. So that's basically, then you get to that stage and you know, just to grab other colors, that's pretty much the only reason you would walk over there? Or would you be moving actual trays from one hot plate to another? Oftentimes I'll grab a color that I need and bring it over to where I'm working. Okay, but your general workstation would be right in here? At least for this. Yeah. Okay. And then I also do another technique with the shellac on the surface, which is how, that's what creates that distinctive veining that's in my work. Okay. And that's also really quite interesting to see. Yeah, yeah. I don't know how that would translate in a photograph. We'll find out. Is there anything, what do you do at this workstation over here? Is this more of the same? Yes, I utilize all of the work surfaces, so for encaustic, because I'm working in that liquified state, I have to work flat. So, unlike a traditional medium where you can work on an easel, I have to work flat. So all of these tables unction as my easels. Okay, otherwise they would probably run or gravity would take over. So I do everything at all the tables. Okay, perfect. It just depends on how I'm currently utilizing the space. This is right now, this is sort of my carry-over area. So I'll work on something here, and then while I'm waiting for something else it might land here temporarily. Got it. And then you just have these... Perched up here. Is that just to get it out of the way, or is there any finishing process that is when the artwork is vertical? And to see it. Okay. So, because I have to work flat, then I prop it up so I can actually see what it would look like. Because oftentimes it's two different paintings, you know, because you're looking at it flat and you're seeing it from another plane. And then when you get it vertical it looks completely different. Alright. But these are getting ready to go down to a show in New Orleans. Alright, well, that sounds awesome. So I guess for me I'm gonna have you start. I have this picture in my mind. I like to start with a wider frame that kind of encompasses the entire space. So I picture you just doing your thing. I'll direct you as far as... You just, you know, we'll work on a small panel or something, and if I need you to look at the camera, I'll just say look up here for a second. Because I do like having some images that do have eye contact with the subject. Especially if they're used for other purposes like if you had hired me to shoot, you might some pictures of you working but you might want a nice portrait for your website where you're looking at the camera. So I try and get all that stuff up front, and then that way on the back end we know we have everything covered. Because again, I hate going back to my studio, looking through the computer of all the images and being like, why didn't I get eye contact here? Or why didn't I do this? So, again, that goes back to my checklist too. So I think what we'll do is we'll just start have you starting, we'll start having you work on something here. And I'll just let you go through the process. And I'll set up my lights first, that'll take a little bit so you can prep whatever you need to. And then we'll just shoot the first frame until we go through the whole process, and then we'll start over and do it one more time with a different setup. Sounds great. Alright. Alright, let's do it. Okay, so that gives you a little idea of getting to know the subject. You can see I let her work through her entire process. I was just visualizing in my head the whole time where she's going to be, how the light needs to be set up, different angles. You saw I asked if she was right or lefthanded. And these are all little details that will save me time later. And I know I mentioned before, when you're working with the subject one on one, I don't like to go back to the technical details. Had she been righthanded and painting something up high and I put the light off to the right, it would have cast a shadow on her face. I don't wanna be like, alright, hold on, we need to stop because I need to re-setup my lights because I didn't think of this earlier. And now, you know, whether you're on a limited time with this subject, or whether they're self-conscious of the photos or they think they did something wrong, I like to have all these technical details worked out ahead of time. That way when you're working one on one with the subject actually creating the photos, you don't have to deal with that and you can spend your time being present with them and working with them directly and not on the technical stuff that they probably don't care about because they're not the photographer. So that's one sample of how we do that and get to know the subject. She was very giving with the information and had a lot of ideas herself. That's not always the case. So you kinda gotta feel out each subject one at a time and let them give you what they will and take what you can. But for the most part, that's pretty average of how it goes. A lot of people wanna tell you what they do, especially when you're in their environment.

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