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Environmental Portrait Photography

Lesson 29 of 48

Get to Know Your Subject


Environmental Portrait Photography

Lesson 29 of 48

Get to Know Your Subject


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.

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!