Skip to main content

Personal Work

Lesson 4 from: Environmental Portrait Photography

Dan Brouillette

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2200+ more >

Lesson Info

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.
Next Lesson: Find Your Process


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

Personal Work

Personal work is the lifeblood of any photographer's portfolio. The images that truly capture your vision and passion as a photographer are fully embraced in personal work. I don't know that I can really expand upon that any further, because it's pretty clear. For the most part, any of us who are photographers, and most of you watching and everybody here, I'm guessing is a photographer. You got into photography not because you were instantly getting paid for it, unless there's some rare occasion. But most of the time, it's because there was something about photography that you loved as a hobby and you wanted to create. That kinda has to come out, even if you have a career in photography, you still need to get back to your roots and create that personal work, or else you either get burnt out by working too much and creating things for other people or you just lose interest or kind of lose your vision as a photographer and you start to create the same work over and over. Again, like I sa...

id before, I'm all about getting out and creating personal work. We'll go through some more samples of personal work, and again, it doesn't matter what genre photography you shoot. You always need to go out and shoot for you. These could be on going personal projects. They don't have to just go out and shoot one. It might be an ongoing story that you like to cover or a series of images that you're slowly creating in your studio. Really anything that is gonna end up as an entire body of work, whether your goal is to just shoot it so you have it in your house or put it on the wall of a gallery or eventually present it to clients. Any of these ongoing stories, and so many photographer's have great personal projects that have lasted for years and I love looking at that too, cause you can really see what people are into when you look at their personal projects. Another one is self-assignments. These might be, I know what goes into a magazine shoot, you get an email from an editor, they say hey we want a portrait of this person, but there's always these different constraints and whether it's the time or the location, or anything like that. It's good practice to give yourself self-assignments. So I'll think, all right, here's a person I wanna photograph, I'm gonna pretend that I'm giving myself this assignment and here's what the final images need to fit. It's gonna be a horizontal image that's gonna have text on the left, because it's gonna be on a billboard. So kinda going into a shoot with these parameters where I can kinda practice shooting, thinking about the final product as if it were for a client, but also having the freedom to do what I want with the lighting because it's not a real client, it's still a personal shoot. So self-assignments are fun and they're really important as well, to kinda keep sharp and keep thinking about aspects of a shoot that might affect an actual client. And then one time shoots to experiment. This is a combination of all these things. Every once in a while I'll get a new piece of gear and you don't wanna use a new light modifier or new camera or new lens on a paid shoot unless you're feeling really risky. So I like to bring in, whether it's a model or going out and finding one of these cool environments and shooting with that gear and trying to use it in every different way possible within one shoot to really see how does this piece of gear fit into my current arsenal of modifiers or lights or lenses, and how can I use that to add to my photography, not just completely replace something. Then when you get a client shoot and they give you an idea or a scenario, you think oh yeah I can use this to recreate the Sun or I can use this lens because of this scenario, so it's all about using it to experiment because there's a lot of people who do the same thing over and over for years and it just gets a little stale. I know being creative, you can get in that rut and then the only way to get out of the rut is to really push yourself out, but it's so easy to kinda stay in there and feel sorry for yourself and think well this is my style, I don't really have time to go out and do this. Every once in a while, you need to force yourself to and I know even earlier this spring, I took two entire days where I set up my camera on a tripod, on a timer or with the remote, tethered to my computer and I wore pretty plain clothes, like I do every other day, like this and I shot every different light set up and I actually have it in this notebook here. I basically wanted to go over some new styles, so I did every combination of modifier and distance and angle in my studio and then wrote how it affects the light based on different stops. If you put this diffusion sock over this magnet reflector, it knocks off 1.6 stops, so that way I know when I can go through and look through those files and get a certain look for a client. I knew how to recreate it, I knew what it would do. But it's things that a lot of time we don't do. I'm actually looking for that now. I think it's in a different notebook. It wasn't the most exciting day in the world, but there was a couple things where I thought oh I didn't know that combination of this umbrella with this reflector would produce this specular light, or any of these type of nerdy things we talk about as photographers. While not necessarily the most fun two days of my life, it was good and now I feel more confident going into shoots of some of how the gear combinations will work or raising the light up extra high or putting it a little further away almost looks exactly like a street light when combined with this gel, so just things like that that you can do in studio. If you have a model great, but again, I just put a timer on there and didn't wear a black or white shirt so kind of something neutral gray where I could photograph and even see how the light was affecting the background in my studio. Things like that to kinda get out and try something new and gain a little more experience and experiment. Point of view, so point of view is what makes your photos different and what makes them yours. As a photographer, we all have our own point of view, we all have our take. I could give each one of you guys the same camera, the same lens, and the same subject, and chances are all the photos are gonna look a little bit different, unless you're copying each other. If I left each of you in the room and said make a portrait of Kenna against the wall with this 50 millimeter lens and this natural light. You're all gonna have a little different take on it and that's your own point of view. This whole term came to me, this point of view term, I was at a portfolio review, probably eight or nine years ago and it was with an editor of Esquire Magazine and I went in there with my new portfolio, and I thought this is really great, this is gonna go well and he's probably gonna hire me and not so much. So after looking through all the photos he said well these are really pretty photos and they're pleasant to look at, but I don't really, they're just nice, they don't really have a point of view. And I said point of view, I don't really know what you mean by that, and he said you have a vision as a photographer, you have a point of view, what are you, especially for editorial shoots. What are you gonna bring back to me when I give you this assignment that's gonna say this is yours and that you owned it. That's gonna make it look different than every other photographer who I could give it to. Figuring out what your point of view is, it could be the way you compose the shots, the way you interact with the subject. The way you light it. Any of these type of, or a combination of these factors makes that photo yours. So what is your spin on it and how does that create your look at a photographer and be your point of view? It sets you apart and it is your personal vision as a photographer. It's about finding that point of view and sticking to it, because if you have one point of view for one shoot and then you take the next shoot and do something totally different, you kind of confuse potential clients too, because they think I don't know if I can send you on a shoot because I have no idea what I'm gonna get back. It's finding that point of view that fits your style and your mind, and sticking to it and creating a body of work that works. Here's another personal assignment for me. This was in some back road in Northern Iowa. I had driven by this, it looked like a maintenance shed but it said Grizzly Sawmill on the side and I could see this giant saw inside when the doors were open and I thought that looks really cool. I'd love to photograph that guy, but I saw him out wandering around on his property once, and I didn't approach him cause he looks a little scary, I thought eh, maybe another day. Another day and another day kept passing and I thought, you know what, the worst he's gonna say is no, so I went up and his wife came out. I said I would love to create some photos that kinda tell the story of this place. If I could get a few hours on a Saturday morning or something like that. I'd love to photograph, walk me through your process, what do you do with all this wood, how do you create these amazing pieces from these tree trunks. In my head I thought then I'm gonna press my luck and try to bring my strobes and create something that's even more interesting, if allowed. She agreed. She said all right, well why don't you come back next Sunday at eight in the morning, we don't really have anything going on and you can photograph Darren, here. He's got a load of tree trunks coming in that he's gonna create into lumber for some company to make some custom tables so you can just photograph him doing that. This is a story of that where you can see me trying to tell the whole story. So we'll start bottom right, here, of him with his 48 inch saw blade sending tree trunk through, measuring the wood as he's cutting it, kinda of some closeup shots of sawdust and the like, a photo of a notebook with the best human handwriting I've ever seen in my life, and then he did let me set up my light. So at the end I said, I have one more idea I'd like to do. Give me like 15 minutes to set up all my studio strobes. I found a background I liked, just a piece of plywood on the side of the garage and was able to do a little two light set up of him covered in sawdust. There's nothing contrived about it, he just got done sawing all this wood up and making all these cuts and that's just how he looked. It was kinda like that, telling the full story of what happens here, capturing his personality and a little bit of details to kind of finish off that story. So you get a full sense in these five photos of what this guy does, what this location does and then I sent him the photos to use on their website, or whatever they really wanted because, for me, they gave me their time and their location, I can at least give them some photos so they can see the results and share them with their friends or family or clients or whatever they wanna do. Another example of personal work for me, is these pictures of the bull-riders. I had always been fascinated by bull riding. I'm never going to ever ride on a bull nor have I, but I thought this is just crazy that these guys will hop on these giant animals and try and ride for eight seconds before getting kicked off, possibly smashed by a hoof of a bull or hit with a horn, or who knows what can happen. And then even crazier, are these guy, the rodeo clowns that go out there and try and stop it all from happening and get in the way of these monstrous animals. What I did was I took a two light set up with me. I went to the rodeo. I had emailed them before hand, the people who run the rodeo, this was the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte, Nebraska and I had talked about some of the work I had featured and what I wanted to do at the rodeo was set up a studio. He told me good luck with that. He said you can do it, I don't care, but you're gonna have to get these guys on your own and you're gonna have to set up and figure out the set up on your own, but you can come in and do it. It's not, doesn't really matter. This is actually a 48 inch piece of gray seamless paper that's cut, it's about 48 inches wide and it's probably about a 48 inch square, honestly. I just took some gaff tape and taped it to the gate where the bulls, you know they keep them all in a pen, this was just on the outside of the pen. If this seamless weren't here, you would see the rails of the gate, or the pen, along with bulls in the background. Dirt everywhere, these guys are just sitting on an old wooden stool and we tried to make a studio outdoors, so this is just a two light setup. I was there for two days and the whole idea for me was, I wanna photograph these guys, not before they're riding the bulls, but right after they're done, so when they have a little bit of glisten of sweat, when they're a little rattled from the bull ride, when they're either really happy with how they did, performance wise or sad, or in the case of, I don't think the photos on here, one guy got, definitely got kicked in the head and he didn't even know what we were doing, but this look where you can just see it in his eyes. I was like all right, why don't you look at the camera and he wasn't looking anywhere. Or in this case, a guy bringing his dog. Bottom left is the guy who ran the rodeo so he was kind of in charge, and then the rodeo clowns. So we have this entire thing. I probably did 30 to 40 portraits of people. These are my favorite 10 from the series. But trying to create a consistent body of work over a couple days, using a lighting setup that I'd just experimented with in the studio before hand, photographing my brother and bring that to this outdoor location so we could get this consistent look. There were challenges for me. These guys all have, for the most part, really bright cowboy hats. Well if you're trying to get light in people's eyes and now blow out the brim of a hat, there's these technical aspects that are fun for me to figure out, so it's using flags to block light, using grids and things like that to really control the light and we'll talk about that when we're shooting later. Those were the aspects, kinda putting this whole puzzle together and then being able to get personality out of it at the end. Doing this type of project is fun. It took me two days. Ended up with a lot of great portraits and I got a lot of great feedback off of it as well. Just another example of personal work. And again, personal work will get you work. By that I mean, you're gonna get paying clients from personal work because if you stay true to your vision and point of view as a photographer, and you keep pushing your boundaries, people are gonna appreciate that. They're gonna see that in your work. Anybody who is a Photo Editor or an Art Producer at an ad agency or Creative Director, they can spot authenticity from a mile away. They know good work when they see it and they know when the photographer actually cares about what they're creating and that's what they wanna hire. They wanna work with somebody who does have a vision and is passionate about it. Again, just an example of how this came about and this whole slide here, and how it is true, is recently I photographed my friend, Chris. So the bottom left photo, these five photos are all in his business of him working. Chris Hughes owns Artifact Bags in Omaha, Nebraska and he makes custom leather aprons and bags out of canvas and leather and basically what he does is, he's a military type buff who loves old stuff from World War II, Vietnam, and things like that. He collected coats, bags, aprons, he even has these old posters of like Sears aprons from the 1950s and his idea was I wanna create these classic items but with newer materials and use old in his shop. I thought all right that's pretty cool. I love his stuff, you see all the bartenders and baristas around town wearing his aprons. One day he bought a building. I am now, my studio is in his building. I know him, but I always wanted to photograph him. We'd been talking about it for years but he always thought wait til I get the new building, wait til this and that, and then finally one day, I was like all right, I wanna photograph you, and he's like well go get your stuff. Let's do it this afternoon. So this bottom left photograph is me set up in his leather shop, in his store, in the basement of our building and we did a lot of testing, this was all tethered so I could see, cause it's really dark and the ceiling are really low. It's just a two light set up. It was a gridded beauty dish off to the right to control the light spill. Cause I didn't wanna ruin the ambiance of the room and then just a Photek soft light or umbrella directly behind the camera adding a little fill to the foreground element. So you can see we kinda staged it. I'm kind of a compositional freak as far as making sure everything looks like it has a place. So from the muffin tin full of rivets to the hammer framing in left and the old fan up top left kinda making sure everything's straight, having his assistant work in the background showing off the back of one of the aprons. The whole scene is definitely thought out. We took hundreds of the exact same photo. Moving things around, getting it perfect. But the whole idea was he would have a photo that he would like of himself in his new space. I would have a photo that fit my aesthetic as a photographer and we could mess with some new lighting and just create something that was kinda cool with no pressure, because he was literally working on an order of aprons and we're just chatting. We sat down there, I messed with lights, I'd have him look up once in a while. I mean this is an authentic moment that actually happened, and it's something, to me, that embraces everything I am as a photographer, as far as an environment, a portrait, we used lighting, it has a cinematic feel, it has my color palette and it's staged in graphically pleasing, as far as compositionally to me. He put that on his Instagram and a couple weeks later, he gets a call from a large company in Omaha, who says oh we're actually doing a feature with small businesses for an upcoming ad campaign, who took this photo. So he gave them my information, they called me, soon after that, about a day later, I get a call from one of the larger ad agencies in Omaha saying we love this photo. We wanna do an entire campaign, let's do a shoot based around this, with Chris in his space, so literally what I already did, and but we wanna pay you for it because it's an ad campaign. It ended up being on billboards at some of the busiest intersections in Omaha, it's all over their website. What they wanted to do is expand upon that shot and have more shots of him working within his space, to kinda have this small business, artisanal feel of a local Omaha guy creating something with a larger, in collaboration with this large business within Omaha. So again, that bottom shot, there on the left, that's the one we did for fun. They wanted the same coloration. They wanted my vision to go and fit, but they also needed to know with shots like this, we have text that has to fit, this shot's for the website, we needed places for navigation and text. You need to leave space above, you need to make wide shots, cause they could be horizontal banners, we need verticals, so again, thinking of those aspects too, cause it was for a client. The whole point of this story is, I went and took that shot for fun, of Chris, screwing around in the basement, and it led to an entire ad campaign of literally the exact same stuff, which I loved creating. So that's like a dream scenario. But it just goes to show you, creating personal work for you, having people see that out in the wild and then hire you to do that, it does happen, and it's really important. So now, I am definitely out creating more work and just showing it to whoever I can, thinking if there's one part of this work that speaks to them, maybe there's somebody else out there who's a client who has some need or some want to create something similar for their client or their ad agency or their magazine and I can obviously do that. So I wanna bring my whole vision, as an Environmental Portrait Photographer to them and hopefully get paid to do it. This is kind of a good spot to round out that whole story.

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