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Environmental Portrait Photography

Lesson 15 of 48

Shoot: Change Background Color With Light


Environmental Portrait Photography

Lesson 15 of 48

Shoot: Change Background Color With Light


Lesson Info

Shoot: Change Background Color With Light

Now, we're gonna leave the white background, and we're gonna shoot on gray. Meaning we're not gonna light it. So, I'm just gonna get rid of these lights. We'll move them out, and I'm actually gonna move the V-flat so we have a little more room to work with. Place this guy back here so it's outta the way. So, now you can also kind of see how this is rounding out a whole shoot. We did some dribbling shots, we did some environmental portraits, we have our magazine cover, basic white shot. We have a little more stark contrasty personality with some subtle, you know, different angles, different lenses, I actually like how that 7,200 worked out quite a bit. I'm gonna set this guy back here, turn him off. I'm gonna turn this light off. And we're just gonna start with this guy. So, what I wanna do is move the V-flats a little bit. We're gonna keep this harsh light just to, just as a starting point, and I actually wanna, is this okay with this here? I don't know if that camera can still see Ken...

na or if it's even trying to. I just wanna get these outta the way. Alright, I think we're good there. So what I wanna show you guys is how we can move the light and change the color of the background, without having to actually change the background. So I'm gonna, again, move this back a little bit. And the first, actually we're gonna go the reverse. So the first thing I'm gonna do is show you how we can brighten the background just through our fill light. So, we're gonna start off with, it's gonna be kind of a medium gray backdrop. So what I wanna do is we're gonna leave this light about where it is, you can come back to about here. And we're gonna have the fill on, but we're gonna turn it down. So we're still gonna expose for 5.6. And our background doesn't matter anymore, 'cause we don't have lights on it, so I don't even care about those lights whatsoever. This should still all read the same, we didn't change any settings at all. But we'll make sure 'cause who knows what I did in the meantime. 5.6, so we're good. So you'll see the difference in not lighting the backdrop. I'm gonna switch back to the 24 to just out of ease of use. And Brock, I'm gonna have you turn slightly this way with your body, but head aimed towards the TV again. Even more this way, yeah. So, I'm not so worried about posing or any of that yet, we're going through some more technical stuff, because I wanna see what color this backdrop's gonna be. So it's mildly gray, we know it's exposed properly. Looks a little dark, actually it's fine. And what we can do next, let me turn it up just a tiny bit. What we can do next is I'll show you, by moving the fill light closer, the background's actually gonna go darker. So we're gonna, I'm not gonna put it on a, don't tell anybody, no sandbag this time. We're gonna move this quite a bit closer, but because I did that, to maintain f5.6, we actually have to turn it down, so we're gonna have to meter. So we want 5.6, we're at 5.0, I'ma go up uh, just a little bit here. We're at 5.6, so we're good there. Head that way, and this background should get a little bit darker. And now the main thing I wanna show you is how by moving this backwards a lot, it's the same thing that happened when we were lighting from head to ball. This ratio of the distance between your light to him versus Brock to the background is now different. So this light needs to go way up power to make up for it, but the fall-off is gonna happen a lot more gradual, so more light's gonna hit the background. So the whole lesson here is that if you don't have four lights to make a hot light background, you can still get a white background if you know how to place the lights. You can also place the subject closer to the white. The thing you're gonna run into then, is it's gonna cast a shadow, so you gotta be careful of that. So we still want 5.6. We have 6.3, we need to go down just a little bit. There we go, we should be good. And this background should get a little lighter. We could massage it even more and make it white, but I think you guys get the general idea. There, so you can see it's definitely a little more white. It's not gray by any means, and this is one of those instances where you could definitely increase it in post. It wouldn't be that hard, it's a nice clean background. But yeah, comparing this to this, it's subtly brighter. And the more you can move and the more space you can have the brighter it can get. So, with that said, what we're gonna do now is we want this background to be gray. We're done with the white, we've done enough of that. So we need to get you away from the background about one big step, maybe, yeah, that should be good. There's two ways to do this. Get him away from the background or control where our lights are hitting by moving him away from the background and keeping these light distances the same. The background will just naturally go darker. And the other thing we're gonna do is turn down this fill, and move it a little closer. So we want 5.6, we got 6.3, which means most of it's probably coming from that side, so we'll turn down. We got 5.6, so we're good to go. Alright so, the background's gonna be a lot more dramatic, the lighting overall's gonna be the same. We're gonna mess with this for a second, then we're gonna move on. So lookin' over your shoulder even harder, 'cause I wanna get something that's a little more dramatic. What I actually wanna do is get in another harsh accent light. So similar to what we did before, I'm gonna bring one of these reflectors back, and we're gonna shoot something that has that same feel but in studio. So we're gonna put this far enough away that it's not gonna be hitting his nose. So one of the thing I like with my accent lights is when they don't skim across the face and get the tip of the nose, 'cause that does not look good. So we need to get it far enough behind him that it's not going to hit his nose, but we also only have so much space to work with, and I really don't want this light to hit the background, so we could a flat, we could the V-flat on the other side. It really won't matter so much for this. And because we have this reflector so close to him, it's gonna be pretty bright. So you're definitely gonna be able to see that. Alright, so this is gonna kinda separate Brock from the background a little bit, and we should be good to go, to start shooting again. Just get a little different look before we go to the all-black setup. There we go, so you can see what that kicker's doing. It's adding the light on his neck down here, on the side of his cheek, so it's just, again, the more of that you want the higher you turn it up. The more subtle you want it, like if you were doing business portraits at a doctor's office you might want a hair light or a kicker, but you're gonna wanna turn it way down, cause they're not gonna be wearing their medical outfit at the football stadium. That's kind of the look you're going for here, or basketball in this case, basketball arena. Alright, I'm gonna do a couple that are a little more full-length, so. We don't have a full sweep, but Brock, I'm gonna have you look right here. So this is gonna completely change up the frame. And even if you didn't care, that's kind of a smooth transition from the white to the concrete. Lookin' off that way again, even more. And this would be an instance too where, you're gonna see at the top of the paper roll here, but if you wanted to Photoshop that, I'll show you later how to grab and stretch that and it's really not hard at all. I'll even do it on purpose to leave more negative space. One more just like that, eyes to camera, perfect. So we'll use that as an example later when we're doing the poster work of how to stretch the background to get it where you want. But I'm pretty happy with that as far as a dramatically lit shot. Now the third and final light setup I wanna do on this, is I actually wanna make this background go really dark. So, we could just throw a V-flat behind him, but that's easy. If you don't have that option, we're gonna move him quite a ways from the backdrop and we're actually gonna kill all ambient light, so we're gonna move our f-stop up to f to knock off another stop of this window light. And the other thing we're gonna do is control our main light. So we're gonna go back to using a gridded beauty dish. So we'll switch that out for our dish. And we'll throw the grid back on there. Okay, so now that that's gridded, there's almost no light that's gonna hit the background once we get it positioned properly. And we're gonna move everything far away from this backdrop, 'cause we want it to go dark. Alright, and going from a magnum to a beauty dish with a grid, it's probably about a two to two and a half stop difference, so I just turn this up two and a half stops already, so I won't have to do quite as much finagling with it later. And I want this to be pretty dramatic, and again I want the background to go dark. Also, you are wearing a tank top underneath that, so let's get rid of the jacket. You can just set it wherever, doesn't matter, it's not gonna be in the shot. And now we're gonna be able to see that rim light even more, because he has bare shoulders, so we're gonna be able to see that look. He's got a shooting sleeve on, so we're gonna be able to see a little bit of tattoo, the whole works. So it's just gonna be a different look. I'm gonna angle this light downward more. I'm gonna have you take one more big step forward, and I'm gonna raise this light up even more just for fall-off purposes. And we're gonna completely get rid of the fill. I am gonna move that kicker light, we do want it on but I'm gonna move it. We're gonna run outta space here soon is what's gonna happen. Alright, and this is our kicker. We're gonna just leave that as-is for right now, I'm gonna leave it on, we don't need to go through the whole setup again. And we're gonna meter, so what I said is we're gonna go up to f8 to kill all ambient light on that background, so I turn my camera up to f8. Now we're gonna meter until it says f8. We're at four or five, we need to go way up and I need to untangle my entire tether cable from a sandbag, a light stand and who knows what else. F8, so we're good, let me uh. The easiest way to do this is to start over. Alright, so we're good there, turn off my camera. Re-plug in. And we're golden, so, I'm gonna have you take another little tiny step back towards the background. Stand square to me, and I want you not even lookin' at me, kinda over your shoulder, down like this, yeah. A little bit more nose this way, I'm watchin' his eyes, there we go. A little bit more towards me, right there. And this background should go really really dark for us. And he should definitely have some kicker light coming on. So there we go, totally different look, same backdrop. We put a grid on there to control the spill. We still have the kicker light on. This light's totally off and I'm not gonna turn it on, 'cause if we turn it on it's just gonna brighten the background. I'm fine with that, well, we'll turn it on and see what it does, why not. I like experimenting if you can't tell. So this is gonna fill in the shadow on the ball and on his neck, between the highlights of the rim light and the highlights of the beauty dish. 'Kay, it didn't do much, let's turn down. We'll go up significantly, the background's also gonna get a little bit brighter, but not much. There we go, so that's just filling in a little bit of that shadow, actually don't mind, we'll go somewhere in between. And now we can start shooting again, all the technical stuff's done. So Brock, I'm gonna have you stand, again, turn around completely this way, keep going. And then you're gonna be lookin' over your shoulder at this part of the window, or even those electrical outlets down there. Keep turning your head, I'm just lookin' at eye contact with where I know these catch lights are gonna fall. That's good, right in there. And then I'm gonna have you hold the ball up over your shoulder on your right arm, so then we're gonna see highlights from that light. Hitting the ball, hitting his shoulder and his hand. And we're gonna shoot a horizontal. And now I'm gonna let the, actually take a tiny step this way, right there. I was gettin' off the, the further you get away from the background, the subtle movements are less subtle as far as going off the edge of the seamless. Turn your head even more towards me, so shoulders this way a little bit. Not quite so much, keep this arm cocked back, yep. And nose towards me, but eyes away, yep. Yeah that should be pretty sweet. There we go, one, two, three. One, two, three. There we go, I'm gonna have you turn your head even more towards me if you can, I dunno if you can, yeah there you go. And I'm not worried about the backdrop, we can fix that. I just don't want his hair to go over that seam, because then it's a pain. I'm gonna get in here close. Eyes to camera. I'm gonna have you turn completely this way. Yep, just like that. Now, ball just down, shoulders open, keep goin', and then head this way but eyes to camera. So nose even more this way, chin down. Yeah that's gonna be pretty fierce lookin'. Yeah, so that looks pretty sweet. And that's with the same color grading that we did on the last one. I might desaturate this a little bit. In fact, we might as well do it. 'Cause then this'll apply to every image going further. So what we'll do is we'll go into our white balance, oh sorry, exposure, we'll take down the saturation little bit. We're also gonna, on color balance we're gonna get rid of some of that orange riding to the mid tones. Darken the highlights a little bit. Darken the shadows, take the edge off those highlights. And the only other thing I'm gonna do, yeah, so now every shot will have that applied to it. So again, head this way just towards the light. Chin down a little bit. I'm gonna switch lenses, just 'cause the shot I'm framing up is not a 24 to 70 type shot. It's a zoomed in crop shot that I need to use a longer lens for. So yeah, we'll try this, oh yeah this'll work better. Eyes to here. So this'll just have a little bit different look. I'm gonna have you turn your body more this way again. Keep goin', right there. Yep, head position's better, chin down a little bit. One, two, three. And just so you can see with the ambient light, if I turn off the trigger and we shoot a shot without any lights, this doesn't matter. You can see how much the ambience affecting the shot. Basically none, it's doin' a little bit to the background, but you know, to compare that just with what the lights are doing, it's totally different shot. And we've kinda drowned out all the ambient by shooting it f8. If you want to do it even further, you could take your shutter speed up, we could still go up to 250 on, it depends, you could either shoot high-speed sync, or you can shoot up to a 250th of a second with a Nikon as far as your sync speed. I think Canon might be a 200th. But either way that'll make the background go even darker and kill more ambient light.

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!