5 Tips for Environmental Portraits
My name is Carla Coffing and I’m a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in LA. I learned the tools for making photographs at the New England School of Photography, but the ability to make portraits came largely from being a waitress/bartender for 10 years.
I learned so many important skills as a waitress – I learned how to talk to anybody, how to multitask, how to remain calm even while running around, how to work hard and work as part of a team, how to value connection over money, and how to really listen and hold space for someone – a random someone.
These skills have helped me over and over in my photography career. Waitressing is also incredibly humbling, and there is tremendous value in humility!
I was painfully shy when I started making portraits. It was around the same time that I went from being a waitress to having the Friday day bar shift at Charlie’s Kitchen, this dive bar in Cambridge that I worked at to help pay for photography school.
Charlie’s had a great juke-box, a cheap double-cheeseburger, and ran specials on PBR… you know the kind of place.
The customers were mostly regulars, workers coming in for their lunch breaks after a long week. That day bar shift inspired my first environmental portrait project – uniformed workers photographed in their domestic spaces.
I started building up the courage to ask my customers if I could come over and make a portrait of them. Everyone said yes.. which leads me to:
Whenever possible – don’t approach your subject with a camera in hand.
This is Helen Metros. I made this portrait in 2009, and at the time, HeIen was 76 Years old, and had been a waitress at Charlie’s for 55 years! She was a celebrity in Cambridge. She was remarkable – a huge heart, an impossibly sweet smile, and was so kind to everyone she met.
In my opinion, part of what makes a successful portrait is access, and in order to gain access you need to gain trust.
So if you are interested in portraiture, consider starting a project with people that you have built up trust with. Put your camera and lens away for a moment, and concentrate on your subject.
Speaking of gear, read this article on the best portrait lenses for some good advice on focal length selection.
Take your time.
Spend as much time with your subject as possible before even taking out your camera. This is Patrick, a T driver (metro).
I have found that it can really help to spend as much time as possible with your subject before even taking out your camera. Whether I am on an assignment or making work for a personal project, I always leave my gear in the car when I first arrive to the location.
This allows for me to have a chance to connect with the person without them feeling on guard at all. I get a sense of how they are feeling and also have a chance to look around the environment and know exactly what I want to bring in to make my shot. Gear can be intimidating, so I tread lightly and only bring in what is necessary.
Scout and carefully compose your shot.
Pay attention to the edges! So much of the story can be told on the edges of the frame. This is Patrick, a boxer/bartender in his dining room.
With environmental portraiture, what you choose to include in the frame is just as important as expression and pose. I prefer to shoot on a tripod so that the frame is already set up, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the right moment to click the shutter.
This following portrait is one of my favorites. This is Raf. He would come into Charlie’s pretty regularly. I found out that he was a dentist and asked him if I could come over after my shift to make his portrait. This is what his bedroom looked like!! I couldn’t believe it! Sometimes real life is so much more extraordinary than anything you could possibly art direct.
One thing that I have found useful is to leave the room after I have told my subject where to sit or stand. Tell them where you would like them, and then excuse yourself to the bathroom or to grab a glass of water. This allows for them to settle in and relax without being so camera aware.
Above is a portrait of Father Vincent Daily in his livingroom. Although the focus is a tiny bit soft, I love this image. I was asking him questions about his family, and the conversation got quite deep. I feel like I was really able to capture an honest moment with him.
Direct your subject through conversation as opposed to asking them to smile or look a certain way. I believe that you will get a much more honest portrait this way.
Ask about things that you care about! People like to talk about themselves, especially if they feel like you are genuinely interested. If I am on an assignment, I do as much research as possible before I arrive so that I can ask questions that go deeper than just small talk. I have had some incredibly meaningful conversations with complete strangers through photography – conversations that I still think about.
Portraiture is a way to make someone feel important – seen.. heard. So listen and hold space for your subject!
Guest Review by Editorial and Commercial photographer Carla Coffing