The Environmental Portrait

One mainstay of editorial photography is the environmental portrait. A writer is assigned a story and after doing some reporting, they contact the photo editor to set up a time for a photographer to take a photo of the subject. You seen the results a million times in newspapers and magazines.

It's not really a news photo. What the writer has written about on the subject has happened a while ago and you, the photographer are there to illustrate the story. Sometimes you are given some kind of back story from the editor, sometimes not.

I received an assignment this week to take a portrait of women that runs a non-profit center that is helping people who have been enslaved by nefarious traffickers in the U.S. It's hard to imagine that slavery in America still exists, but it does, often exploiting illegal aliens.

Part two of the assignment was to take a photo of a women who was enslaved. The publication stated in their assignment request was that they wanted to have "Maria", the former slave, photographed outdoors in the neighborhood, showing off the area. They wanted a photo of the director, but "closer on the face".

A pretty interesting story, for the writer at least, but I have to create something that already happened and that will satisfy the layout of the publication and website.

When I arrived at the job, my first priority was to get a decent photo of the director that had a clean background with some nice lighting. She told me that she didn't want to reveal the location of where she lived and a photo of "Maria" shouldn't show any landmarks either. Part of shooting a environmental portrait is to show something that links the subject. So now I had to show something, but not too much.

I asked the director if she had a home office from where she worked from. She said she worked form the dining room with her laptop. I was hoping she had an office that may had artwork or signage that could be used. Her dining room wasn't bad. It had a nice wall that could be used as a clean background, a table and laptop with a bouquet of flowers that was used in the photo.

One of the first thing I ask my subject is what kind of time frame are we dealing with? Do they have some other appointment they have to go to next? She had to leave for work in less than an hour, and "Maria" wasn't there yet, but on the way. So I had to work fast.

The day before I thought about the assignment and decided that I wanted to be very mobile and not bogged down with too much equipment. I have a case with battery operated strobes that I use for that along with some light stands and a backpack with two cameras and two lenses, my 24-105 zoom and 50mm f1.4 lenses.

Battery operated strobes are great when shooting outside. My case includes a Norman 400b, 3 Vivitar 283's and a set of PocketWizards radio slaves. I have a mini 19 inch octo-type light modifier by Norman that fits on the 400b that gives out a beauty-dish light. It works like a shoot-thru umbrella with a diffusing panel on it.

When shooting a portrait I try to balance the really complicated lighting schemes with simpler ones where the subject is more important than the technique. This time I wanted simple lighting that looked good but was worry free and allowed me to focus on the subject.

The first subject was easy. Director with office-like setting, hint of laptop, some flowers in foreground, splash of light in background wall for interest.

"Maria" was a little more complicated. How do you show someone that has been enslaved? The publication wanted outside shots. I could of made some cheesy photos entailing bars or fencing. I wanted something more subtle. I noticed a wall of hedging across the street. I thought that would make a clean background and symbolize a barrier. Luckily it was an overcast day in Southern California making my strobes the principal lighting for the photograph.

What really made the photo was "Maria". Her face belied a history of rough times and more trying times to come. It was just me and the subject on the street with one light. No assistants. No writer. Sometimes simple is best.

For a link to the story on "Maria" click here.