How I did it: Environmental Portrait

Environmental portraits are easy, right? All you do is stand or sit someone in their space, focus and snap. Done. Maybe. When you decide to take your portraiture to the next level, you’ll need to consider a lot more. 

Just for fun, let’s dissect a picture I did of Robert Luffy, the former president of American Bridge. 

The commissioned portrait was an illustration piece for a magazine profile of Mr. Luffy. Because this was not documentary journalism, I had leeway to create the image any way I decided, as long as it fits a vertical format.

At the studio, I began to prepare for the assignment by pulling together the equipment I thought I might need. At that time I was using Canon equipment, so I put together my standard camera kit, 
2-Canon 5D bodies; 16-35mm; 24-70mm; 70-200; 50 1.2; 85 1.2, 45TS.

Lighting at that time was all Dynalite, including 2-1000 WS power packs; 2-500 WS power packs; 6-flash heads and 2-400 WS Uni-400 battery operated monolights. All this went in three Lightware cases.
I also packed 11’ stands for each head; 2-4’ stands; 2-floor stands, and a boom arm.  I also packed a sturdy tripod. Modifiers included grids, softboxes, scrims, and softlighters. Another three Lightware cases would hold this equipment. 

The last two bags would hold all my miscellaneous items including speed rings for the softboxes; 400’ of extension cords; gaffer tape; Leatherman tool; rolls of color correction and enhancement gels and a roll of black aluminum foil.

The six cases fit in the back of my SUV for transport and on one big rolling cart to get to the location. 

I had an idea of the kind of image I wanted to make, but I needed to be sure to have enough gear available in case my original plan didn’t come to fruition. Prepare for the worst, expect the best and somewhere in the middle it’ll all work out. 

Once on site, Mr. Luffy’s marketing officer showed me a conference room they thought would work for the portrait. I explained I needed something more illustrative and dynamic and asked about going to the shop floor. After some back and forth we went to the shop. That was the location I had in my mind’s eye. Sometimes you just get lucky. The moment we walked in I saw this enormous steel beam. With Mr. Luffy in the foreground and the beam going off into the background, I knew I had the makings of an excellent composition. Thankfully the overhead lights formed a beautiful pattern, further pushing the eye into the frame. The open door in the far back of the picture was the perfect stopping point for the composition. With foreground and background set all I needed was a middle ground that would add to the story. A few feet away workers were cutting metal with sparks flying. That was the missing piece! After a brief explanation of what I was trying to achieve, I convinced a worker to help me out and set up to make sparks. 

Lighting on this photograph was all natural. A large overhead door on camera left provided soft daylight for Mr. Luffy, with just enough fade out to illuminate the worker one stop darker. Exposure was determined by a hand-held meter at 100 ISO to be 1/6 second at f/9. I need 1/6 second to create the right stream of streaks from the grinder and f/9 to provide just enough depth of field. Also, through prior testing, I knew that lens was sharpest between f/8 and f/11. A hand-held meter was used rather than the built-in meter on the Canon because of the contrast ratio in the photo. All the darkness in the picture would likely result in overexposure had I used the camera’s meter. With a hand meter, I was able to pinpoint the exposure to just the light falling on the subject. 

The camera was a tripod-mounted Canon 5D and lens was a 16-35mm set at 26mm. I chose to go wide to make Mr. Luffy prominent in the photograph while everything else faded into the background layers. I was meticulous to make sure Mr. Luffy’s head was entirely framed within the steel beam and not intersected by the diagonal. 

Finally, with all these elements and layers I had to be sure to work my composition for the most efficient eye tracking, so I intentionally used the Fibonacci Spiral as the basis of the photo’s structure. 

In post-production, I darkened the corners of the image and warmed up the color balance a few points for a more pleasing look. Other than that the image is pretty much as it came from the camera thanks to pre-visualization and very detailed execution.

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