Environmental Portraits

Create an image that tells a story by showing your subject in its environment
Environmental Portraits

The word portrait conjures up visions of a face of an animal, a frame-filling full body shot or another up close and personal recording of the species. Typically, the goal is to reveal character aspects, an adorable expression or to show off the regal features of a majestic coat or colorful feathers. Ideally, the background will be out of focus so the subject stands out with no distractions. A long lens and wide-open aperture are often used to accomplish this effect.

Environmental Portraits

I absolutely make it a goal to make the above kinds of photos, but if I solely concentrate on them, there’s an entire category of photos I deprive myself of capturing. I wind up limiting my portfolio for the sake of adding a single type of image to my files. From an economic standpoint, this isn’t wise. If you’re lucky enough to go on a safari to the Serengeti, a frame-filling image of a zebra would be high on your list. They have character, the lines on their faces are intriguing and close up patterns of their hide can make great abstract photos. But what do those shots tell the viewer about where the zebra lives, what their habitat is like, what it may consume for sustenance and what other species live in its surroundings?

Environmental Portraits

The simple answer to the above questions can be found in making environmental portraits. Obviously, as the words describe, the idea is to depict the subject in its surroundings so it becomes more of a scenic with the inclusion of the animal. Use a semi-wide or short telephoto to show the subject in its domain. The focus becomes more of a storytelling photograph. By standing back or switching to a wider lens, you include more terrain in the scene and portray much more information about the animal than a close-up portrait can reveal.  There is another huge benefit to using a semi-wide or short telephoto. In that you won’t be infringing upon the animal’s proximity, it will feel more at ease and act more naturally.  This can lead to capturing intriguing behavior that may otherwise not be displayed.

Environmental Portraits

The strategy I use that results in better environmental portraits is to find a great scene in which the animal resides and wait for it to walk or fly into a strategic location. In essence, I make the scenic a priority and hope the subject goes where I will it. Study the light that hits the land and take into consideration how the light will fall on the animal when it becomes part of the scene. Early and late light works well as does backlight if it creates a silhouette or glow around the subject. Patience often comes into play as does frustration if the animal doesn’t cooperate. But when everything comes together, you’ll thank yourself for your persistence. Don’t overcomplicate the scene—keep it simple so the animal, although smaller in the frame, becomes an integral component. Even though it will be small, the goal is to get the viewer’s eye to immediately see it when viewing the image.


Environmental Portraits

Wide angles inherently provide more depth of field, so it’s not always critical to use a small aperture. This is a plus if the subject is in motion. You don’t want to create a beautiful image and have it ruined because the animal’s locomotion turned it into a blur. Selective focus can work, but I find deeper depth of field provides better results. Experiment and try both versions and decide which works better when you edit down your files. Give the environmental portrait some attention the next time you’re in the field. Hopefully, it will lead to a sale or two for you.

Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.


    Russ, once again you have created natural portraits that are so beautiful, so moving and touching, and so exceptional I feel a need to comment. The Mountain Goat (Mt. Evans?) and the Giraffe and solitary tree especially “speak” to me. Thank you again for sharing your talent, your sensitivity, and your knowledge. Excellent portraiture and evidence of the importance we owe nature and our planetary home and the best legacy of stewardship we can leave for future generations to enjoy the beauty we have been given. Happy New Year, and may all the best in life and nature find their way to your doorstep and your lenses.

    James – your positive feedback always puts a smile on my face and validates my time spent in the field and in writing the tips. As you know, I love to share my knowledge – I’m just glad it’s being put to good use – Hopefully 🙂
    Yes, the mountain goat is on Mt Evans, and thanks for noticing the giraffe. When I saw the sky and tree with a giraffe walking toward it, I told our guide to stop and we waited until it got to just the right location. As photographers, I’m glad we can preserve nature but my hope is man won’t destroy it so future generations won’t be deprived of seeing it for themselves. Happy New Year to you, too. I will continue to look for the open doors you mention and hope to make many more nature photos – thanks for the good wishes!

    Russ, your work is always inspiring and your advice is always useful. I have a question this week: In the photo of the zebra, have you used a grad filter during the capture or did you use one in post processing? Or maybe you didn’t use one at all. It looks a little too filtered is why I ask. Just curious and trying to learn.
    I would like to let you know that you inspire me and I use your lessons on a regular basis as part of my school photography class. Thanks

    Kevin – thanks for the kind words. Very observant on the shot of the zebra – Yes, I did darken the top as it was too bright and attracted the viewer’s eye to it and I want the eye to go to the zebra in the flowers. It’s an old Ansel Adams darkroom trick! As a classroom teacher of 27 years, it’s nice to read that you use my tips with your students. I hope they benefit!

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