Moriatis had taken photos of short-track driver Matt Marchiando in and around his race car outdoors in Goleta, Calif., but wasn’t satisfied with the results. For Moriatis and other pros, “okay” isn’t good enough, so he asked Marchiando to move his car into the garage where he could have more control over the light. Moriatis used two flashes with softboxes—one was placed on the center of the hood facing the driver, with the other on a stand to illuminate the driver’s name on the roof of the car and to provide additional fill light.
Environmental portraits—photographs of people in a surrounding that relates to who they are or what they do—have been the staple of newspaper and magazine photographs since the halftone process enabled images to be reproduced in those mediums. Early practitioners such as Yousuf Karsh and Arnold Newman traveled the world, combining their incredible sense of composition and attention to detail with masterful lighting setups. As lighting technology has developed, portable power packs and strobe units have significantly reduced the size and weight of location lighting packages.
“Environmental portraits differ from traditional portraits in several ways and both have unique technical approaches,” explains California-based photographer Mike Moriatis. Like most professional photographers, Moriatis chooses a long-focal-length lens and a shallow depth of field when taking a traditional portrait. This combination separates the subject from the background and brings the focus both literally and figuratively on the person in front of the camera.
This photograph of artist Fred Gowland was shot in his studio for the Santa Barbara News-Press. He shot several photos around the studio before deciding on this location in front of some of the artist’s work. The image was illuminated with natural light coming in from the window on the artist’s right and a flash to the artist’s left powered down for a simple fill light
In the days of film photography, 100mm and 105mm lenses often were referred to as “portrait” lenses in the 35mm format. With the improvement of image quality in the world of zoom lenses, those that encompass the 85-120mm focal-length range with a fixed ƒ/2.8 aperture are the choice of professionals. Apertures of ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/5.6 often are utilized to let the background drop out of focus. This brings attention to the subject’s face and expression, with a pleasing, soft background. While this effect is popular for emphasizing the subject, the shallow depth of field limits the visual presence of the subject’s surroundings, which are vitally important for telling the story in environmental portraits.
With environmental portraits, wider lenses and smaller ƒ-stops allow more information about the subject to come into play. The attention here is more about the person’s profession, interests and habitat as part of a larger narrative about the subject. Newspaper and magazine assignments often call for an environmental portrait to illustrate a story. Moriatis uses a Nikkor 28-70mm ƒ/2.8 lens with a Nikon D300, and on occasion, his 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 lens when the situation calls for a wider angle of view. Moriatis finds that an aperture of ƒ/8 usually gives him his desired depth of field.
The list of potential environmental portraits is endless, ranging from a chef holding mouth-watering creations in a kitchen surrounded by hanging pots and pans to an Egyptian camel driver with his living vehicle and the pyramids in the background. Moriatis adds elements that he deems appropriate to the subject for his newspaper assignments, whether it be a foreign-exchange basketball player holding his native country’s flag or an artist in his studio surrounded by carefully arranged canvases.