Environmental Portrait

The ability to light a room properly is a great skill to have when it comes to doing environmental portraits. When a real estate client of mine asked me to shoot a few portraits of her, I suggested we do it in her most recent listing, which I had shot only a few days earlier.

I’ve shot many portraits of Regina over the last couple of years, and she’s hands-down my favorite person to shoot — she looks great no matter what I do! In this case, I knew that if I could light the surrounding room well, I could make a really striking portrait, so I jumped at the chance.


Luckily, the house was still on the market, and we met there in the afternoon for a sitting. After scouting a bit, I found two locations that I thought would work well – one inside and one outside. I wanted the sun a little lower for the outside shot, so we headed into the living room and I set up for a formal portrait. I moved a few orchids into strategic places so there would be some color framing Regina when she got into place, and arranged the pillows and throws where they would look good.

Step one was to light the set. Regina would be sitting on the sofa, with the corner of the room behind her. To camera left was a large bank of  windows, with tons of sunlight pouring in; this was too much for me to fill in against, so I pulled the large wooden shutters and angled most of the louvered blinds completely closed, only allowing a little direct sunlight to come in and strike the back of the sofa where Regina would be.

5817 Florence Terrace

This is a shot I made of the room a few days earlier. The setting for the portrait is the sofa near the rear of this scene.

With a relatively high ceiling like this, the first thought should always be to bounce a light off of it, and that’s exactly what I did – an SB-80 camera left, aimed straight up at the angled ceiling, to bounce light down and into my scene. Then I started with some test shots, establishing an exposure that would blur the background a little. I settled on 1/160th and f/3.5, at ISO 100. The relatively fast shutter speed did a couple of things for me – first, I was shooting this with my 70-200mm, so a fairly quick shutter speed helps keep the camera shake down. Second, I had to control that direct sunlight that was splashing onto the back of the couch. There isn’t much of it, but if I dragged the shutter at all, it would have dissolved into a blown-out blob of whiteness.

I left the background under-exposed about a stop and a half or so, to make sure that Regina would be nicely separated. I knew  that I would be bringing more lights into the mix before I was done, and some of them would be hitting the background as well, so I left it a little too dark for now.

Now I had Regina sit down and I brought in a 43” white satin umbrella from camera right. This is the main light for her, and eventually I settled on 1/4th power from the SB-80 I had behind it. That gave me a good exposure and nice flattering light on Regina, and since it was coming in from well over to the right, it didn’t brighten the background too much; at this point the wall and décor behind her was maybe a stop under-exposed, which was just about where I wanted it.
The portrait was just about done, but I wanted a little more separation, and some “pop” for Regina, so I added one more light, this time from camera right and slightly behind her. This was another SB-80, gelled one half Straw (a warming gel), and gridded with my DIY speedlight grid. I aimed this carefully at Regina. The grid kept the light from hiting the pillows beside and behind her, and put a beautiful rim on the left side of her face.


Oh — almost forgot! Location Number Two was now just about ready, so we headed out to the front porch where (with the help of a gelled (half Straw) SB through a white satin umbrella, we made this portrait:


The key to this one (and the reason I waited until the end of the session) is the cool backlighting provided by the sun as it dropped down in the winter sky behind Regina. This not only gave me a nifty background, but flooded the porch with really nice soft (slightly green) light. I filled in against it with the umbrella, warmed up slightly with the gel, and shot it from way out in the garden, again with the 70-200 racked out to about 180mm.

Always know where your ambient is, and where it’s going! If I had tried to do this shot first, it would have been much less interesting because the foliage behind Regina would not have been nearly as luminous.

None of these images required much post-processing at all — a little sharpening, a little color correction, and they were ready for delivery. Regina is so completely photogenic that she looks good under almost any conditions – one of the reasons I’m always glad to shoot her!

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