I’m pretty excited because Vanelli and I are teaching a class at Photoshop World on environmental portraiture. I love making environmental portraits because they help inform our knowledge of the person we’re looking at without saying a word.

The trouble is, we don’t always get to photograph folks in their place with their stuff. But, if you can identify the environment a person brings with them, then you can make a more intimate and revealing portrait even on a white backdrop.

Identify the environment

When you’re hiking in the mountains, simply observing the plants around you will tell you what elevation you’re in, how much rain the area gets each year, what kinds of wildlife are likely nearby, and what you can expect the weather to be like tonight.

The same thing goes for people. The way they dress for a picture may be completely different from the way they usually dress, but you need to find the cues that will help you identify what kind of a person you’re dealing with. These cues will help you work with the person, find common ground to talk about and build a rapport that will help you make a genuine portrait.

Find the clues

Start with the things you know. You’ve probably had some time with this person in the past so you can build from there. Look at their shoes because a person coming for a headshot may not be concerned with what’s on out of the pictures — I’ve photographed several lawyers wearing a shirt, tie, jacket and gym shorts, which tells you a lot about those guys. What kind of jewelry do they have? How about their hands? Do they show wear from a hobby or profession? What can you detect from this person that will tell you something about who they are?

Take this picture of Sam. I made this during a photo club meeting that he popped into for a few minutes, but it’s got all the makings of what you expect when you meet Sam on any day of the week. The piercing eyes are a trademark, but so are the layered clothes, the scarf and the leather jacket.

This guy brings his environment with him very conspicuously. Everyone carries some of their real environment along to some degree, and when you can find those clues you can create an environmental portrait of that person anywhere.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.