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Zoom it: Creating an engaging environmental portrait

While a prime lens like an 85mm or 50mm might be our go-to when it comes to shooting portraits, modern zoom lenses can be equally great to use. I recently had to shoot a series of environmental portraits. And after a bit of thought, I decided to go with my Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 G2 lens.

Why a zoom lens?

But why a zoom? Well, for one, it let me get multiple different looks and angles without having to flip back and forth between lenses. I can easily capture a shot of a person’s upper body while zooming out and getting the entire scene in a matter of seconds.

Sometimes, versatility is just worth it. And a lot of times, you might not need that bokeh or super amazing fall-off for something like a corporate photograph.

The Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 G2 gives me that versatility, as well as the crisp look I’m often looking for.

Lighting your scene

For my environmental portraits, I almost always rely on a soft box that is portable enough that I can carry it around from location to location with ease. For me, that’s the MagBox 24-inch soft box. This lets me attach up to two speedlights (in my case, two Godox AD200Pros) to the MagBox if I want to. Usually, my rule is if the lighting is tricky … go with two to blow out the sun. If it’s overcast, stick with one.

Yeah, this is a smaller soft box than a lot of people use. But, just like my zoom lens, it’s about versatility and what works for the assignment.

With my soft box, I’ll play around with different angles. There are times I’ll put it directly on someone’s face, which adds some deep contrast. But then there are times (more often than not) where I’ll point it up a bit, feathering the light on the subject but still making her pop without as many shadows in the scene.

Keep moving yourself, and your subject

Just like I like to use my soft box around, I similarly like to move my position. If my subject is sitting on stairs, I might go up to the stair she’s sitting on, and have her look at me. Likewise, I might shoot from the bottom of the stairs and have her look down at my camera, often for a wider view.

When it comes to your subject, have them keep moving too. Slight head tilts can add interest and emotion while changing the position of your subject’s hands can also impact the overall look.

Look for the unplanned

For every environmental portrait I take, I try to look for an unplanned look. Recently, I had the chance to photograph at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, MI. The church was founded in 1869, so there’s a ton of history in the building.

In the main space, there are old theater-type seats that have a ton of character. And at the back of the space, there are some lantern-type lights. So as I turned around from what we were photographing initially, I immediately saw a look I wanted.

My subject loved it and wanted some wider shots too. Using the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 G2, this provided a really grand look at the space, and let her stand out amongst it quite well.

Keeping a sharp eye and looking around your environment is key to getting those must-have looks. And instead of going with the initial planned photos, my subject, in this case, used some of these grander shots.

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Rafael Jones

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