Many photographers who shoot portraits use a small number of favorite locations out of habit, returning again and again because they know they’ll get good results. Such routine eliminates the need for scouting and thus saves time. This approach works great. We all want a degree of certainty in our work and many find it reassuring to shoot in a familiar setting.
Yet no matter how much we might enjoy our go-to locations, sooner or later we all crave a fresh look. Too many portraits with the same background can be boring. Why not inject energy and life into your portraits by seeking new locations? I guarantee they’re available and within easy reach.
After all, most of us are surrounded by environments that offer an array of opportunities, from interiors to exteriors. You don’t need to reach for far-flung destinations to make great portraits. With just a little work and a willingness to break routine you can always find a new spot that’s just right for your next client.
Given the amazing variety of personalities we encounter as part of our jobs, it makes sense that our portrait locations should be equally varied. No two people are exactly alike, are they?
Take Your Cue
So you’re ready to consider a new location for a portrait, but perhaps you’re not sure where to begin looking. If you have an appointment lined up the first thing you should do is talk to the client to gain some clues. Who is this person you wish to capture, and what defines him or her? Some people are defined by their career, others by their family, and still others by their passions or environment.
You won’t know until you engage him or her in conversation. By talking for a few minutes, you can begin to form an idea of who it is you’re working with and thus, what type of setting might be appropriate for the individual.
For example, say you’re talking with a CEO of a local water purification company about shooting her portrait. If the CEO is dedicated to providing clean water to a thirsty public then perhaps you might go to a local river or stream for a “water” theme. Another idea might involve fountains in an urban setting, or the working machinery used to purify water. The CEO’s personality will suggest a proper setting. Just remember to listen closely to your client and you’ll have the clues needed to make a good decision.
Another way to discover new locations for portraits is by scouting, which takes some time but can also be lots of fun. The best time to scout is when you don’t have a pressing need to find a location for a specific client. This way you’ll be adding to your list of locations ahead of time so you’ll have more possibilities ready for your next portrait.
Many locations you might choose will be outdoors, where natural light is abundant. Natural light is the perfect illumination for portraiture but you’ll want to look for shade in your location to avoid harsh direct sunlight. If you choose an interior space try to use the available light coming from a window or doorway to light your client, as the results will almost always look great.
It’s easy to forget that great settings can be found within our own homes, such as a living room or a garage. After all, these are among the most convenient spaces available to us. By the same token, the client’s home can also work well. Capturing people within their native habitat such as a bedroom often leads to great portraits because of the relaxed surroundings.
If you’re wanting to venture beyond the home, first take a moment to think of nearby environments available to you. You might have access to forests, beaches, mountains, the desert, or a lake depending on where you live. If you’re in an urban setting then you’ll certainly have your share of streets, sidewalks, playgrounds, parks, subways stations, and warehouses to choose from. Almost any location can offer something interesting so don’t limit yourself to just these possibilities. A tourist guidebook can offer hints if you’re stuck.
Old buildings always have a certain charm and can be found both in the loneliest of places and in crowded cities. Aged wood and weathered brick often make a perfect background for portraiture. Railroads are similarly gritty and make great locations with railcars, station houses, and tracks all being photogenic backdrops.
You’ll have to take the weather into account no matter where you go. It’s wise to keep close to shelter, so make sure to have a car or a building such as a cafe to escape to if the weather changes suddenly. You don’t want to see your client and your equipment stuck in a downpour.
Understand the Essence of a Good Portrait
Some clients will be OK with a noisy, busy location such as a bus depot or street corner. But there will be challenges and distractions, among them passers-by who ask questions, and honking traffic. This can make it difficult to work. Yet if such busyness is appropriate to your client, you can end up with great images. Other clients may wish for a quieter setting without people nearby, so choose accordingly.
Again, the best location is one that complements your client’s personality or story. Perhaps you’re working with a football player who is known for scoring touchdowns. You might think of possible locations you’ve scouted in the past such as a football field or a gym. These are both commonly used settings for photographing athletes and have produced great results for other photographers.
You likely wouldn’t think to photograph the football player in a setting such as a church. However what if the athlete makes religion a major part of his identity, and wishes to break the mold by showcasing personal faith instead of athletic ability? Your job as a portrait photographer is to recognize these types of details and run with them, even if it’s in a direction you didn’t anticipate. Your ability to make a great portrait is equal to your understanding of the client – and your ability to recognize a great new location.