(Dale Roth is one half of the photography duo, Roth and Ramberg. As writing is not his strong suit, he has asked his teenage son to correct his lack of punctuation and when possible, add in big words. However, Dale does know how to do a perfect scheimpflug.)
The key to a successful environmental portrait is telling a story. Storytelling is a funny term that has shown up a lot in the past few years. I think photos have always told stories, so I get a bit of a chuckle when I hear the it mentioned. If you are shooting an environmental portrait then you are in control of everything as opposed to journalism . For our environmental portraits we prefer not to disturb the scene. With use of a natural expression or pose, we are able to organically illustrate the story we want to tell.
The brings us to the question: What makes a good story? You should be able to look at a photo of a person and understand something about them, whether this be what they do, where they live, or how they are feeling. A few years ago we teamed up with a woodworker and a writer to create a series of writings and photographs of woodworkers and their environments. It ended up that a publisher was interested, which resulted in the production of a book called, “Out of the Woods.” As we photographed these talented woodworkers and their beautiful woodworking pieces, we began to observe the characteristics of their workshops coincided with the characteristics of their personalities. The woodworkers whose workshops were clean and pristine tended to have more conservative personalities. Their way of being was very calming and their work tended to lean towards perfection. Their guitar, pieces of furniture and bowls were spun and sanded to almost perfect standards. On the other hand, those with the crazy, messy workshops tended to be free spirited and artistic by nature. Their wooden pieces were a little less polished. They tended to put their faith in the wood, letting it guide them through its curves and lines. Their final pieces were not perfectly round or aligned, yet always turned our beautifully.
Taking photographs of these woodworkers reinforced my understanding that our environment says a lot about who we are. When taking an environmental portrait the environment is crucial. It’s up to us photographers to view the entire environment and make a choice as to what story we want to tell.
But can the storytelling be better and if so, how? We can use a shallow depth of field to make our eye move to what is important in the scene. Usually in an environmental portrait it would be the subject. If the subject is in focus and the background and foreground are out of focus, then our eye is guided to look at what we choose. Likewise if our lighting is focused on the subject, our eye tends to naturally look at the bright area first. A photograph is one dimensional. It’s a piece of paper that’s flat, but by using lighting and the technical aspects of photography a good photo can appear to be two dimensional. We can trick the viewer into imagining. This is the beginning of storytelling, guiding the viewer to what we want them to see.
Part of the story is also the person’s pose. Usually we set the right lighting before our subject makes their way into the scene. Then, they stand in place for some of the initial testing. Lights are adjusted and focus and composition are nailed down before we start shooting. During that time, one or both of us strike up a conversation hoping for the subject to feel at ease, and soon forget we are taking photos You can’t keep people waiting too long without engaging them or they can begin to feel uncomfortable or self conscious. A lot of people are quite stiff when they stand in front of the camera. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard the words, “I hate getting my photo taken.” My usual response is, “Yeah me too, who actually likes it?”
I remember attending a photo seminar with a well known photographer named Gregory Heisler. Although I already knew and understood the subject matter he was talking about, there was one thing he said that resonated with me. “If they ask what to do with their hands, then tell them something, anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. They want you to guide them, to tell them what to do.” If the person we are photographing is uncomfortable then we have to nudge them into getting the perfect spot. If you can make the subject talk about themselves then not only do they become comfortable quickly, you also learn about them. From this, you can determine what you want to highlight in the photographs, and make adjustments to the overall scene in order to do this.
I’ve said many times: It’s either the first photo or the last photo that is “the shot.” In the first few frames perhaps the subject is relaxed and standing in their usual pose and it shows in the final photo OR you have to take photos and bit by bit manage the scene. A lot of times I’m taking photos that I know are not good in order to either get them to relax or hoping they fall into it naturally. Even while taking a few seconds to look at the laptop, I always watch their body position as it changes. They relax when you are not behind the camera, so sometimes it is good to step away.
Another important part of the story is the background. The environment in an environmental portrait is half of the photo. Our usual approach when we arrive at our location is to pick up the camera and walk around picking options. We prefer to shoot our environmental portraits with the biggest aperture as this allows us to have the focus on the subject only, sometimes only their eyes. After many years of taking photos I can, surprisingly, imagine a scene and how it would look as an out of focus background. After taking various photos we download them onto the computer and decide which background tells the best story. A lot of this is based on how it feels. Our goal is to have the viewer look at our photos and have some emotion.After years of taking photos you make the switch from seeing to feeling. It becomes a feeling when you press the shutter or a feeling when they give the right expression.
Although photography uses only one sense: Sight, I want to go beyond the one dimensional aspect of the photo. I want people to go beyond the use of one sense while viewing the photo. I want the viewer to be able to smell or hear the sounds of a particular scene. Of course, this is not possible in reality, but I want their minds to open and their senses to explore. Most of us know what a forest smells like, or the sounds of the ocean as the waves crash on the shore, but is it possible for us to hear and smell those things, to create and understand a story in our minds as we look at a photograph?.
I think it is.