Location Scouting for Portraits / by Jonathan Barnes

 Nikon D200, Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX, ISO 100, f/4, 1/250 sec.

Nikon D200, Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX, ISO 100, f/4, 1/250 sec.

Some of my favorite things to photograph are environmental portraits. I'm a huge fan of the work of Arnold Newman and many of the great photographers who followed in his footsteps. Environmental portraits place the subject in their world, as opposed to a traditional studio portrait which is shot on a background of some sort. Sometimes the environment can directly reflect the occupation or vocation of the subject, but other times it's fun to place the subject in an environment that evokes a particular mood. What I'm trying to say is: it doesn't always have to be literal.

I have a stash of photos on my computer of locations around town where I'd like to shoot. In fact, sometimes I go out with my camera only to shoot possible locations. Later, I will tag the location photos with keywords to remind me of their physical location, possible uses, and potential problems. For example, "Wilkes Street Tunnel, open shade, townhouse background, street background, high bike/pedestrian traffic during weekends & evenings."

I've had my eye on one location in particular for quite a while. There is an overpass in Alexandria that is supported by some interesting arches that remind me of a railroad viaduct. My wife recently got her hair cut shorter than usual and I thought it would be fun to create an edgy portrait of her down by those arches.

 A quick ambient light exposure test.

A quick ambient light exposure test.

The photo above shows what the scene looked like with only the existing ambient light. I like to do this whenever I am shooting on location because it gives me an idea of my starting point for the overall exposure. If I'm going edgy, I will most likely always underexpose the ambient light, which is what I ended up doing with this portrait.

 With the key light (speedlight through an umbrella) added to create some directional light.

With the key light (speedlight through an umbrella) added to create some directional light.

Since we were under a bridge, the ambient light was wrapping around everything and creating an incredibly soft light. To enhance the mood, the next step was to bring in some directional light, in this case a speedlight shot through a white umbrella. You might not always equate the soft light of an umbrella with an edgy portrait, but I placed the umbrella far enough away to give it a bit of an edge. It's not hard light, but it's not completely soft either.

 The final image, including the gelled fill light.

The final image, including the gelled fill light.

I was already pretty happy with the results but I usually try to push things a little bit to see if I can come up with something a little more unique. I've been into using low, gelled fill light lately, so I figured I'd try it here just for kicks. Now, there was already a decent amount of fill light from the existing ambient but you can see how the gelled fill evokes an entirely different mood. I decided to use a pinkish-reddish gel (Rosco Skelton Exotic Sangria I believe) to complement the color of her jacket. Check out the setup shot below!

 The setup shot showing the key light (upper left) and the fill light (lower right).

The setup shot showing the key light (upper left) and the fill light (lower right).