Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Environmental Portraits: How to Photograph People in Tight or Crowded Public Places

Environmental Portraits: How to Photograph People in Tight or Crowded Public Places

What do you do when you have to photograph someone, say a business owner in her shop or a dentist and his staff in a dentist office? I’ve done both and more—took pictures of the owner of a frame shop and also of the oral surgeon and his staff in their office and/or operating room. As much as I enjoy doing these kinds of assignments, they always come with a potential problem—space, or lack of, thereof.

While these spaces are not quite public—not a mall, not a park—they are…open to the public. That is, people come into the store to have their artwork framed or the dentist’s office to have their teeth repaired.

As a photographer, while I try to schedule a photo shoot when traffic is slow, or slower than usual, there’s really no chance for having the space and client only to myself. Therefore, at all times during the photo shoot, I have to be aware of my (and the client's) surroundings, of the constant flow of potentially moving people and objects. I mention this because usually there are lots of…things, objects, spread all around the place, mostly objects that cannot be removed during the photo shoot—for a framing store examples can be shelves with frames, artwork waiting to be matted and framed, tools, to name only a few; for a dentist’s office, the dentist chair right in the middle of the room, tools and equipment that myself, as a photographer, would/should not necessarily want to touch or come in any contact with at any time before, during or after the photo shoot.

What do you do when you have to use (set up) lighting gear? If you have lighting gear to set up, first ask permission from your client. That’s a given. If you can do the job using on/off camera flash and reflector, even better. A low-light lens does help, too. Take your flash off the camera and place it somewhere in the room, elevated, if possible (say, on a shelf). This way, you don't have to use a stand and take up more space. Or hold your flash in your hand.

Sometime last year I worked with author T.J. Banks on a photography project for Banks’ latest book, Sketch People. I drove several states north to her place, but once there, she chauffeured me around the area, taking me to all the photo shoot places. We ended up in a very cozy and neat framing store, sparkling with a wide variety of frames of all sorts, and, of course, surrounded by artwork. I was supposed to photograph the owner for Sketch People. She’s a fantastic person and businesswoman, and also an artist, herself.

Friendly and welcoming, her beautiful eyes begged being photographed, Joanne was more than willing to play the game and pose for me. She asked where I wanted her to sit or stand or what to do and her question got me thinking…

I looked around, and realized that there was no room for a tripod. I usually move around a lot while shooting on location, and do not use a tripod (unless I have to). Also, I wanted to show her surrounded by her work and artwork, doing something, not just standing idle.

As if on demand, a nice lady, a customer, entered the store. She needed the wire on the back of her picture to be readjusted and its ends re-glued.
I ended up photographing Joanne repairing the artwork for her client. After that, I took a few more images—headshots of Joanne. Then we decided to play with the frames, so I photographed the shop’s owner…framed.
One image made it on the cover of Sketch People, the other one, inside the book. Joanne’s story is inspiring and comes to life through T.J. Banks’ words, themselves a product of the author’s remarkable ability to truly connect with her subjects and tell their stories in a unique, enlightening and moving way.

For daily inspiring stories, check out Joanne’s photos and, especially, Sketch People her story. For more delightful reads, check out the rest of the Sketch People stories and, if that’s not enough, visit the blog with the same name.

As always, thanks so much for stopping by!

Alina Oswald


  1. Excellent piece, Alex. I like getting your take (no pun intended) on this session and seeing it all through your eyes.

  2. Thanks T.J. :-) Enjoyed taking the pix surrounded by art :-) Anytime!