Oh, what's that? I'm using flashes to take a portrait? Well let's turn those bad boys up to 11 and make that subject pop! When you're first learning to light with flashes, the temptation can be overpowering to drown out all the ambient light in your scene to make your subject stand out. I'd argue that, at least for environmental portraiture, sometimes subtlety with flash is a more compelling way to go.
I'm just as guilty as the next person of doing it: vastly underexposing the background to bring out the cool contrast in the clouds/sunset/buildings/(insert cool, contrasty background here). The problem is that I get a portrait that looks like a person in front of a disembodied backdrop. The two don't look connected. I might as well have put my subject in a studio and taken the photo of the background at a different time and place. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily. Using composites in photography has become a banner business, with people creating some really incredible photos, some of which would be difficult or impossible to create in camera. Aaron Nace over at Phlearn and Joel Grimes come to mind for excellent resources on the subject.
That's not that I'm talking about.
I'm talking about that old school approach. Portraying a living, breathing subject that's really part of a space can be difficult to pull off in tricky environments, but that's part of the fun. Believe me, I fail all the time. However, here are some tips for executing convincing shots using artificial lighting that looks like it's part of the scene, not overpowering it.
Don't Ignore the Scene
This is probably the first mistake that I make when walking into a new environment: I completely ignore the environment. If you go to grab your flashes and start setting them up before scouting the space, you're doing it wrong. What light sources are in the scene? Are they hard? Soft? What's the color temperature like? Is it a warm space? Is there furniture? What's the character of the furniture? Are there people? If you're outside, where's the sun? Where will it be when your subject arrives? Is it overcast? Mid-day sun?
These are just a few things to take into consideration when you're scouting. Enjoy the integrity of the scene so that you're not in such a rush to leave it out of your photo. It's called an environmental portrait for a reason.
That being said...
Don't Be a Slave to the Scene
While the integrity of the scene is nice and all, don't feel like you have to keep it pristine. If there's a garbage can in sight and it isn't adding anything to the shot, move it. If there are garish lights that aren't adding anything, turn them off if possible. Are you in noon day sun and don't want that high contrast look? Create shade. Have someone hold a reflector between the subject and the sun (or throw one on a light stand and sandbag it), then recreate your key light as you see fit.
Don't get in there and just start shooting. See the shot in your head before you begin, then begin to place lights. If you start shooting without seeing the shot first, not only are you going to take way more shots than you need to take, but while you're running around setting up and taking down lights you run the risk of looking like you're inept in front of your client.
Light Broadly, Accent Specifically
The world is made up of a whole ton of broad lighting. Light big. I like big modifiers that put off a beautiful light. They imitate what we see in the real world every day. It's very rare that we come across focused light in the day to day. That being said, specific, pinpoint lights show what you want to show. You are the director of the scene. Where do you want to draw the eye? Put light there or take it away everywhere else. I like to think of my broad softlighter as writing the text for my story, while the smaller, more focused modifiers provide punctuation. Draw the eye where you want it to be.
Look Up, Look Down
This is one that I screw up regularly. I walk into a space, spend a couple hours shooting, and never notice the amazing chandelier or brass tile ceiling that's been above me the whole time. Or perhaps I'm out in the desert and never saw the texture of the dried, cracked dirt that would have been an amazing spot for my subject to lay.
Don't Be Afraid of a Tripod
A tripod, like every other piece of equipment, is a tool. There are times when you really should be using one. If it's night time and you don't want to push up your ISO setting, you need to be on a stable surface to ensure that your subject is looking sharp. Sometimes, even with the amazing high ISO performance of today's cameras, a tripod is a better option in flash photography. Namely, if you're shooting at 3,200, you might find it very difficult to fire a flash at a low enough power setting to not completely overpower and/or overexpose the scene. But if you keep your ISO low, using flash won't be as much of an issue. I like to shoot handheld as much as humanly possible, but even I will pull out the tripod if it's going to help the shot in the long run.
Light That Background
Those strobes aren't just for lighting your subject. If you've managed to get the general background ambient where you want but there are still a few dark spots, light them. Use small strobes that you can hide easily. I routinely use a few $35 Neewer flashes with optical slaves for just such a purpose. They're also handy for creating catchlights in your subject's eyes. Think of the background as your canvas. Put the light where you want it.
Use Shallow DOF to Isolate Your Subject, But Not Too Much
With all these new-fangled lenses promising creamy, luscious bokeh, it's tempting to want to throw the background completely out of focus because, hey, bokeh is the coolest.
Resist the temptation. First of all, it's environmental portraiture. Think of the environment as a character in your movie. It has something to say. If you make it unrecognizable, how does it inform your subject? It doesn't. The background becomes a pretty blur. And that's cool and all, but what does it say about your subject? Not much. Might as well be in a studio.
Also, most lenses are at their best stopped down a touch, so let those lenses show themselves off. I know, I know, it's a f/1.2 lens so why bother paying the premium if you're not going to use it wide open? In my opinion, that f/1.2 is there for when you need it, but just make damn sure that you really do need it. Use ND filters if you're having trouble cutting the light so that you can get wide enough to give a healthy amount of separation.
Interpret the Light, Don't Imitate It
You are an artist. Just because you see sunlight coming in at a certain angle, intensity, or color doesn't mean that you have to rigidly stick to it when using your flashes. Ultimately when you set up a shot, you want the light to look like it could have come from what's already there. It should look like it's an organic part of the scene. So, if you are in broad daylight in the middle of the day and you have a blue gelled subject, people will be confused as to what in the world you're trying to say. But, if you are in a diner at night and you have a red gelled light just kissing off the window, it stirs the imagination. Is it a neon sign casting the light? A car's tail lights? Make your audience think. Tell a story. As always, when shooting fashion, all bets are off. Gel away!
Don't Always Put the Key Light in Front of Your Subject
In real life, people aren't always lit from the front. Try putting that key light behind or to the side of your subject. You'd be surprised how it can change the dynamic of the shot completely, yet still be pleasing to the eye. If you need a bit of fill, that's what reflectors are for. And more flashes of course.
Got any other tips for bringing together your subject with the environment? Sound off in the comments!