Thanks so much to Scott and Brad for inviting me to share my thoughts here! I’m a longtime fan of all things Kelby so this is a real treat. I was told I could write about anything which is great but also a little overwhelming. So many topics! How do I choose? I decided to write about how I approach environmental portraits and the role location plays.
Location, location, location! The old real estate saying about the importance of the right location definitely applies when it comes to creating compelling environmental portraits. The way I think about it, the locations I choose for portraits are like stages for my subjects to act on…
How should I decorate that stage?
What kind of set design is the right one for the person I’m photographing today?
What defines the person I’m photographing?
What do I want the portrait to say about them?
These are the kinds of things I’m thinking about when pre-visualizing an image. Everyone is different and unique and has their own story to tell so I want each portrait to be a reflection of who they are and to hopefully reveal something about them. I try and achieve this by creating a mood that suits them through the use of the right location, lighting and posing. With any luck these elements come together and play a supporting role in telling their story and conveying the message I’m trying to get across.
I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting places to shoot whether I’m working locally or far from home. My camera phone helps me to quickly capture potential locations when I’m the go. I use it like a digital notepad to create a library of visual reference cards I can search later. Geo-tagging images with services like Flickr or using built-in GPS data are also great tools for building an online location library. I think of myself like a location scout for films or TV. When you watch films and television, especially commercials, you’ll see some of the best locations out there being used.
I try and challenge myself to find the locations used. Sometimes it’s easy. I see locations in San Francisco used all the time, for example Fort Point.The internet is also a great resource for finding and researching great locations. Google image searches are one of my first stops and are great for inspiration.
Here are two family portraits, both very different based largely on the locations where they were made. The first, in a word – “urban,” really reflects the hip and physical personalities of this modern family. The second image is a much softer, more traditional and intimate image of a family with 3 young boys. Both are families, but both have very different stories and personalities. You can see how the locations used influence our perceptions and feelings about each image.
Here I’m really using the people in this image as the location or background. I choose to do this rather than rely solely on the physical location to tell the story of this father and his children. A location or background can be many things. I try and see from as many different perspectives as I can during a shoot.
Having a plan is important when you’re putting together the concept for your portrait but you can’t be afraid to deviate and take advantage of the magic of spontaneity either. Here’s a perfect example. I made this totally unplanned engagement session image on the way to make the image I planned to make that day! It turned out to be the best image of the day by far. Leaving myself open to the creative possibilities happening all around me made this possible.
Sometimes the photo gods just smile down on you and give you great gifts to work with. However, it’s really what you do with those gifts that ends up separating the great images from the mundane ones. During this retro inspired wedding shoot in Vegas, my client, photographer Sal Cincotta and his bride Taylor, rented an awesome cherry red vintage Cadillac for the day. We drove out to Red Rock in the desert after the ceremony where I set up this shot in the middle of the road and posed everyone around this great car.
The point is that great locations, backgrounds and props are all around us. Even in spontaneous and unplanned situations like weddings. The trick is, and your job as photographers is, to make the most of them. This would have been a very different image if I hadn’t placed the car smack dab in the middle of of the road to convey attitude, if I hadn’t taken advantage of the mountains for a dramatic background, or if I ignored the classic Cadillac as a great prop to pose the group. This image was all about capturing and conveying “cool.”
You can’t photograph a vintage Vegas wedding without including the famed Neon Sign Graveyard. This location provided the perfect retro backdrop for the bridal party.
These two images come from an album cover shoot for spiritual singer Melissa Phillippe . Wait, do people even say album cover any more? Ok I’ve dated myself, lets try CD case art instead, oh no I’ve dated myself again! Ok forget CD art and call it iTunes store art. There, that’s better. The concept for these images was to create to a spiritual, etherial feeling for Melissa. I used a Lenbaby for the shot of Melissa at the piano to add the soft glowing effect. For the second image I had everyone on the shoot hike to the top of a mountain (I wasn’t very popular that day) to get the perfect spiritual shot. The backgrounds play a key role in establishing the feeling of each image.
A great location doesn’t have to be far away or on top of a mountain. In fact, sometimes they’re right in your own backyard. Well this isn’t really my backyard but you know what I mean. This image was made at a gritty old mill in Petaluma, CA where I live. It fit perfectly with the edgy fashion meets Gotham City feeling I wanted for this portrait of actor Eric Urbiztondo.
These two portraits illustrate the different feeling your location can convey. The first couple, photographers Byron and Wendy Roe, are hip, urban, fashion forward people who were in need of promotional images that expressed their personalities to potential clients. The second is from an engagement session for two people who live in wilds of King Salmon Alaska and work in nature conservancy. It’s easy to see how the right location for each of these couples really has helped tell their unique stories.
The concept for this senior portrait was to create an image that captured Rachel’s powerful and fashionable personality. When it comes to creating an edgy fashion look what’s better than a city alley. I found this one in San Francisco and use it for just such occasions.
This wedding image is one of my favorite examples of how being open to things outside your plan can end up creating cool results. I made this portrait in the middle of shooting the family pictures after the ceremony. We were in the courtyard of a Carmel, CA resort hotel. I noticed a couple watching us from a room above us, from the window in this image. I knew I had to get my couple framed in that window for a killer image. Happily the couple whose room it was agreed!
Placing this mother and daughter in the tall reeds among the dunes of Ocean Beach created the perfect soft, timeless feeling this portrait. This image would have had a very different feeling if it were made in a different setting. Contrast this image with urban family image above.
These two wedding images are examples of finding locations on the fly, or as I like to call it, thinking on your feet! That’s just the way weddings are. I always look around when I get to a venue and scout out locations to use later with my couples.
If you’re as crazy about cool locations as I am, you’ll love composites. This image was created from two shots, one HDR background image and one studio shot of Sonoma, CA pro football hopeful Joe Trombetta. I’ve recently been experimenting with compositing images together thanks to techniques taught by my friend Joel Grimes (the undisputed master of the composite). If you haven’t checked him out you should. Composites are great because all the location images you’ve collected can be used in conjunction with images created in the studio. This requires a lot less logistics and gear hauling! My back loves me for this!!
I hope this discussion about the impact of locations has inspired you to go out and find great places to make your next images. I can’t wait to see what you do!!
Michael Corsentino is a Sonoma, CA based wedding and portrait photographer. You can keep up with him on his blog, “Like” him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.