What can a photograph reveal about someone’s personality, background, work, hobbies or passions?
In this step-by-step guide to taking portraits, we’ll show you how you can use the camera on your smartphone to tell a person’s story.
This is part of a suite of resources to help teachers and students participate in The Learning Network’s first-ever Profile Contest, which invites young people to choose an interesting person in their community to research, interview, photograph and write about. Here you can find a similar guide to conducting an interview and shaping the results into a compelling Q. and A. Both are designed for students and teachers who have no previous journalism or photography experience, though we hope many of the tips we offer will be useful to seasoned student journalists as well.
In this guide, we’ll focus on “environmental portraits,” and we’ll show you plenty of examples from The New York Times — starting with the one at the top of this post. Then, we’ll walk you through taking environmental portraits of your own. We’ll teach you some basic composition tips; share advice from a Times photographer on how to conduct a photo shoot; make suggestions for selecting, editing and captioning your photos; and challenge you with a few activities for practicing all these skills as you go.
Questions? Let us know in the comments, or by writing to L[email protected]. We can’t wait to see what you’ll send us.
Step 1: Understand the ‘Environmental Portrait’
When you read profiles, you’ll see that they are nearly always accompanied by photographs of the subject. These photos give readers important information about the person — information that can’t always be conveyed in words alone.
This type of photo is called an environmental portrait. While a typical portrait focuses mainly on a person (often using a plain background and flattering lighting), an environmental portrait includes the person’s surroundings, or environment. The location, the lighting, the angle and the items included within the frame all provide readers with vital visual clues about the subject.
Take a look, for example, at the photo above of Martin Lewison, who was profiled in The New York Times’s Character Study column. What can you tell about Mr. Lewison from this photograph? What might his personality be like? What might be his interests or hobbies? What kind of job do you think he has? What do you see in the photograph that makes you say that?
Now, read the first four paragraphs of Mr. Lewison’s profile. How close were your guesses?
Before you start planning how you’re going to photograph the subject of the profile you are writing, let’s take a look at a few more examples.
Activity: Guessing Game
Try the exercise you just did with Mr. Lewison’s photo with several other environmental portraits from Times profiles. First, select two of the images in this PDF to study closely. For each photo, list at least five things you can infer about the subject, as well as the clues in the photo that helped you draw those conclusions.
You might also try to guess the tone or mood of the profile based on the image. Do you think it is serious? Lighthearted? Inspiring? Something else? Why?
Here are some clues to consider as you view your selected images:
The person’s pose
The person’s expression
The person’s clothing
The cropping of the photo (what the photographer chose to include or omit)
The angle of the photo (where the photographer is standing in relation to the subject)
Where the person’s eyes are looking
The framing (how the image ensures that the subject is the center of interest)
Items in the photo
The setting of the photo
After you’ve made your inferences, read the first few paragraphs of the profile by clicking the “Related Article” link below each photo. How close were your guesses?
Finally, share your opinion. How strong were the photos you chose? What drew you to them? What specific techniques worked well? Did the photos give you accurate clues as to who the person was and what the profile was about?
What, if anything, do you think the photographer could have done to make the photo stronger — either in technical terms or from a storytelling perspective? If you had taken the photo, what would you have done differently and why?
Step 2: Learn Some Basic Photo Composition Techniques
What makes a strong environmental portrait? The answer to that question may in part be subjective, since what you like isn’t necessarily what someone else likes. But when a photograph makes you more interested in a story or evokes an emotion, that usually has not happened by accident. Photojournalists use composition techniques, which involve the careful placement of the subject within a frame, to catch viewers’ eyes and create images that have meaning.
Here are six basic composition techniques you can try.
Rule of Thirds
When the subject of a photo is in the center of the frame, our eyes sometimes get stuck there, missing the rest of the storytelling details in the photo. The rule of thirds is a fundamental composition technique that guides photographers to place subjects away from the center of the shot.
Imagine a tic-tac-toe board placed over the frame of your photograph. This divides your frame into nine equal rectangles with two vertical and two horizontal lines. The lines intersect at four points. Try to place your subject near one of these intersections. In portrait photography, aim to align the subject’s eyes along one of the lines or at one of the intersection points. Even when you see a subject positioned in the center of the shot, the person’s head or eyes will usually be aligned along one of the vertical or horizontal lines.
Approaching your subject from an angle that is different from the usual eye-level perspective can help to tell a powerful story. While shooting straight on is always an option, you might try to consider your subject from a different perspective.
For instance, photographs taken from a worm’s-eye angle are captured from below, looking up at the subject. This angle can make your subject look bigger or more powerful. You can crouch down and aim upward, or even sit or lie on the ground for a dramatic shot.
Photographs taken from a bird’s-eye angle are captured from above the subject. This angle can imply a sense of power over the subject or make the subject look more diminutive. To capture a bird’s-eye shot, stand on an elevated surface — like a chair, table or ladder — to aim your camera down at your subject.
Depth of Field
Photojournalists use depth of field to describe how much of the background is in sharp focus. When a photograph has a shallow depth of field, the subject is in sharp focus and most of the background is blurred. A wide depth of field puts most of the scene in sharp focus.
As a photojournalist, you should carefully consider how important the background details are to your story. A shallow depth of field will focus attention on your subject, with the background providing a general sense of ambience or scene. If you want the viewer to notice important details of the background, consider a wide depth of field.
Photojournalists know how to use natural lines in the setting to lead the viewer’s eye into the photo and toward the subject. Common examples of leading lines include traffic lanes, architectural elements and any sort of path. Leading lines can also be implied, such as the direction of a subject’s gaze.
Look for interesting lines in the environment and consider placing your subject where those lines direct or intersect. This technique often combines naturally with the rule of thirds.
Subframing is the compositional technique of using a natural frame within the space of the photo — like a doorway, window or landscape elements — to accentuate the subject. The frame can add helpful contextual information about the setting of the photo, as well as direct the viewer’s attention to the subject.
Once you start to notice subframes, you will see them everywhere. Architecture, trees, bodies and even shadows and light can create interesting subframes that help your viewer to notice the interesting context of your subject.
Think about capturing your subject from varying distances. Photojournalists often take photos from wide, midrange and close-up distances. You can combine photos of different distances to tell a story.
Consider, for example, the three photos below from the article “It’s Never Too Late to Ditch the City and Run a Farm,” a profile of Martha Prewitt, a former opera singer who quit to run her family’s farm. The wide shot sets the scene, the midrange shot establishes Ms. Prewitt as the subject of the story and the close-up shot gives us insight into what her job on the farm is like.
Activity: Scavenger Hunt
You will see all of these composition techniques appear throughout the photojournalism in The New York Times. See how many you can spot in a scavenger hunt.
Create a slide show of images from The Times that demonstrates each of the composition techniques you learned about above:
Rule of thirds
Angle (straight-on, worm’s-eye and bird’s-eye)
Depth of field (shallow and wide)
Distance (wide, midrange and close-up shots)
On each slide, copy and paste an image that demonstrates the technique and describe how the technique is used. Additionally, explain how the technique contributes to the photograph’s story. For example, if you were to explain how the use of a wide depth of field contributes to the story of the image of the man in the laboratory, you might say, “The photographer uses a wide depth of field so viewers can see all the details of the laboratory. These details show us that his job is probably in science and that it is complicated.”
If you have a subscription to The New York Times, you can explore the website on your own. If not, you can hunt through the free articles below to find examples of each technique.
Step 3: Practice With the Tools on Your Smartphone
Now that you know some composition techniques, it’s time to practice them.
There are many methods you could use to photograph your subject. If you are an experienced photographer, you might think about the “visual concept” of your profile and decide what kind of camera or technique you want to use to capture your subject. (We’ll explain this more in the next section.)
But we’re going to stick with a tool that most young people have access to: the camera on your smartphone.
Below, we share a few basic tips for achieving the effects you learned about in Step 2. You can read “Get the Most Out of Your Fancy Smartphone Camera” for even more detailed advice.
Zoom with your feet. You probably know how to zoom in with your smartphone by pinching the screen — but it is generally a good idea to avoid this and move closer to your subject instead. Digital zoom works by enlarging the pixels in your image, so capturing your image that way will often result in some pixelation.
Take time to focus. The best photojournalism uses sharp focus to identify the subject of the shot. On a smartphone screen, tap on your subject to focus on this area of the image. Many smartphones now also have a “portrait mode” feature that keeps the subject in sharp focus while softening or blurring the background. As the photojournalist, you need to decide how much of the background of your environmental portrait is key to telling the story. If the viewer should notice important details in the setting, take care not to overuse portrait mode.
Compose your best shot. Many smartphone cameras have a function that activates a grid on the camera screen to help you use rule of thirds to compose your shot. Go to the settings on your camera and select the grid option (make sure it is a nine-square grid). Remember to place the subject’s eyes near one of the intersections.
Make the most of lighting. Photojournalists know how to take advantage of natural lighting whenever possible. Natural light is generally softer and more flattering than indoor fluorescents. If it makes sense for the story you are documenting, take your photographs outdoors. The first few hours of the morning and the last few hours before sunset often provide the most inviting light.
If an indoor setting is most appropriate for your subject, consider how you can use the light from a window or doorway in your scene. When additional lighting is necessary to enhance your subject in a darker space, use soft bulbs, or even consider draping artificial light with translucent fabric to soften the glare. You’ll want the light in front of, not behind, your subject.
Your smartphone camera allows you to increase or decrease the exposure, or brightness, of the shot. With an iPhone, tap on your subject on the screen, then use the slider to increase or decrease the exposure. On an Android phone, use the three-dot overflow button to find the square button with plus and minus signs. Tap the +1 or +2 to increase the exposure and the -1 or -2 to decrease it.
Turn your camera. If you often take photos vertically, try to take a few shots horizontally and vice versa. This simple trick can help smartphone photographers be intentional about composition. Study the difference between portrait and landscape framing for your shots. Which direction tells the most complete story about your subject?
Activity: Practice, Practice, Practice
To get familiar with your camera, practice taking photos that clearly demonstrate the various composition techniques you’ve learned. For an initial practice round, use a toy or other small object as your subject. Then practice with a willing family member or friend.
The biggest advantage to digital and smartphone photography is that you will never run out of film. So, with every decision you make about the composition of your photos, take multiple shots. If you adjust the subject’s position, take several shots as you explore depth of field and exposure. If you change your angle or try a new composition guideline, shoot multiple photos as you zoom with your feet to get closer to and farther from your subject.
And, if you want to go further, attend a school or local event and practice taking photos on location. Shooting “in the field” is a great exercise to develop your eye for finding beautiful compositions in any environment.
Step 4: Photograph Your Subject (With Tips From a Times Photographer)
You know some composition techniques. You’re familiar with the tools on your camera. Now you’re ready to take photos of the subject of your profile.
The photo shoot involves more than going out and just snapping a few photos. In addition to thinking about the technical aspects of your photography, you’ll also have to think about how to make your subject comfortable and how you can get creative to bring out the aspects of the person’s personality and life story that are most important to your profile.
Below, we offer some questions to ask yourself before and during the photo shoot, along with advice from Todd Heisler, a staff photographer for The New York Times, adapted from what he told us on The Learning Network’s webinar on teaching profile writing. You can watch the full webinar on demand to hear even more of Mr. Heisler’s tips.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before the Photo Shoot
What is the focus of my profile? You or your partner will need to conduct the interview, or at least talk to your subject, ahead of time to get some sense of who the person is and what is interesting about him or her. This information will help you determine the “visual concept” of your story, as well as where you’ll photograph your subject.
Mr. Heisler says that sometimes he and the reporter will go to the interview together. Other times, he’ll read the reporter’s story ahead of time so he knows what to focus on in his photography.
What is the visual concept of my profile? Mr. Heisler says that he always asks himself: “What’s the story? What kind of photographs do I want to make? What does it feel like?”
For example, for a story about the auto body shops of Willets Point, Queens, that had been around since the 1930s and were being cleared for development, the photographers, including Mr. Heisler, wanted to capture the shops’ historical value. So, instead of digital photography, they decided to use 19th-century-style tintypes to “create an authentic, respectful portrait of a gritty, bygone part of New York City.”
Where is the best place to photograph my subject to tell the story? You will want to get photos of subjects in their environments. Take a look at these photos of service workers — cabdrivers, movers, chefs and housekeepers — at the places they work to see examples.
Mr. Heisler says he usually doesn’t want people to completely clear their schedules for him. “There’s nothing worse than knowing that I want to make photographs about what somebody’s day is like, and I show up and they say, ‘Well, I cleared all my activities for the day so we could spend time together.’ Then, it’s somebody sitting on the couch all day, which is not what I want.”
Questions to Ask Yourself During the Photo Shoot
Where specifically might the photographs happen? Once Mr. Heisler gets on location, he said, he thinks about framing, composition, and, most important, lighting. He asks himself: “If it’s a portrait, where would I put them? How does the light hit their face?” And he asks his subjects: “Where are you comfortable? What is meaningful to you?”
If possible, you might take some photos in the environment from different perspectives before the subject arrives. Remember, every item matters in an environmental portrait, so move things you don’t want in the shot out of the way. Try also to keep an eye on what’s in the background so that nothing appears to be sticking out of the subject’s head.
How can I make my subject comfortable? As Mr. Heisler phrased it in our webinar: “Showing up, I’m a stranger, coming into this strange place. You have to get in with people.”
Once your subject is in the perfect spot, put your camera down and talk to him or her. What’s the person’s story? Can you find something you have in common to talk about? Then start shooting while you continue to talk to your subject. Take photos when he or she is thinking of an answer to a question, or laughing. You’re trying to get the person to relax and enjoy the process while you capture genuine expressions that feel comfortable, not forced.
And, remember, you are in charge. Your subject will be trusting you to tell him or her if something doesn’t look right. Don’t be afraid to ask your subject to move, but don’t touch the person. Show directions by using hand gestures.
How can I tell the story of this person? Mr. Heisler suggests thinking about this in a variety of ways. “If this is something where I can tell the story in multiple photographs, I’m thinking about details. I’m thinking about, ‘What is a sense of place?’ … And then moving in a little closer, ‘What is the person like?’ And trying to find some expression, or a moment: some action.”
See how Mr. Heisler strikes that balance in the article “A Rock Star’s Next Act: Making Montana a Skateboarding Oasis.” He said he made sure to capture the scenery surrounding the skate park because the location, Montana, was an important part of the story.
Consider how you can use the compositional techniques you learned to bring out your subject’s personality. For example, if your subject is a woodworker, maybe you want to have some close-ups of the person’s hands doing their craft. If the person is an important community member, you can make him or her look powerful by shooting with a worm’s eye angle.
How can I keep my photographs interesting? Take lots of shots and move around, Mr. Heisler suggests. “Try to make a photograph in a way you’re not used to doing it,” he said. “If you’re used to hitting something from a certain angle, get up and try it from the other side and just see how the light plays.”
Activity: Photo Shoot
Put everything that you’ve learned so far into practice. Pick a place and time that works for you and your subject (remember to consider natural lighting when determining the time of the shoot).
Then, take a series of photos of your subject. Experiment with various angles, framing, props, positions and actions that show different expressions or different sides of the person’s personality. Take as many shots as you can: The more photos you have to choose from as you begin to select your best shots and edit, the better your final photojournalism project will be.
If possible to do it safely — for example, outdoors or masked — we hope you’ll photograph your subject in person. But if not, this Times Insider article from a Times photographer has advice on how to shoot in a socially distant way without sacrificing intimacy.
Step 5: Choose, Edit and Caption the Photos for Your Profile
Now that you’ve taken a variety of photographs of your subject, you will need to select and edit the ones you want to use for your profile. If you are submitting to our Profile Contest, you must include at least one photo in your profile, and you can include up to three.
As you select the photos you want to include, consider the story you want them to tell about your subject. Because these photos are for a profile, at least one of them should clearly show your subject’s face. For the others, you might consider how you can use distance — like a wide shot to show the environment or a close-up to show more intimate details — to reveal the most important aspects of the person’s story.
You should also consider tone. Is the subject you are writing about serious? Lighthearted? Inspiring? Gritty? The lighting, the colors and the subject’s expression and movement will all contribute to the mood you are trying to create.
Once you have selected your photos, you will need to edit them. Your editing should focus on enhancing the quality of the photo, but you should not alter the reality of the photo in any way. Here are some things to consider:
Crop carefully. In an environmental portrait, every part of the picture is important. Crop your photos carefully to eliminate any space that doesn’t help tell the story. You can also use cropping to cut out distracting background information.
Consider the photo above of Margaret Kivelson, a physicist, from her 2018 feature in Profiles in Science. Although there was probably much more to see along the campus street, the photographer, Jenna Schoenefeld, cropped this shot to frame Ms. Kivelson along the rule of thirds and to eliminate any space that did not contribute to the story.
It is generally a good idea to use a standard aspect ratio when cropping. Most smartphone cameras have ratios like 1:1 (square), 7:5, 4:3, 16:9 and others embedded in the cropping tool. Cropping to a standard aspect ensures that your photo will fit in standard publication guides or frames.
Consider photojournalism ethics. Since the photos for your profile story are journalistic, they should present an accurate representation of your subject without any tricks or manipulation. Please keep digital manipulation and postprocessing to a minimum. (That is, you may use editing software for minor corrections such as one might make in a darkroom — like cropping, adjusting brightness and balancing colors — but please do not alter the reality of the photo in any way.) If you are using a camera phone, please do not use filter effects. Submit your photos as individual images, not as collages or photo illustrations.
Review the section on Photography and Imagery in The New York Times’s Guidelines on Integrity to ensure your photos meet these important standards.
Use editing tools thoughtfully. There are many photo editing tools at your fingertips on a smartphone or personal computer. Simple built-in tools on your smartphone’s camera can adjust exposure and contrast, brighten the shadows or soften the highlights, or even enhance a photo’s sharpness. Apps like Snapseed and Lightroom Mobile add even more options to your editing toolbox.
Photojournalists use captions to describe the storytelling details of their photos. A caption usually includes information about the “Five W’s” of each photo — who, what, when, where and why. Include details that are most important to your story.
A caption should usually explain what readers cannot see for themselves in the picture and omit the obvious. For example, the top photo in this Times profile of David Reich has a detailed caption that describes what the technician is doing — a process that is not obvious from the photograph.
For each photo submission in the Profile Contest, you should write a one-sentence caption explaining your image.
Activity: Select, edit, caption and submit your photos.
Choose and edit the one to three photos you would like to include in your profile.
To make sure the subject of your profile comes across the way you want him or her to in your photos, you might try an exercise like the one you did in Step 1 of this lesson. Share your photo selections with a partner and have him or her try to guess some attributes of your subject. Is your partner able to infer some information about your subject’s personality or the focus of your profile? The guesses don’t have to be 100 percent correct, but they should be fairly close.
If your partner’s guesses are way off, or she or he doesn’t feel like there are enough visual clues to make a guess, return to your pool of photos and see if you can find others that better represent your subject.
Finally, once you have your final selections, add a one-sentence caption to each photo explaining the image.