Environmental Portraits at Blackberry Farm

I have been showing some behind the scenes photos on my Instagram account for a while now and have decided to incorporate some of that into my blog post. There is no scouting for most of my photo shoots. That means come up with what I am doing on the fly. Here is a breakdown of a portrait session earlier this year, including things going on in my head to how I handled most of the lighting setups.

A couple of months ago I had a full day on the road making environmental portraits for Maryville College. The number one rule for this project was to place the subject on either the left of right side of the frame to give room for text when it goes to print. Meanwhile, my personal goal was to make the photographs not look natural, as if my light was not even out there.

So my morning started at Blackberry Farm, an amazing luxury resort in the Great Smoky Mountains. The first subject I needed to photograph was Hannah, a biology major from Maryville College that was working on a study to find a sustainable, organic alternative to pesticides. Once I was able to access the area of our photo shoot, I did a quick evaluation and picked out the locations I wanted to photograph. Everything was beautiful except the one thing that could not be controlled, the weather. The sky was gray, and the light was flat. So I grabbed my version of the sun, a Chimera 5 foot OctaPlus on an Elinchrom Ranger. I really love this setup. It allows me to have a large, soft, natural looking light source with enough power to knock down the sun at noon.

For the first picture, I placed Hannah in the middle of the garden that was a part of her study. To avoid the blank sky in the background, I kept my framing low to fill the frame with lush green vegetation around the garden. Luckily, I was able to use her teachers as a secondary element working the background. I placed my 5’ Octa “aka mini sun” just outside the right side of the frame in the middle of the garden rows. I raised the light just above the subject’s eye line to mock how the light would naturally fall from the sun.

commercial photography knoxville tn

Next we moved over to the farm house. I originally thought we could do a sky replacement on this image. Once I began working on it in post, I decided there was no need to replace the sky. I loved it as a black and white photograph. Again, I raised the light to just about the subject’s eye line. The large surface area of the OctaPlus allowed for pretty soft light, even though it was 15 feet away from the subject. In reference to the subject, the light was almost to a 90-degree angle. While the light is still nice and soft, you can see the depth of the shadows increase on the unlit side of her face.

editorial portrait photography

Then we went inside the farmhouse, and it was decorated beautifully with all kinds of great props. Plus the richness of the wood just glowed. I couldn’t leave without at least one portrait in there. I place Hannah at the edge of a large open door. After shooting a quick test frame, the available light did not give me a good separation between my subject and the background. On top of that, the colors were very flat and cold. Once again I brought my Elinchrom Ranger and Chimera OctaPlus back in to mock the natural light. Behind my subject was a regular size door with window panes in the top half. I angled the OctaPlus to graze the edge of my Hannah’s face. Plus shoot through the window and light the back wall.

Environmental Portraits

To give you a better visual of my setup, here is a behind the scenes photo from the above picture.

strobist bts

Before leaving, I wanted one more quick headshot. I had Hannah lean against the outside edge of the door, and with a slight tweak of my light, a was able to wash her with a soft light. After a couple of snaps, it was time to pack up, say goodbye and head to the next portrait.

casual headshot

I hope you have enjoyed the behind the scenes insight to how I made Hannah’s environmental portraits.


Freelance photographer Steven Bridges is based in Knoxville, TN and specializes in environmental portraits and commercial photography.

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