How to Shoot in a Challenging Environment

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As portrait photographers, sometimes the location is less than ideal. You still have to make a shot to please the subject, so what’s the best way to shoot in a challenging environment?

Don’t Panic! Your Client Probably Has Different Expectations Than You Do

As a photographer, you want to be a bit of a perfectionist. The best way to do that with your portrait photos is to eliminate anything that could distract from your subject. You want to distill the photo to only the elements that enhance the final result.

That means we want to find a clean background, something where we can pick and choose what elements to add. Failing that, we want to find a background for our subjects that say something about them. Something that helps you tell the story of your portrait subject.

Then there are times when you realize that’s a luxury you won’t get, and you have to start managing your expectations.

One of the first things you need to consider is what your subject expects. Every photo has a purpose. Sometimes it serves the photographer and sometimes it doesn’t.

In my recent shoot with an IFBB Pro Bikini Bodybuilder, I knew from our discussion that she needed shots of her in a gym environment. We were fortunate because she’s very well networked and a local gym owner graciously allowed us access to use his gym for her portrait session.

It had all the elements she needed to support her story of working out for her competition.

However, it also had a lot of elements that distracted from a portrait of her as the subject. When it came down to making a decision, it worked for her needs and that was really all that mattered.

While I worried about the mirrors causing reflections from my lights, pieces of equipment getting into the shot and other people in the background, it didn’t cause her concern. That’s just how a gym looks, which is why the photos ultimately served her purpose.

These photos won’t be my portfolio shots, but our subject is thrilled with the results. Different purposes, different expectations.

Take Your Time Evaluating the Location

Gyms are notoriously difficult for portrait photographers, and rightly so. Not all gyms are equal, but they have one thing in common.

Many of them have mirrors and large pieces of equipment stacked all over the place. Here’s a “behind the scenes” shot of one area we had to work out for a shot that our client wanted.

How to Shoot in a Challenging Environment

The idea that she wanted here was to have her face in the mirror sharp as well as the full length of her body. I couldn’t shoot wide open, so I had to stop down the aperture a bit. In turn, that gave me challenges with the ambient light, which she wanted to include the environment.

Let’s not forget the mirrors, which we didn’t want to feature me and my camera in the background or the lights. Since this needed to be a full length shot, that meant shooting from an angle, which tended to exclude me, but included one of my strip lights.

We ended up with a shot like this one below.

This shot turned out to be the most challenging of the day, and I’m not really happy with it because of that strip light in the scene. We needed it, though. Without that rim light on her side, the reflection would fade into the background. No matter where I put that light, it was going to be in the shot.

To keep myself out of the reflection, I basically had to accept that everything from her position over to the right wall was in the scene. We blocked the soft box with her body as best we could.

Going back to what I mentioned above about different expectations. she really loved this shot. The strip box on the side meant absolutely nothing to her. It’s practically invisible to her.

One of my other worries at this location were rows of florescent lights on the ceiling. Sometimes we could eliminate them with camera position and other times I tried to use them for leading lines. They were a constant concern during the portrait session.

Moving Distractions

The gym wasn’t crowded, but it was in use with about a dozen people. There’s something about a portrait session that seems to attract attention, and we definitely got some photo bombers.

How to Shoot in a Challenging Environment

Look in the upper left of this portrait outtake and you can see someone who inserted himself as we were shooting. We know that people would walk back and forth during their workout and we were careful to avoid any areas where those customers were working out.

Yet it seems that any empty portion of the gym we found became a necessary spot to workout once the photos started clicking. It happens.

All you can do is try to be mindful and then carefully select your final edits to avoid any potential for lurkers.

Remember that not everyone has access to a perfect environment for their photoshoot. Sometimes you work with what you have, and that may mean your potential distractions may be other people who have every right to be where you’re shooting. It was important for us to respect that they were customers of the gym, and we were the interlopers there.

Identify Your Issues. Either Work With Them or Reschedule the Portrait Session

When you work with a challenging environment for your portrait sessions, you have a decision to make. Can you work with the challenges, or is it better to avoid the area because it will just yield disappointing results?

I knew that this location would not serve my portfolio needs before I got there, but I was hopeful that there could be one clean background or area that would yield a single shot for my needs.

That didn’t happen.

Yet that disappointment for my needs didn’t mean this wasn’t a workable location for our subject. In fact, it was exactly what she needed. My job was to work through the difficulties and provide her with the best results I could manage.

In the end, she’s thrilled with the photos. They tell the story that she needs to tell, and we couldn’t have done that in a clean environment without all of the weights and machines.

The mirrors that concerned me were a particular asset for her on some of our photos.

The real deciding factor to shoot or walk away was understanding the purpose and story for the photos. While it was a challenging environment for me as a photographer, it really worked well to show our subject in her environment.

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