Environmental vs Studio Portraits by Pro Seattle Photographer

For the skilled Seattle photographer, the old debate between left- and right-brained expression play a few cards on this table.

Let’s get one thing straight: Expressive and creative-minded portraiture doesn’t equate with a lack of professionalism. We don’t live in cubicles; a sterile backdrop with flickering, buzzing fluorescent tube lights doesn’t literally follow us home. A similar argument has been made in the age-old argument of studio portraits versus environmental portraits, both of which Seattle portrait photography and pro headshot photographer Lara Grauer specializes in.

While a blank background and studio lighting do emphasize the individual in contrast with the distractions of the world around them, the emotive aspect is usually toned down, lending a hard-edged feeling that speaks more to a practical-minded viewer than someone who’s approaching the image in search of a deeper human element. However, a skilled Seattle photographer can capture just the right amount of spark in the client’s eyes to keep it formal — but not cold. On the other hand, a Seattle photographer might argue that snapping someone in a setting that reinforces their trade can actually draw away from the essential connection with the individual him- or herself. Needs vary by individual, and Seattle photographer Lara Grauer strives to bring out the best in each unique soul with a carefully curated cleave between the individual and their environment.

Keep in mind the differences between headshots and portraits:

  • Headshots lean toward formality and professionalism with an emphasis on the head and face
  • Portraits lean toward artistry and expression with an emphasis on environment and emotion

“Wait, so what exactly are studio and environmental portraits again?”

I jumped into this a bit quickly, so let’s back up. Studio portraits are formalized portrait shots that often take place in a studio of all places — who’da thunk — with the stool, the white backdrop, the carefully positioned artificial lighting and so on. There might be props, there could be pillows, and you might have a cup of steaming coffee to show that you’re caffeine-serious about your clientele. A studio shot often goes hand in hand with headshot photography, but in portraits, there might be imagery in the backdrop, additional props, and a more relaxed feel that maintains an edge of professionalism.

A Seattle portrait photographer would tell you that studio portraits are considered acceptable in just about any professional situation with their comparatively sterile, streamlined focus on the individual him- or herself and no tassels or frills to detract from that. You don’t necessarily have to be straight-laced and formal for a studio shoot with a Seattle photographer, but it’s a proven route of expression that gets to the point: no cat, no mouse, just your uncompromising expertise and your client’s unwavering needs.

As you may have guessed, environmental portraits take it outdoors — or sometimes into another building — and often feature natural lighting, actual surroundings, fussy Seattle drivers and public infrastructure that altogether say, “This is where I live.” The point of environmental portrait photography is to capture an individual in a setting that more accurately represents said individual in regards to their interests or trade. They often bring more authenticity to the photo where clients might otherwise be put off by the unnaturally organized setup of studio portraits.

For instance, if I were a freelance writer, Seattle portrait photographer Lara Grauer might place me in a coffee shop setting with my busybody laptop, venti Starbucks, a pen tucked behind my ear and a stack of papers next to me. Likewise, if you saw someone in overalls outside of a warehouse with a wrench in hand, you might think “repairman” or “engineer”. Someone wearing gloves next to a plot of dirt and a bag of fertilizer might bring “gardener” or “optimistic mortician” to mind. If you put glasses on a butcher and replace the cleaver with a paintbrush, you now have an “artist”. It’s a strange world out there, and sometimes, that’s the charm you want in your photos.

Which style of photography is “right” for a given client in a given profession is a hotly contended matter, and variously opinionated Seattle photographers may never quite settle on a neatly trimmed hedge that can zero in on environmental portraits or headshots versus the studio counterpart of either.

When to Choose Environmental or Studio

Let’s mosey through some guidelines and be incredibly boring about it as we go:

1. A Seattle photographer will typically recommend studio portraits for clerical professions. An office setting is one place where people don’t typically make “good” memories. It’s rife with Brittany using company minutes to “uh-mah-GAWD” with her BFF, Ralph complaining that the communal coffeemaker should’ve been upgraded to a Keurig two years ago, Macy needing help with inserting cat pictures in her PowerPoint, Josh discretely playing phone games while pretending to be useful, and rumors that Tysinger hides an extra fist in his obsessively manicured beard.

The point is that office settings often harken to an overly busy yet dull environment mixed with annoying personalities. If we’re posing for a Hewlett-Packard ad or maybe a backdrop for an SEO-PPC company, that might be one thing, but on a business card or site photo that focuses on you, a Seattle photographer may suggest that you settle for a gray backdrop and some warm lighting that collectively convey a no-nonsense approach.

2. Environmental photos are a popular choice for “fun” or “inspiring” professions. A Seattle photographer might recommend a pro gamer, mechanic or veterinarian get their portraits captured in the essence of their work environment. Ask yourself, dear reader, which you find more convincing: a veterinarian with a dull backdrop and no defining traits besides maybe a generic white jacket, or one holding a floppy-eared puppy with a Kong chew toy and a shot of other puppets in the spa behind her? The latter just screams “AWWHH” and gets clients all wrapped up in the feeling that this veterinarian is a veterinarian, not just a title with a face.

A gamer doesn’t look like a gamer with a blank background even if they’re holding a controller and wearing a shirt with the Half Life logo; they look like the entitled son of a successful suit-and-briefcase dad. Put that guy in a room with rows of CyberPowerPC towers, gaming mice and a headset around his neck, darken the lighting a bit and get your game face on. That same game face without the flavored backdrop would seem a little strange. A skilled Seattle photographer can pick up on these little nuances.

3. Are we connecting with the individual alone or also their profession? That probably sounds like a strange question, so let me elucidate. If you’re working with, say, an agent who’s attempting to sell your products and services, you’re not getting involved with their environment of work so much as the agent him- or herself. You may have a seat in their office, but your attention is 98 percent on the agent, not the hands-off environment where they conduct business. Everything you see and exchange happens with this individual; there is no back end to interact with.

Laterally, you would think the same way of lawyers and basically anyone whose setting rests in the shadow of the representative. With these professions, a focus on the individual is better because that’s all you’re actually working with as a client. Now, apply what you know as a client to yourself as an entrepreneur and ask, “Are my clients interacting with my work environment at all?”

If the answer to that happens to be yes, then a Seattle photographer may recommend that you step back and show the world where the magic happens. In fact, Seattle photographer Lara Grauer herself is a fine example because she brings customers into her studio as part of her job, and it’s there that you’ll interact with the stools, the props, the lights — everything that connects Lara’s profession with your needs as her client. In that case, an environmental portrait would well convey what she does because it’s about more than just Lara; it’s also about where the client is when she performs her work.