Tony Gale’s Tips for Environmental Portraiture

Tony Gale’s Tips for Environmental Portraiture

We were fortunate to have NYC-based photographer Tony Gale join us for an information-filled webinar on his approach to environmental photography. We were less fortunate to have me responsible for pressing “record” before the webinar started, because I somehow failed to record the audio. In lieu of hearing the soothing sounds of my voice, we’ve compiled an interview-style written post with Tony’s lighting diagrams. Mea culpa.

PhotoShelter: How did you get your start in photography?

Tony Gale: I bought a camera from my friend who needed the money to pay rent, and fell in love. My career started in Seattle, but there was limited opportunity in that smaller market, so I moved to New York in 2000. I shoot for clients like Bank of America, State Farm, Best Buy, NY Moves magazine, and others. I also teach a lighting course at Parsons the New School for Design. In my spare time, I’m an avid triathlete.

PS: Any Ironman triathlons in your future?

TG: I’m working up to doing one in 2014.

PS: We met last year while doing a series of APA Photo Assistant seminars and in Seattle you took this photo of me – I guess it is an environmental portrait – but I like it. It’s fun.

TG: Yes, it was the end of the day, and we had shot inside the studio, but decided to run power out the 2nd story window and take some fun photos.

Photo by Tony Gale

PS: What is appealing to you about taking portraits, or more specifically, an environmental portrait?

TG: I like meeting and talking to people from diverse backgrounds. There is something about meeting people in person that you don’t get from an email or a phone call. And in the case of an environmental photo, you can see people in their own element.

PS: Tell us about this first photo.

TG: The subject is a rollerblader and we wanted to shoot him in an area where he skates. This is a single light set up with about a 70mm lens, so I’m pretty far back to get his entire body.

Photo by Tony Gale

PS: His skin tone looks a little warm. Did you use any gels?

TG: The skin tone is warm because I made it warm by adjusting the white balance. I use an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport on all my shoots to determine a neutral white balance, then I can make adjustments within Lightroom as necessary. White balance is just too difficult to determine by looking at the back of your screen while on a shoot, and the ColorChecker gives me a consistent output from which I can build profiles in Lightroom.

I also have a number of softboxes and as they age, they get a little yellow, so in some cases I’ll just pick an older softbox if I want a warmer tone.

PS: What other equipment do you typically use?

TG: I have a Hensel Porty battery powered light that I bought used. I use a Sony a77 and a99, Pocket Wizards, and I have three vivitar 283 flashes that I got used for about $35.

PS: A few years ago it would have been unusual to hear that a pro was using Sony DSLRs, but I got to try out the a99, and it’s a pretty great camera.

TG: Yes, I’ve been very happy with the performance, especially in low light. I shot a job recently at ISO6400 with an a99 and the images came out great.

PS: When I saw this next image, I was really surprised to see that it was all ambient. But I guess those bus signs can put out a lot of light just like a computer screen.

TG: This was a situation where you have to find the right bus stand; one that has a light colored ad so that it can be used for illumination. The bus stand metered at f/5.6 and the ambient was at f/2.8.

Photo by Tony Gale

PS: So you had four times as much light from the bus stand.

TG: Yes. It was still a slow exposure (1/2 sec), so I had a tripod, but I think that night photography needs to have that certain ambiance.

PS: I see some motion blur in the left corner. Was that intention?

TG: Yes, that’s just the blur of someone walking by which I thought added a little something to the photo. I have since recreated this photo for other clients who like the look.

PS: Have you considered using continuous lighting for a shot like this?

TG: I do own a few 2″x2″ LED panels, cheap ones, about $35 each, and they’re great for this type of work. The lower end models aren’t great with color temperature consistency compared to the more expensive product like Litepanel. But this is a situation where I could have taped one of those to the bus stand if necessary.

PS: On the last photo, I had expected that you used strobes (you didn’t). On this one, I was surprised to see that you had used strobes because it looks like window light!

TG: Thank you, I’m glad to hear that. This is two lights. A big white umbrella camera right, and a strobe bounced into the wall camera left. I tried it with just the umbrella and the light was too hard. There weren’t any windows in the room so I had to light it. I light with one light at a time, and add additional lights as needed. I find that it’s too hard to turn multiple lights on at the same time while trying to understand what’s bouncing off of what.

Photo by Tony Gale

PS: This to me is such a great environmental photo. I see the hats on the wall, and then you framed her in the negative space, and she also has this wonderful hairpiece on. Were you aware of all these compositional elements?

TG: Yes, I saw the hats and the negative space. I didn’t have her completely centered in the negative space, but it doesn’t bother me. The lens is pretty wide because the room is so small – my back is up against the wall, and there’s some distortion towards the edges of the frame, but you pick the lens to get the “right” photo. Shooting wide gives us these environmental elements.

PS: Are you directing her poses?

TG: Non-models can be very intimidated when having their photo taken, so I try to have a conversation with them, and I tell them that I’m gonna take a lot of photos. They’ll be some photos where their eyes are closed, and some where they mouth is in a funny position. But in between those, you get some really nice, natural poses. I think I probably shot about 300 images for this.

This image was taken as a part of my “Some Interesting People” project where people submit me the name and description of someone they find interesting and I go out and photograph them.

PS: You have this project and another project to take a portrait of all your Facebook friends – all 1,500 of them. How important are personal projects to your creative growth?

TG: Very important. You could go a month without being hired to take a portait, so it’s important to keep shooting things that are interesting to you.

PS: This next one looks like a model.

TG: Yes, this was for a catalog shoot. We probably did 2000 frames per day in 5 locations.

Photo by Tony Gale

PS: And this doesn’t have any strobes!

TG: Correct. We used a soft gold reflector which has alternating bands of gold and silver. The effect of a gold reflector can be pretty noticeable, so my assistant is probably backed up about 15 feet away. But it was a very bright day, and we didn’t need a strobe, so I didn’t use one. I try to keep it pretty simple, and in this case, it’s more about the location.

PS: Are you usually responsible for picking the location?

TG: The client will often have a location in mind, but they aren’t thinking about lighting, backgrounds, etc., so when I’m scouting it’s my job to be able to tell them why one location might be preferable to another.

PS: Can you tell us about your post production workflow?

TG: I ingest everything through Lightroom, and as I mentioned before, I use the ColorChecker to shoot a reference frame for each lighting set-up. After building a color profile for each, I’ll start going in and making adjustments as needed.

PS: Your images don’t seem particularly heavy handed for retouching. Are you pulling these into Photoshop at all, or is everything completed in Lightroom?

TG: Photoshop almost inevitably gets used for the final images, and most of the images you’re seeing today could have between 3-9 layers in Photoshop, but for subtle tweaking.

PS: Three subjects in this one. I find it really complex to pose more than one person.

TG: Adding more people makes taking a portrait much more complex. I usually start with one person in the frame and then add the subjects one at a time. This was photographed for an alumni magazine at a winery on Long Island.

Photo by Tony Gale

PS: When I started doing portraits, I was looking at a lot of sports portraiture where the style is to underexpose the sky to add more drama and make the subject look more heroic. In this photo, the sky is blown out and you have some flare in the upper left corner.

TG: Yes, this was intentional. It was actually a pretty overcast day, so it wasn’t as bright as it looks, but I find that when you’re shooting indoors, you want the outside to look a certain way and the interaction of the light with the windows is important as well. In this case, the light casts these long shadows of the window frames and the people.

PS: The lens is pretty wide. 

TG: I wanted to get those great arches in the shot, so I’m probably shooting 24mm with my back up against the wall. But again, it helps establish the environment, and makes this a more successful photo than if I had cropped it tighter.

PS: Our final photo of some students.

TG: This was actually taken in Miami for the APA Photo Assistant workshop. I always took a photo of the groups, and this was challenging because there are so many people. But as we were walking around, I saw this bush, and I told everyone to get into the bush. Not in front of the bush, in the bush.

Photo by Tony Gale

PS: The light is pretty straight on, but it has this pretty contemporary look to it.

TG: Yes, because I had to shoot wide to get everyone in, and the road is there. We had two Profoto 7a‘s about 40 feet away. And we just used the zoom reflectors, which allow you to focus the light a little tighter when you have a long throw.

PS: What sort of lighting kit would you recommend for someone starting out with environmental and location portraiture. I guess it sort of depends on price range.

TG: Lights can be very expensive, but you can get a nice battery kit like a Calumet Genesis for about $400. At the mid-range, there are lights like the Hensel Porty or the Elinchrom Ranger. And at the high end, the Broncolor Move or Profoto B4. The difference between the low end and high end equipment is usually in color consistency and flash duration. Flash duration is really only important if you’re trying to freeze motion.

PS: And if you were going to pick a few modifiers?

TG: Softbox, umbrella, and zoom reflector are all standard. There are so many different types of modifiers like strip lights and octabanks, but I like to keep it pretty simple.

PS: Plus when you’re working outdoors, those octabanks can fly all over the place.

TG: Yes, I travel with bungy cord and water weights instead of sandbags. But yes, you don’t want your lights blowing around in the wind.

Tony put additional lighting diagrams on his Facebook page, which were created with software provided by MAC-On-Campus


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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Steve M at 10:47 am

    Dang! Had a shoot come up and had to miss the webinar, but figured I could just go listen to it later. This will remind me that you can’t count on these being available anytime, and I should make more room in the schedule for PhotoShelter Webinars! Buy hey, a check is a check. Thanks for posting Allen!

  2. Wade at 12:24 pm

    Great tips. Thanks.
    But the motion blur in lower left corner of the bus stop photo is really a distraction, it breaks the straight lines and move viewers’ attention off the center topic. It’s just my opinion.

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