Environmental Portraits: Cake Designer

In this environmental portrait photography class, Karl faced the challenge of creating a bright, fresh-looking portrait image of a cake designer.

Working in a small, underground basement, Karl also had to overcome the challenges of arranging and lighting the scene as well as composing and styling his shot, all in just over an hour.

Using just a handful of lights, you’ll see how he carefully builds up his lighting, paying attention to small details, and uses certain lighting techniques to create the feeling of bright sunlight. He also explains how he uses certain compositional tricks to frame the shot and get the best result. As he explains his step-by-step process, you’ll get to see the start-fo-finish shoot and gain insight into his workflow and creative thought process.

What you’ll learn:

  • How to photograph environmental portraits
  • How to control light in small spaces
  • Photography composition & techniques
  • Camera settings for environmental portraits
  • How to create a bright, fresh lighting mood
  • Outfit choice and styling for environmental portraits

If you have any questions about this class, please post in the comment section below.

Photographing a portrait in a basement was never going to be the easiest of tasks, but because I’d already thought about the shot and done my research, I already knew what kind of photo I wanted to create.

Working in one half of the small, dark room (the other being unsuitable due to the many fridges, ovens and mixers), I had very little space to work with. To make the most of the space, I had to rearrange much of the scene, moving and removing items in the background and using several items in the foreground to create occlusion and guide our eye into the picture.

Photography composition

Using elements in the foreground for composition.

Only once I was largely happy with the framing of my image did I move onto the lighting. I used a large Octabox as the key light, combined with a couple of other lights for key areas of the shot. Balancing multiple lights took some time, and it was important to pay particular attention to little details in the scene, which I point out in the video.

Environmental portrait photography lighting

The bright, fresh mood was achieved using multiple lights.

Because I knew the type of lighting I wanted to create and how I could control my lighting to achieve this, I was able to work quickly and efficiently, creating the bright, fresh image I’d envisaged in just over an hour.


Environmental portrait example

The final environmental portrait of the cake designer.


  1. peteharper

    Smashing video as always! In this type of shot would there be a lot of skin retouch or leave more as is? Cheers.

    1. Hi, Peter there was no skin retouching on this one as far as I remember so it would depend person to person.

  2. Awesome work. I’m interested in pricing this. In the pricing calculator it suggests first 10 images free on a day long shoot. But doing 10 images like this would be too much in a day unless you’re some sort of Photography Superhero.

    How would this type of shot fit into a day price?

  3. Hello Karl!
    How would it affect the image, in this specific case, if the 75 octa had no grid? And if you had use a deep umbrella with a diffuser instead the octa 150 (same size umbrella) could you get similar result and feel?

    Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Sesil, if the Octa 75 had no grid then I would have had more bounce around the room which would have affected my exposure levels and light control on the foreground area too, not tremendously but enough that it made putting the grid on worth while. The other reason for the grid was that it will ‘harden’ the light a bit and give me more of a ‘sunlight’ feel on the shoulders/neck which is what I wanted given we were in a dungeon and I wanted it to look like a bright and airy cake shop! If you used a deep umbrella with good diffusion and a white interior to the umbrella then the resulting output would be very similar to the Octa 150 if the diameter of your deep umbrella was the same, your bigger difficulty though would have been space. The Octa 150 has a very thin profile so is easier to set up in a small space.

      If you go into your personal customer home page (link at the very top menu) go to our lighting compairson App and compare the 160cm white umbrella with the Octa 150 and you see how similar they can be but then go and watch the video of the shoot in the Lighting Modifier section to see the difference in handling.

      All the best

    2. Mr Taylor I love how detail you are and the way you build the shot thanks for this education. Question are you still using the 5dM3 I love or are you using mirrorless systems now thank.

      1. Thank you Jeff. I shoot mostly on Medium Format in the studio but also use the 5dmk3 and a Sony A7r too. We still have a lot of the Canon lenses from over the year but I haven’t upgraded the Canon body and we also have a lot of Sony lenses as we use them for much of our filming.

    1. Hi Guizz, If the room was much bigger then you would need to increase the power of the light but the principles of the direction of the light would be the same if that is what you wanted. However each scenario is different if it was a huge room like a warehouse then of course the walls wouldn’t be close enough to bounce light from. It may be that the room already has some daylight that you can utilise. These series of classes are designed to inspire and provide ideas but every shooting scenario is different. The most important thing is to build a fundamental understanding of how light works and how to use it and modify it and then you can apply that knowledge to almost any scenario. My suggestion is that you watch this section first to build your knowledge: https://visualeducation.com/section/lighting-theory-and-equipment/

  4. I admire the fact that 1) you think out loud 2) you solve problem on camera rather than preparing all your settings before recording and just explain.

    1. Hi Phillip, we just like to mix it up a bit and for these type of location shots 35mm FF is perfectly acceptable and often a bit quicker to work with.

  5. Hi Karl!

    I would like to Thank You all of your amazing Content. This looks really nice, natural, BUT the magic is that barebulb light with big white walls. What would you do with purple or orange etc. walls, if the walls were coloured, then the reflective light were colored too. How would you achive the same natural lightning?

    Thanks to you,

    1. Hi Patrick, thanks well we did have to be careful because I think I remember one end wall was purple. The good thing is that if you were to take 100 commercial premesis then 90 of them would have white or whiteish walls. For the others you’d have to use C-stands and hang up white sheets or simply go with a different lighting style. You can always only play the hand you were dealt, it’s how you can move things back into your favour that counts.

  6. Great stuff. I’m amazed at all the detail you’re able to notice (and fix) just using the small camera screen. I feel like there are always things I don’t notice until I get it home on the computer and then have to try and deal with in post. Really impressive work.

    1. Hi, I usually use a Manfrotto 058B on location but I didn’t have it on this trip so Urs loaned me one of his Foba tripods.

Leave a Comment