Environmental Portraits: Sommelier

Environmental portraits, although often a lucrative genre of photography, can be very challenging. Often you have to deal with busy subjects, cluttered environments and mixed lighting. This was exactly the case with this environmental portrait shoot, where Karl had to overcome working in a busy, cluttered environment before having only 10 minutes to photograph his subject.

Photographing a whisky sommelier in a busy liquor store, this particular shoot shows how Karl overcomes challenges such as re-arranging and styling a cluttered scene, controlling light in a small space, photographing reflective bottles and how to work quickly when your subject only has a few minutes to spare.

What you’ll learn:

  • How to photograph environmental portraits
  • How to arrange a cluttered scene
  • Controlling light in small spaces
  • Tips for photographing reflective bottles and surfaces
  • Communicating with your subject
  • Tips for working quickly and effectively when photographing people

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

The pressure was on from the very start with this shoot of a whisky sommelier as we knew we only had 10-minutes to photograph him. This meant we had to style the scene and get the lighting as close to perfect as we could before starting the shoot.

The first thing we had to deal with was the setting itself. I knew I wanted to incorporate the vast whisky selection in the shot, but to get a pleasing result required a lot of re-arranging. This took a lot of time and we also had to ensure the liquid in the bottles had a nice warm golden, glow (to do this, I used a technique that’s shown in my whisky photography live workshop).

environmental portrait planning

Working in a busy setting such as this meant the scene required some styling before the shoot.

Once we’d styled the scene, the next thing was to finalise the lighting before getting the subject in. Working in a fairly tight space, I had to use grids, ND gels and flags to control the light.

Environmental portrait lighting setup

Working in a small environment meant it was necessary to control the light using accessories such as grids.

Once the lighting was right, I got the subject in. Clear communication is key, and you’ll see me clearly explaining what I wanted to achieve and discussing my ideas with the subject in the video. This is something I talk about more in my ‘Business Portrait Theory’ class.

In the end I was very pleased with the results. Thanks to careful planning and teamwork, we were able to get a great result in just over an hour.

Environmental portrait photograph

The final environmental portrait image of a whisky sommelier.


  1. Hi Karl – I am loving these environmental portrait series. Am wondering – I see a lot of photos of bartenders pouring drinks of the bar and the bottle behnd them is lit. If you were to shoot that, would you light the background (bottle in the bar) as you have done here, or is it possible to drag the shutter letting in ambient light for the bottles (already lit with the bar lights), and a pop of flash for the subject? It seems to be a solution that Joe McNally teaches, yet you prefer lighting the background with strobe. Wondering the difference. Thanks

    1. Hi John, both methods you describe can work however for the pouring part that obviously needs to be frozen with flash so if you leave the shutter open to capture the ambience which is good idea on bar shots then you must make sure that the ambient isn’t the dominant light on the pouring part or the subject won’t freeze. I use both techniques and always just figure out which is best on the day. In this example it was lit like a bar so it was better for me to use flash on all of it.

  2. Did you bribe the Bron man himself, Urs, with massive amounts of whiskey? So much talent on one set!!

    1. Ha Ha no, we were in Switzerland filming some other things fro bron and decided to set up a few shoots while we were there for our own platform and Urs kindly came along to help us out.

Leave a Comment