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, it depends entirely on percentage. If you are filtering only 50% of the light then the filter is only going to be 50% as effective etc etc. If I have to filter softboxes I find clipping the gels to the inside first diffuser the easiest as this blocks nearly all the light coming to the final diffuser.

        1. Hi, I try to cover the whole diffuser. I have boxes of Gels that are about 60cm x 50cm and I often cut them to shape or use 2.

          1. desavoiecorp@gmail.com

            Why? I heard you saying that in a video, if you put a color correction filter inside the softbox between the light bulb and softbox diffuser, it doesn’t work??

          2. Hi Where did it say that? Also please keep in mind the only thing that works is physics! if you block the neutral light path with filtration then the light will be filtered, if you block 80% with a filter then 20% of the light will still be neutral and mix with your filtered light making the filtration you applied weaker.

          3. desavoiecorp@gmail.com

            Instead of covering the entire soft box hence you need a huge filter, can you put two on top of each to increase filter effect when you decide to put the filter right in front of the bare bulb inside the soft box?

          4. Hi, yes you can overlap them. Of course in doing so, wherever they are overlapped will be double the strength of the filtration.

  1. Hello Karl, beautiful work!
    I have a defocused exterior corporate shot to be done indoors in a window and I am a little confused with the correct shutter speed. I plan to use my 85 mm 1.8 lens at F2, 100 ISO in this case to create the complete blur background, will I need a high shutter speed like 1/4000? if so, I will need the strobe to be HSS? if so how powerful will this strobe need to be? Thank you,

    1. Hi, when you are using flash the only job the shutter speed has is to cut out or to keep as much ambient light as you require. If you will have a a window in the background you may need to think about how you are going to reduce that ambient light so that it balances with your flash and your f2 setting. Your options are 1. Increase the shutter speed (but this may take you beyond the flash sync speed so HSS may be required) 2. Put an ND filter on the camera and then increase the flash power instead. 3. Put an ND gel over the window. If you decide to go for option 1 then you will need to make sure that your trigger and flash are compatible with HSS, the power requirements are unknown to me as there are many variables such as distance, brand, trigger system, etc etc.

  2. Chaz27

    The final shot is interesting seeing how all is blurred. That was a challenge especially shooting at f/1.4 and keeping his face in sharp focus.
    In a shot like this did you ever have the client ask you why all the surroundings are blurred, maybe expecting to see all in focus?

    Was very good showing how you lit all.
    Learning… That’s for sure.

    1. Hi Chaz, thank you for your comments. Ultimately in this type of shot is to ensure that the subject stands out from the background. With a background like this that would be harder to do, in essence people wouldn’t really be interested in reading the labels on the bottle, they just need to get the feeling that this guy knows his stuff and work in find drinks. Always ask yourself what the purpose of the shot is, in a shot like this it’s usually to go on a website that is already adorned with plenty of drinks shots, the purpose of this shot is to identify the owner as an expert and someone you’d want to do business with.

  3. Hi Karl! Thank you for the fantastic Sommelier live shoot! I loved the comments, the atmosphere, the whole lot! Please note that you have not sent us the camera settings for the final shot. We know it was ISO 100, but what about the rest? F 1/4? 1/200?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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