A couple of weeks ago, I asked you all what would be more useful to you: a guide on how to choose a location for your photoshoot or how to choose a color palette for your photoshoot. The overwhelming majority of you said that you would like me to walk you through how to choose a location for your photoshoot and to include details on choosing setting and lighting to achieve the right vibe for your photoshoot.
While I am a North Carolina photographer and use examples from the Charlotte region, this guide will help you make an informed decision no matter where you live. This information will apply whether you are booking an engagement photographer, a family portrait photographer, or a wedding photographer. The tips I give you here will help you communicate your ideas in “photographer-speak” so that you can be sure you get the photos of your dreams!
Undoubtedly, choosing a location can be one of the most stressful aspects of having a photoshoot. While many photographers are happy to recommend locations, being able to decide on your own puts you more in control of the final product you will be receiving. When you hire a photographer, you are hiring an artist to create something for you!
Every photographer has their own style; some are bright and airy, others are deep and dramatic, and some others are colorful and bold. This is a combination of how the artist chooses to control light (or not, in the case of natural-light photographers) and how to perform their edits once the photographs have been captured. This is important for you to know because you can have five different photographers photograph the same location and subject and each one will produce a totally different finished photo!
So how can you, as the consumer, be sure you are making the right decision when booking a photographer and location to get your dream photos?
I have broken this up into seven sections below to help you determine what exactly you are looking for in a location and photos, and how to communicate this to your photographer so that they understand what you want.
Table of Contents
Let's jump right in!
Introduction to Environmental Portraits
Let’s start with a brief introduction to the idea of “environmental portraits”!
My photography style focuses heavily on environmental portraits. But what the heck does this even mean? According to Wikipedia:
“An environmental portrait is a portrait executed in the subject's usual environment, such as in their home or workplace, and typically illuminates the subject's life and surroundings. The term is most frequently used of a genre of photography.
By photographing a person in their natural surroundings, it is thought that you will be able to better illuminate their character, and therefore portray the essence of their personality, rather than merely a likeness of their physical features.”
Basically what this means is that I want to take pictures of you in a spot that you often visit, whether it’s your home, a favorite bar or café, or a park that you like. You may have heard of the term “lifestyle portraits”, which is the same idea as an environmental portrait. Nearly all of our photos are considered environmental/lifestyle portraits, whether they are family photos, engagement photos, and so-on.
The whole goal of creating environmental portraits is that we are able to capture some essence of your personality in the photo. A complete stranger should be able to see your portrait and understand something unique about you! Compare environmental portraits to a studio portrait: when you are in a studio, there is no context or “clues” about your personality in the photograph, the only focus is on the subject. This is great for people who want to focus on just the features of the subject, or want to control all elements of the photoshoot, it is just a different style than what we normally do! When I am taking your photograph, I want it to be an adventure with you; I want to get to know you, your personality, your hobbies, and then create gorgeous photographs of that! You can tell if the photographer you would like to book does environmental portraits or studio portraits by looking at what is in the background of the subject. Are they outside or in a public location? It is probably an environmental portrait. Is there a backdrop? It is probably a studio portrait.
2. Color and Style
As I mentioned before, photographers can take photos of the same location and have the final photographs look completely different! Have you ever looked at photographs of a wedding venue from different photographers and it looks like totally different places? This is because of the color and style influence of the individual photographer. Here is where we are going to get a little bit technical- it is crucial that you understand these terms and concepts so that when you are communicating with your photographer about the location and end product that you want, you can be sure that the photographs do not come out way off base from what you imagined.
As always, I highly recommend that you view your photographer’s entire portfolio to have an idea of what their general style is, making sure you look for photos in locations that you are thinking of (for example, if your photographer does a lot of colorful photos in the studio, they might not be the best option to book if you are looking for a desaturated outdoor portrait session).
I am going to use some photos from Amanda and Mike’s engagement session at Latta Plantation in Charlotte, NC to illustrate some of these points! I think it is much easier to show and tell than it is to just write it out. That way, you can have some side-by-side comparisons to inform your decisions. After this section, you will be talking about your ideas like a photographer! All of the effects on the images below are exaggerated so that you get the idea, they are not meant to represent my personal style or what I think looks “good”.
RAW - this is the file format straight out of the camera. A lot of times clients ask “can I have the raws?” and for most photographers, the answer to that is a big "NO"! Think about when a chef is making a pizza; first, he makes the dough from flour, water, eggs, and so on. Then he has to make the sauce, and combine with the cheese before baking. The raw files are a lot like the raw ingredients it takes to make a pizza. If your chef just handed over a sack of flour and a block of cheese and tomatoes when you ordered a pizza, you would be very unhappy and probably give him a bad review! Same thing with the raw files. We are going to talk a little more about the “ingredients” of a good photo below. Let’s follow a photo throughout these transformations. For your reference, here is the raw image. Nothing fancy and really, a little bit “blah”.
True to color - this is what I get after working some photographer magic, without changing any of the colors of the photo. It is the truest representation of how this scene looked in reality. Check out the differences between this image and the raw above. This one is not styled in any particular way and does not have any of the elements below changed.
Basic Elements of Photo Editing:
High/Low Contrast - high contrast means the dark portions of the image are very dark and the light portions are very light and that the difference between the relative balance of lights and darks is great. Low contrast means that there is a smaller difference in the dark and light tones.
Here is the high contrast image:
Compared to the low contrast image:
Saturated/Desaturated - saturation is the intensity of the color. More saturation means brighter colors, less saturation or “desaturation” means less color. Completely desaturated is another term for black and white.
Here is the high saturation image:
Compared to the low saturation image:
Warm/Cool Color Temperature - This is otherwise referred to as the color temperature. Does the image “feel” golden warm? Or does it feel a bit colder? Warm color temperature has more focus on oranges, reds, and yellows whereas cool color temperature is more focused on greens and blues. Balanced has an equal focus on both. This is a big factor in determining how skin colors are going to look in a photo, either more golden or more magenta.
Split Toning - split toning is the term for when you “split” the color tones of the light values in the image from the dark values; this image started with the true to color image and then I made the lighter colors in the photo lean towards yellow and the darker colors lean towards violet. This is one of the elements that gives the “film look” to photos.
All of these elements or “ingredients” can be combined in different ways to create an overall “style”.
In this section, we will discuss three common, popular styles for photos. These are my takes on these trends, but all photographers will have their own special ways of achieving their looks that are similar to these. See if you can pick out the elements from above that were used to create each style below.
Bright and airy - this is a popular style for outdoor photoshoots in the spring and summer; most photographers with this style focus on vivid greens and very light, slightly washed out skintones. It is often a good look for “cooler” themed weddings or photoshoots where the color palette is mainly blues, greens, and pinks. I got this effect by making the color temperature cooler, lowering the contrast, and making the overall image lighter.
Dark and bold - this is a popular style for outdoor photoshoots in the fall and winter; many photographers with this style will lean towards a darker and warmer, orange and red look. The skintones may appear darker than they really are and is a good choice for settings with lots of beige, brown, orange, burgundy. I came up with this by increasing the contrast, making the image warmer, and some subtle split toning before bringing the brightness down.
Vibrant - while the bright and airy is a cooler style and dark and bold is a warmer style, vibrant focuses mostly on a balanced image where all colors are represented in a vivid manner. This is a good choice if you are in a location where there are lots of colors, like a garden, a bar, and so on. You can see here that the background has a good representation of greens, yellows, reds, even a little blue in the sky. The contrast is medium and it is very saturated.
Other trends you might hear about:
Saturated vs. Desaturated Greens- above, we talked about saturation and desaturation in general; a photographer can choose to saturate or desaturate any color in a photograph. One recent trend is “desaturated greens”. While this is not my personal style, some people really like to “turn down” the greens, so to speak, to focus on other elements of the photograph. Here is an example of the normal image where the greens are regularly saturated, compared to the desaturated greens in the background. Let’s look at a different shot of Mike and Amanda from their proposal photographs at Romare Bearden Park.
Saturated greens - here you can see that the florals in the background have a lush green look; since this was in the summer and the plants were in full bloom, I chose to play up the brightness of the greens.
Desaturated Greens - you can see that the photograph looks mostly the same, except the intensity of the greens is "turned down"; this effect can be applied to any photo that is taken outdoors where there is green grass, trees, or plants:
Lifted blacks - another term you may hear about is “lifted blacks”; this just means that the dark portions of the area are made “less dark” to give it a film look.
This is a very simplified take on what photographers do during digital editing to achieve the final style of the photograph. There are many other factors that a pro photographer will consider and adjust when working on your photos. You can use these concepts to describe the style you are looking for.
Just as important as color and style is the photographer’s choice of lighting. You will hear a lot of photographers say that they are “natural light” photographers. All that this means is that they do not use assisted flash to generate light for their images. With that being said, flash can be used indoors or outdoors and is just another way to control how the subject is portrayed. I use a combination of both natural and flash lighting to get the look I want.
For example, here are two images from the same day and location; the first one uses the natural ambient light only, and the second uses an off camera flash. Most of the time, flash is used to make up for very bright outdoor light, which can be unflattering to the subject- especially when that light is overhead.
They are both great photos! They just have totally different vibes to them because they are completely different techniques. Sometimes people characterize the way flash photos look as "the magazine look". Take a look at the way the light hits Kirsty's face in the image above compared to the image below; you can really see the limitations of using ambient only light in the image below, where there are deep shadows in her eye sockets, under her cheeks/nose/lips. It is totally fine if you like this look because it is "authentic", but not everyone likes how their face looks with deep shadows. It is just something to be aware of.
Let’s think about natural light some more. The number one factor that determines how the natural light is going to affect your pictures is the time of day! The sun changes position in the sky, and that is going to change how the sunlight hits the subjects. Many clients request “golden hour” photoshoots outdoors, which really means that the photographs are being taken during the final hour before the sun sets. Why would we want to do this? This is ideal lighting for taking photos, especially with a darker theme, because the sun is not directly overhead causing unpleasant shadows on the face; there is enough sunlight for the subjects and the background to be evenly lit. We can also see a similar effect during sunrise. That does not mean that you can’t have your photoshoot in the middle of the day, it just means that you may want to look for a location that has plenty of shade, or consider asking your photographer to use flash.
4. Choosing the Photographer
By now, you should have an idea of what you are looking for in terms of style and lightning. Go ahead and make a list of the basic elements mentioned above and decide which side of each spectrum your personal taste leans towards. For example, I would classify my work as follows:
Medium contrast, lots of saturation, balanced-to-slightly-warm color temperature with a vibrant and a bit dark style. Lots of my photos rely on black and white to get the message across, too.
Now, you must find the photographer that you want to work with based on the criteria you selected. Be sure you look not only at their website, but also their Instagram page, as this serves as many photographers' informal portfolio. If you like a few photographers' work, follow them, interact with them, watch their stories and content. It is very important that you get to know their personality to see if you all would be a good fit!
Think about what other words you can use in addition to the elements above to describe the style you have in mind. Want lots of orange and “warmth”? Look for a photographer that desaturates their greens and has a warm color temperature in their photos. Do you like showing off your colorful wardrobe? Look for a photographer that has vibrant photos. Do you want your photos to have that vintage Polaroid touch? Find a photographer that slightly lifts their blacks and adds split tones.
Remember to pay special attention to the lighting situation in the photographer’s portfolio. Do they only take golden hour photos? Do they improvise in mid-day with flash? Do they take photos even in the bright overhead sun, despite the shadows? Consider these factors when you think about where and when you want your photographs taken, especially if they are outdoors. Indoor photographs are a little bit different, so just check with your photographer and do not be afraid to ask for specific examples of their work for certain locations and times of day!
5. Choosing the Location (with Charlotte photoshoot location ideas!)
Whew! After all of that, you finally made it to the meat and bones of why you clicked this guide to begin with! Now that you know about environmental portraits, color and style, lighting, and picking a photographer to work with, you are ready to pick the location for your photoshoot. We are going to move from some broad examples into more specific examples, so please stick with me here. The first and most important rule of choosing a location is to pick a spot you feel comfortable in! If you are not an outdoorsy type of person, maybe choosing a mountaintop location that requires hiking is not the best idea for your engagement shoot or family photos. The fact of the matter is this: it is hard to hide your true feelings when you are in front of a camera. Every small expression is captured, and if you do not feel happy or comfortable, it’s going to show in your photos. With that being said, if you are an outdoor adventurer and love being in the wilderness, by all means, choose the mountain for your photoshoot and find an adventure photographer to go with you! If you are more comfortable indoors with your pets, then that’s another option. Really, the possibilities are endless as long as you know what to expect from your photographer’s style and the time of day (or if the photographer uses flash, you know what their specific style of lighting looks like).
Consider the photographs that you have seen before and liked; what were the people wearing? Were they dressed in fall or summer clothes? Were there plenty of rolling green hills or was there lots of autumn foliage? Were they in a busy public spot? And if so, was it during a bright day or was it dark and indoors? Were they near a lake? In the woods? Or out in the open? Start to analyze what specifically you like about those portrait locations and make a list! This is where Pinterest mood boards come in handy; search for and save the photographs you like so that you can go back and reference them later.
Keep in mind that the location you choose is going to be represented by the style of your photographer.
So let’s make up some scenarios to think through. Say you are in Charlotte and you want to have some pictures taken at Crowders Mountain; it is not enough to just decide on that location. You also need to consider: the season, the time of day, and the style of editing that you identified; this is because photographs taken at Crowders Mountain, completely independent of the photographer taking them, are going to look totally different under the following conditions: a winter morning, summer at noon, springtime during the late afternoon, autumn at golden hour; adding in the unique style of the photographer is just going to add another level of detail to your images. For example, desaturated greens during the summer are going to look a lot different than desaturated greens in the autumn because there is going to be more overall green in the image during the summer! Similarly, shooting in broad daylight with no overhead cover and no flash to eliminate shadows is going to naturally produce photographs with more contrast whereas shaded areas or photos near sunrise or sunset will create lower contrast images. At this point you may be a little overwhelmed with all of the decision making and that’s okay! As long as you are aware of these factors, you can discuss them with your photographer. After all, we are the professionals and we are more than happy to help you make the final call. Also, if you are not sure, please bring some photographs that you like for us to reference. As artists, we are trained to pick up on specific visual patterns and trends.
Let’s imagine another specific scenario. Let’s say you are a local small business owner and you want to have some photos taken around town. What is the best way to choose a location to represent yourself to potential and current clients? My advice is to choose a location and time of day that would best represent how you would appear when working with clients. For example, you could take some of your photos on Crowders Mountain, like in the last example, but this is not really going to build your relationship with clients based on how you want to be seen by them. Perhaps you like to schedule your business meetings at Not Just Coffee or Amelie’s in Charlotte during the daytime.
These would be the ideal locations for you to choose for your lifestyle or headshot portraits because it is how you want to be seen by your clients; it tells them a little bit about you before they even meet you. It also builds trust and a relationship with them because they can envision themselves sitting there sipping a latte with you!
Here are some environmental portraits of my realtor friend, Bridget. We took these photos in downtown Concord; the indoor shots are at Press & Porter coffeeshop and the others were taken around downtown. You can get a feel for her personality and what it might be like to work with her based on these photos. This is what she normally looks like and where she goes for her work, and therefore you can easily imagine what to expect if you were to schedule a meeting with her! That is the power of environmental portraits.
If you are getting married and want to have some engagement photos done for your save the dates and invites, check with your venue. Many North Carolina wedding venues will let you take your engagement photos at the venue if they are not hosting an event at the time. Many couples, engaged or not, may also want to look into Charlotte date ideas (or whichever city is near you) for their photoshoot location, letting the photographer capture the natural chemistry between you in a natural and authentic way! Some cool ideas for authentic photoshoot locations in Charlotte could include:
The US National Whitewater Center - great for laid-back, outdoorsy and adventurous couples from the region; includes trails and flatwater activities in the summer, and an ice-skating rink in the winter! Bring a picnic blanket or hammock and sit by the whitewater rapids.
One of Charlotte’s many breweries: Unknown Brewing Co., Sycamore Brewing, Wooden Robot, NoDa Brewing Company, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery - you can dress up or down at these locations to reflect your style; choose a rooftop location as the sun sets across Charlotte, or a darker indoor location for moody and intimate photos. Maybe you sit outside and bring your puppers to join!
Not Just Coffee at 7th Street Market or Amelie’s - Maybe drinking at the bar is not quite your scene, but you prefer a cozy and intimate indoor location. What better place than a coffee shop? Get some pastries to go alongside your warm beverages and have a interesting discussion or play a game of chess. Just let the date take its course!
Latta Plantation - This is one of my personal favorites because it combines the best of being near the water with the best of wooded areas! You can get a lot of outdoor variety in your photos here. Jetton Park has similar flexibility in the Lake Norman area, while Woodrun on Tillery has the same offerings just east of Charlotte on Lake Tillery.
Romare Bearden Park - The park is a photographer favorite! This spot offers lovely greenery and flowers with an urban touch in the background!
Check out the following links for additional Charlotte photography ideas:
There are lots of other unique spots that you may be able to think of in the Charlotte area that may better suit your personality, too. We are down to meet you there! Comment below and let me know what other cool places you would want to have a photoshoot at in or around Charlotte.
A final point, and an important one at that, is that if you do choose to have a photoshoot outdoors, please understand that photographers do not control the weather. If you were hoping for sunny golden hour photographs and the day is scheduled to be very overcast, some photographers are willing and able to reschedule for you while others may not be able to do so. Discuss this with your photographer at the time of booking. If you live in Florida, you may be hard pressed to get that dreamy winter flurry photoshoot like your friends that live in Massachusetts had. Many photographers will travel to you and similarly, if you want to visit a location that has what you are looking for, there are plenty of photographers in that area that would work with you too!
6. The Day Of
Now that you feel good about choosing a photoshoot location and a photographer that makes you feel comfortable, begin to prepare for the day of the shoot. Think about any props that you may need to bring in order to get the right look for your photos. Some photographers will perform “styled” shoots as well. Again it is best to just ask your photographer what they typically do. Prepare your outfit, or outfits if there are multiple people in the photos. Keep in mind what colors to wear based on the end product. There are many ways to determine the most flattering colors for you personally, and I often edit colors to reflect my clients’ specific coloring and outfit choices. Most photographers will help you color coordinate if you are not sure. I will be writing about choosing a color palette in an upcoming post. Check the weather, and if you are going outdoors, do not forget bug spray and sunscreen! If you think it may rain, see if your photographer will accommodate by rescheduling. If it has been raining, be aware that the ground may be slippery in certain locations and choose the appropriate footwear! Storms can also affect the look of your location; for example, we often work at Lake Tillery. When it storms the day before, the lake is muddier and can have debris, like sticks and leaves floating around in the water. If this is something you are concerned about, see what your photographer’s retouching policy is. Make sure you avoid extreme changes in appearance in the weeks and days leading up to your photoshoot (avoid things like extreme hair cut or color changes, getting a spray tan if you don’t normally get them, and avoid sunburn). Photographers can edit a lot of things, but we aren't miracle workers and cannot photoshop hair back in after it's been cut! Sorry! I really wish we could!
7. The Bottom Line
When choosing a location for your photoshoot, there are lots of factors that you need to keep in mind. To sum it up, be sure you address the following questions when making your decision:
Is it somewhere I like to be? Does it tell viewers about my personality?
Is it going to be indoors or outdoors? How will my photographer handle the lighting?
Do I want to be urban and in the city? Or should the location be outdoors in nature?
Will there be other people around, if it is in a public space? Or can I find somewhere private?
Which month or season will give me the look that I want, especially considering trees, grass, flowers, and lighting?
With respect to lighting, am I okay shooting in broad sunlight even though it may not be the most flattering? Or should we schedule it later in the day when it is more diffuse? Is there anywhere shady we can go if we are shooting in overhead sun? Does my photographer use flash to fill the unflattering shadows?
How might my photographer edit the colors and the mood of this particular location at this particular time? Have I communicated my vision to my photographer and asked for their input?
It’s okay if you do not have the answers to all of those questions above, as long as you are aware of the factors that go into creating the look that you want! Some people only need guidance on one or two of the above questions and let the photographer do the rest of the work and that’s okay too! What matters is that you are able to communicate your ideas to a photographer in order to establish an open and trusting relationship. Photographers want you to love your photos, so being honest and transparent about your goals will help get you to where you want to be with your photoshoot.
Thanks for reading all the way through. I hope you found this to be helpful for selecting your photoshoot location. Be sure to share this with any friends who may be looking for a photographer or a location for their photoshoot. Feel free to shoot me a message at Neill.email@example.com if you have any questions or comments, or if you would like to work with us!! Take care.