After a few months of self-isolating, most of us are craving human connection and adventure. It makes us want to take in every moment and enjoy our world the way it is. But how can we capture such moments? Panasonic photographer Trisha Gillings has the answer: environmental portraiture. Trisha has travelled the world seeking not only adventure but photographing the beauty of the communities and cultures she experiences. She kindly let me interview her about environmental portraiture, everything that inspires her, all the awesome Panasonic gear she uses, and more!
What is environmental portraiture and how is it different than traditional portrait photography?
“Traditional portrait photography uses facial features, poses, lighting and clothing to tell a story about the person in the photo. The photo could include just the person’s face, or part of their body as well. Whereas environmental portraiture goes one step further. It aims to tell a story about the person through their surroundings – their culture, their occupation, their hobbies, their lifestyle etc. Normally the whole person is portrayed in the picture often including traditional clothing, tools of their trade, their living conditions, or the items they use in their everyday life.”
Does this type of photography only apply to people? What about animals?
“Yes, definitely it can apply to animals as well. Everyone wants the “money shot”, that closeup photo of an animal in the wild. However, by taking a wider angle photo, you can showcase the environment that the animal is living in – this tends to tell more of a story. Where is the animal living, what time of year/season is it, what are the flora and fauna around the animal? Those types of photos can be quite powerful.”
What kind of subjects do you prefer – posed or candid?
“I prefer candid shots. I like to see people when they are in their real and unguarded state. Once they know a camera is on them, their body pose and facial features change. Panasonic Lumix mirrorless cameras offer silent mode which is great as I can take photos of people and they do not know I am snapping away. Therefore, I can capture those honest moments when the individuals are going about their daily lives. Once I have taken the photos, I will approach the person and show them the picture and make sure they approve of it. Often, I will give them a small token or money as a gesture of thanks for letting me take their photo.”
Do you do any type of photo research before you embark on a trip?
“Yes, I do. I use both Instagram and Google to look at existing photos of the city/landscape/architecture. This will help me to create a photo plan in my head of what I want to shoot while I am in a location. I also do some research on the culture of the people – what do they wear, what do they eat, what type of places do they live in? This helps paint a picture of what I can expect to find once I arrive in a new location.”
What type of lighting do you use when creating your portraits?
“I like to travel really light without a lot of expensive gear. In a lot of the countries I visit, less is better. You definitely don’t want to attract attention to yourself by carrying around a large equipment bag or by pulling out a large, expensive camera and lights. So I rely on natural light to take my portraits. If I am shooting in the harsh light of day, I will look for a subject in a shady spot or consider doing a black and white portrait where the contrast helps to tell the story.”
Then, of course, everyone’s favourite question: what gear do you use and why?
“I use the Panasonic Lumix Micro Four Thirds system – both bodies and lenses. My go-to camera is the Lumix G9. I normally take two bodies with me. For lenses, I like the Leica 10-25mm F1.7 lens for really wide-angle shots. However, it is a quite a hefty lens. So, for something portable, I also like the Leica 12-60mm F2.8-4.0 lens. It is super lightweight and compact while retaining incredible sharpness. If I want a bit more reach, I take the Lumix 35-100mm F2.8 lens and the Lumix 100-300mm for telephoto. This is my go-to travel kit – it’s light and very rugged. I don’t attract attention and I can easily fit my camera bag in the overhead compartment.”
“If I am going on safari or shooting wildlife, then I love the Leica 200mm F2.8 with 2.0x Teleconverter. It’s a very heavy lens, but incredibly sharp. All of the lenses and camera bodies I mentioned are splash/dust resistant which is great as I shoot outdoors a lot. They can also handle cold temperatures down to -10C but I have shot with them at -30C. I use the built in Wi-Fi/Bluetooth to connect to my phone so I can edit my pics using Lightroom mobile. I also make sure I have 3-4 extra batteries, a USB power pack and lots of memory cards.”
Who are your influences for this type of work?
“I am a huge fan of Steve McCurry. His portrait of the Afghan Girl that appeared in Nat Geo is a defining photo. It breaks down all cultural and religious barriers and shows beauty can be found in every part of the globe. Another photographer I admire is Sebastiao Salgado. His portraits of the African tribes and coffee plantation workers in South America are stunning. His use of light and shadow are sublime.”
To finish off, the question I had been explicitly saving for last. What drew you into this type of photography?
“I love to travel as I get to see new places, meet new people, experience foreign culture and food. So environmental portraiture is a way for me to document what I see and to showcase new cultures to people who have not had the chance to travel as much as I have. I love going to countries that are off the beaten track such as Ethiopia, Mongolia, Nepal and Cambodia. I find that this type of photography allows me to tell a complete story about the places I travel to – not just their cities, monuments, and landscapes, but the way the people live. But you don’t need to travel, as environmental portraiture can be done in your own hometown with the people that you know. The photos that you take are influenced by the story that you want to tell.”
To say I was inspired after this interview is a bit of an understatement. Trisha, you have opened my eyes to a type of photography I knew very little about, and now I can’t wait to try myself! Thank you for letting me inquire about the passion behind your photography! Hopefully, this inspired a few of you, just like it did me.
To see more of Trisha’s photography, go to her Instagram page @trish_around_the_world!
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