For me, the environment of a natural subject can be very important. It can tell a lot about the subject, which in turn, means a photograph that includes that environment can tell a lot about that subject for the viewer, too. Environmental portraits are an important part of photographing people, and they can be an important part of photographing nature, too.
In this photo, you see a flower in a landscape. You don't have to know anything about the flower or the landscape before seeing this photo, yet you learn some things very quickly from the photo. First, you know this is a colorful plant that has but a few flowers per stem. And you can guess the leaves for this plant are at the base since there aren't many leaves on the flower stalk. These things you know because the photo is not simply a close-up of the flower, but a shot that shows off something about the flower. This is a mariposa lily, a member of the Calochortus genus of flowers.
But now you look further and notice something else. There are no trees here, there are some rocks and the photo seems to be in the mountains or at least big hills. That is all exactly right. This is shot in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area west of Los Angeles (a stunning park that most people don't even know exists, even though it is very large), and these are low mountains with rocks at their crests. There are no trees because this is chaparral, an important ecosystem to Southern California that is made up mostly of shrubs.
It obviously must be open in this area because there are no shrubs around the flowers. That is also typical of this flower - it needs bright light, direct sun.
You would get none of that from a simple close-up of the flower. From this environmental portrait, you learn about a flower and where it lives, and indeed, a bit about its ecology!
The trick to environmental portraits is in the composition and how you use technique to make sure the subject stands out from the background. This image was shot with a wide-angle lens to help the subject stand out from the background. How? With a wide-angle lens, you can get in very close to the subject. That makes the background seem very small compared to the subject. Second, by getting in close, I could also get down low to move the flowers above the horizon and put them against the sky.
I did try this with some different f-stops, playing with depth of field. I like seeing the flowers sharp and the background a little soft because that does help them stand out. However, I wanted the background to be recognizable, so it could not be too out of focus, another reason for using a wide-angle lens to keep the background defined even with less depth of field.
Editor Notes: Outdoor Photographer's editor at large, Rob Sheppard, teaches many outstanding online photo courses at BetterPhoto's digital photography school, including Impact in Your Photographs: The Wow Factor and Creating Storytelling Photos.