The Human Element - how to bring people into your landscape images (Part one)
Protagoras, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, is best known for the assertion that ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ a statement that was considered controversial even 2500 years ago.
As a lifelong outdoors-person, one of my greatest joys is a landscape bearing no sign of human industry whatsoever. Because when allowed to be simply what it is, the Earth will outshine the grandeur of anything that human hands could ever make.
With that said, however, Protagoras also wasn’t completely wrong. For as much as Australian Aboriginal cultures are both right and wise to believe that people belong to the land (and not the other way around), the truth is also that being humans, we exist in an intrinsically human world.
As landscape photographers, we often use the exclusionary power of the frame to create and reinforce a fiction about the landscape: namely that, without any people in the frame, the landscape that we depict exists removed from human presence. But not only is putting people in the frame (at least from time to time!) often a more honest way of showing the way that landscapes actually are, it’s a technique that can be used to create stronger and more compelling landscape photographs as well.
Use the human to give a sense of scale
All of the tips below can and should be mixed and matched to taste, but the first purpose of putting a person in the landscape is obvious: it gives a sense of scale. Landscapes, after all, hold a power over the imagination that derives not only from their beauty, but also from their sublime hugeness, and putting a human figure in the frame, dwarfed by the landscape they inhabit, is a sure way to impart this feeling.
There are multiple strategies as to where to place a person in your landscape image for scale. Job one of course is to find a knockout view wherein a person can be placed. This placement is normally either accomplished a) within the area of the landscape itself, or b) within the foreground in front of the landscape.
This is a necessary consideration, as naturally some scenes that you’ll want to shoot will have restricted access, either through being fenced, or simply through simply being physically inaccessible (I’m looking at you, rugged mountainscapes). In these cases, I’ve found that placing a figure in a strategic location in the foreground for scale will work wonders.
I normally shoot most landscapes in Aperture Priority mode at f11, but depending on the distance between myself and the foreground and background subjects (and assuming that I’m not trying for a shallow DoF effect), I’ll check my captures on the LCD immediately after taking them to be sure that the image is sharp front-to-back. If it isn’t, I’ll stop down further until it is. If I shoot an image with manual focus, I’ll use the camera’s focus-check zoom in the viewfinder before I capture to make everything is sharp.
In any case, it’s good policy to make sure that your figure has breathing room in the frame as not to get lost in colours or textures in the background. For this reason, it’s often helpful to have your figure isolated on a patch of bare or contrasting colour so that it stands out. How big or small to make the figures is also a key consideration, and the Goldilocks principle is definitely in play here. You’ll want to ensure that the figure is sufficiently small to impart that sense of spatial Wow, but not so small that it gets totally lost in the surrounding vastness.
Use the human to provide a point of focus
Just like using the human figure to provide a sense of scale is fundamental to the art of landscape photography, putting a person in the frame will also usually serve to provide a strong point of focus for the capture. In practice, this often looks like one or both of two things: giving definition to a landscape that seems ‘abstract’ without a person in it, or strengthening a landscape photo that otherwise seems to be ‘missing something’.
Developing the ‘missing something’ sense about landscapes is great practice, and is basically accomplished by noticing if your eye has nowhere natural to rest within the frame. Once you’ve determined that your image might need a strong point of focus, experiment with where to put your subject.
At the intersections of a ‘rule of thirds’ grid is always a good choice, but you can also change the weighting or balance of the image by locating your person near a corner, or even smack in the middle of the frame.
Trying to take several captures with the subject in different locations in each will give you options to compare later when you’re editing, and I find that comparing thumbnail-sized images of your various captures will often make immediately apparent which is the most striking one.
With two or more figures in the frame you have even more latitude to play around, and can use the multiple bodies to create (or disrupt) balance in the weighting of the image (for example by placing two figures in similar locations on opposite sides of the frame).
As for how to get a person into the appropriate place in the frame, there are essentially two options. The first and easiest is bring a pliable friend who’s willing to stand in as a model (I find paying them in beer to be helpful).
The second is simply to wait. It can take enormous patience to wait long enough for a stranger to blunder into the right place in the frame (particularly if you’re in an off-the-beaten-path location), but for those photos that just aren’t quite finished without that human figure it can make the difference between a so-so capture and a great one.
I’ve sat for an hour or more in remote locations while trekking in order to get a human figure into an image that’s just not complete without it. It might not always work, but even in the most way-out places you’d be surprised at how often (with a little patience!) a person will eventually pop up.
Use the human to create a narrative or mood
Homo sapiens are, first and foremost, social animals whose flourishing as a species has for hundreds of thousands of years depended upon our innate ability to read and respond to one another. This long evolutionary social history has made us keenly attuned to the smallest nuances of body language or facial expression, and as landscape photographers we can exploit this innate human sensitivity to impart a mood to our captures.
A smile, a body bent in effort, or even the slightest tilt of a head can immediately suggest joy, struggle or relaxation to the viewer in a way that’s truly magical. As in Tip #2, patience can work wonders for catching a human body or face in just the right moment to create a particular feeling or mood.
If my subject is in a great location in the frame, but the pose or expression isn’t quite right, I’ll usually wait with my camera at the ready, often with my eye at the viewfinder, because the perfect moment can be suddenly there and then gone again in a second!
Likewise, the landscapes that we encounter out in the wide world aren’t static and frozen, like a snow globe, but instead are living locations in which all variety of human stories play out. Whether what’s happening in a grand environment is work, play, or some combination of the two, we can use what people are doing in the landscape to create images that are not only pleasing to the eye, but which impart a narrative to the viewer as well.
Having spent much of my career as an outdoors and adventure photographer, I know that having well-placed hiker or biker in the frame will make that landscape come alive for the viewer, helping them to imagine themselves travelling through it. But it’s in my travel photography more broadly that I find the power of the human figure to be strongest, showing not only the grandeur of the world but the lives of the local people that populate it.
Because the posture and expression of the people that we photograph in our landscapes is dynamic and ever-changing constantly, I’ll often set my camera’s Drive Mode to continuous low, and snap several short bursts of the subject as they move, picking the most pleasing and evocative poses out of the sequence when I go through the photos after.
For me, this ‘narrative’ aspect is also the space in which we as photographers can explore the myriad intersections between the natural world and the human-built environment.
I consider not only people, but also buildings, monuments, roads and other forms of infrastructure fair game to include in a landscape photo. And not only will I occasionally allow a cityscape to creep into the background of a photo, I’ll sometimes intentionally seek out a view that contains it: an open acknowledgement that our human environment is now an inseparable part of the natural world that contains it.
About the author: Matthew Crompton is an award-winning writer and photographer preoccupied with bikes, hikes, and the mystical solitude of the way-out. He’s currently at work on his first book-length project, based on a four-month solo expedition across Tibet and through the mountains of Central Asia. See more of his work at matthewcrompton.com.