The Human Element - how to bring people into your landscape images (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on introducing human elements into your images. You can see part one, here.
Use the human to lead the eye and create movement within the frame
You’ve likely observed at some point that if you point to something in the presence of a cat or dog, the puss or pooch will often gaze at your finger, rather than at the thing being indicated. Humans, fortunately, aren’t like this.
Our attention will naturally follow the gaze or gesture of others (or, indeed, other aspects of their body language, as given above in Tip #3). And we can of course exploit this tendency to make our images more dynamic, by using it to suggest or create movement in the frame.
Our socially-tuned human eye (Tip #3) will naturally begin its journey through an image by first focusing on a human figure, and continuing naturally onward from there. This means that by strategically placing your human subject within the frame (for example at the intersection of the rule-of-thirds grid, or on a strong diagonal feature), you can choose how you lead the viewer’s eye onward through the image.
One way to do this is just to use the direction that a figure is looking in an image to direct the viewer’s eye to where you want it to travel within the frame. To do this, it can be useful to position your gazing or gesturing figure near the edge of the frame, so that the eye that first goes to them then follows their gaze into and around the image.
Consider whether the person is in profile, or looking towards or away from the camera, when gauging the impact on the viewer and the movement of the eye within the frame.
It’s also possible to use the human figure as a structural element within the image itself, with the body forming leading lines that direct attention into and within the image.
This second usage can be tricky, but can be a great way of getting the eye into an image that lacks an easy ‘in’. Putting a person as a framing element hard on the edge of the foreground is just one way to accomplish this.
Silhouettes are satisfying
If you want a cheat code for taking a landscape photo that’s instantly appealing, there’s a simple technique you can use: seek out silhouettes. The pull that a human figure rendered entirely in shadow has over us is mysterious, but also undeniable.
Putting a person between yourself and the light source in a scene is easy to do, and frequently results in a striking image. Even better, the times when it’s easiest to accomplish this are often when the light in a scene will naturally be at its best: from just before to just after sunrise, and from just before sunset to the end of twilight.
Separation between your figure and the background is key, and placing a figure backlit against a bright sky is a surefire way to accomplish this (though water can also work wonders as a backdrop!). I liberally use the exposure-compensation dial in almost all of my photography (usually turned down a third of a stop or two to preserve highlights), but it’s especially useful when shooting silhouettes, allowing you to render your subject as a shadow even if they’re not totally backlit.
In some cases, manually dialling your exposure way down can be used creatively to make graphic, high-contrast images with striking silhouettes.
Exposure, with special attention to getting a bright background while keeping your figure dark, can be adjusted with ease in post-processing.
In any case, with no detail in a silhouette but body posture, it’s important to remember Tip #3 when shooting them.
And while I’m usually most interested in controlling the exposure of my silhouette images, I’ll sometimes also shoot in Shutter Priority mode, set to a slow shutter speed of 1/15s or lower, in order to get a pleasing motion blur effect in my figures.
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.