The human touch - how to capture people for better travel images (Part one)
As a travel photographer who enjoys telling stories through photography, I try to include human subjects in my work for more emotional impact.
Sometimes a street scene or landscape can be powerful enough without the need for a person in the image, especially if there is already a captivating focal point or interesting pattern in the landscape.
But there are many times when a landscape style photo will not convey any strong feelings to the viewer as there is not an interesting enough focal point. In this case, the addition of a human positioned well in the composition can enhance the image
In a wider landscape photo, the person’s face does not need to be visible, it is just their presence in the scene that adds life to the image.
Adding a person also helps to emphasise the scale of the surroundings, and show how grand or delicate a scene is by comparing it to the size of a human.
The difference with an environmental portrait is that the subject’s face must be visible and the focus is less on the overall scene but on the individual and their story. I like to capture both styles of photography featuring people in a wide environmental scene.
Figure to Ground
Figure to ground is a vital concept to understand and have in mind when photographing people in a scene. It refers to the relationship between the subject (figure) and the background (ground), and the idea is that they should be in contrast with each other for our attention to go straight to the figure.
If the figure is dark in tone, the background should be light, and if the figure is light in tone, the background should be dark. This is to avoid the subject blending in with anything behind them which would result in the photo losing impact.
The tone of the background should therefore be the opposite tone to that of the subject, and this helps our brain more easily interpret, understand and connect to the image.
It’s the same concept used in graphic design where it’s important that text is effectively seen without the viewer having to work hard – the most classic example being black text on a white page. In photography, figure to ground is not only used to make the subject clearly noticed, but to create a sense of depth, showing a three-dimensional world in two dimensions.
The background space around the figure should also be as unobstructed as possible to keep these roles in balance. If the figure is dark and the background is light, but the figure overlaps with something that is also dark in the background, this could potentially
be a problem as the idea is to have the figure as unobstructed as possible from anything behind them.
Other approaches to implementing the figure-to-ground concept can be achieved through blur and depth of field. A blurry background against an in-focus subject helps us to separate the two, and is useful in close up and mid-shot portraiture.
Another is with colour contrast, where the figure and background feature different colours, visually helping us to separate them.
The overall thinking when photographing a scene with people is to be aware who the focal point is – do they stand out clearly from the background, and are they positioned well in the composition that will make the image aesthetically pleasing, for example using the rule of thirds, or not being too close to the edge of the frame.
Silhouette photography is the figure to ground concept pushed to the extreme, where the subject is all black and juxtaposed against a background that is very bright, sometimes white, for strong contrast.
The challenge is to make sure the entire silhouette has no overlap with anything dark in the background as this will lessen the impact of the image.
Sometimes the background may need cleaning up in post processing to remove any obstructions, using the clone stamp or spot healing tool. The brighter the background behind the silhouette, the better.
A silhouette on grey or mid-tones will not be as impactful to look at. So, if need be, the brightness of the background can later be enhanced (brightened) to result in the silhouette’s figure to ground separation being as strong as possible.
To photograph in silhouette, you must look around the scene for a strong light source, and photograph the subject in front of this bright light. The sun is great for this, especially around sunrise and sunset time when it’s lower on the horizon and a person can be positioned in front of it.
Even the sun reflecting onto water or a reflective surface works well, so always look at the quality of light on surfaces for silhouette photography.
You can choose to have the subject directly in front of a bright sun for a very strong figure to ground effect (dark on light) or to include the sun itself in the photo relying on the surrounding sky or reflection to be the bright background.
To achieve a sunburst effect from the sun, set the aperture on the camera to f/22. This effect of making a star out of the light source works best if the sun is partially blocked by something such as trees, a rock or a building.
Next week we'll look at two other techniques for incorporating people into your travel images.
About the author: David Lazar is a travel photographer and musician from Brisbane who loves to capture moments of life, beauty and culture through his photography. See more of his work on Facebook, Instagram and his website.