Landscape photography usually consists of capturing the beauty of nature as if viewing a timeless scene from before humans spread across the earth. But sometimes we want to add people to our images — and I’m not talking about lining up the family in front of an outdoor scene for a group portrait to be emailed to Grandma.
The addition of people to photographs of the natural world has several effects. First, and obviously, it adds the “human touch,” letting viewers imagine “being there.” This can be described as a story-telling effect.
Second, it can provide a focal point for the composition, drawing the eye. In this case, it often works best if the subject is placed at the Rule of Thirds position in the composition, a subject I discussed in my July column.
Finally, the addition of human figures can add scale to an image. This is sometimes important. If you are photographing a looming mountain there is no question of its size. But when, for example, the subject is an arch, it’s sometimes hard to judge just how big it actually is without some frame of reference.
Here’s an example of that last point in Fig.1, which features my favorite subject in Arches National Park. No, it’s not Delicate Arch or soaring Landscape Arch, but the lesser-known Skyline Arch. One reason it’s less noted is the fact that it’s located in an elevated position high atop a red rock fin, making its size difficult to judge.
I made this photograph when two climbers were standing in the arch. Wow! With the simple addition of the two figures, dwarfed by the massive stone span, the splendid size of Skyline Arch is clear to see.
An example of the story-telling value of human figures is shown in Fig.2, made at Juniper Campground along Sand Flats Road. I was there to photograph the Milky Way from this vantage point, which offers a 360-degree view around the area. The crescent Moon and two planets were lighting up the Western sky, and I decided to try to capture this astronomical display. But a picture of just the Moon and some bright spots in the sky wouldn’t be much, so when I spotted a campfire with several campers gathered around I made it the foreground subject for an image of the early night sky. The exposure was one second at f/11 and 3200 ISO, so there is blurring of the moving people. Still, the atmosphere of camping under the night sky is there to see.
Another example of the story-telling effect is shown in Fig.3, a photo made during an overnight Jeep trip into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Here, the Jeep itself is the featured subject, placing the lonely trail and surrounding landscape into a logical whole and providing a sense of the isolation of the place.
In Fig.4 we see an entire horde of people occupying a stretch of Hwy. 128, just up the river from Moab. These are runners in one of the Half Marathon races that take place here each year. The stream of humanity in bright runners clothing adds a contrast to the ancient red rock cliffs of the Colorado River canyon. The picture was made in front of Goose Island Campground in 2014, when I was camp host there.
You can add a human touch to your pictures simply by placing people in your compositions in ways that enhance the scene. Instead of asking your companions to get out of your way, or lining them up like prisoners waiting to be literally shot, pose them in ways that add to the composition. Here’s an example in Fig.5, a picture I featured in my March, 2016 column. Here, my subject is pictured walking away from the camera down a forest road, adding a focal point and perspective to a view of the colorful aspens in the La Sal Mountains
Fig. 1 — Skyline Arch stands high above the casual visitor. In this photo a pair of brave climbers has paused in the arch, adding scale to the feature.
Fig. 2 — A group of campers around a fire add interest to a view of the astronomical display of a crescent Moon and two planets in the early night sky.
Fig. 3 — A Jeep navigates a back-country trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, adding a story-telling touch to a view of the natural rock formations.
Fig. 4 — A stream of Marathon participants pours along the Colorado Riverway near Moab. The flow of runners mimics the nearby course of the mighty river itself.
Fig. 5 — A human figure walking past a line of aspen trees provides a focal point for this picture, made along a forest road in the La Sal Mountains