I should rethink my aversion to people in my photography.
I’m not a very good people photographer. When I shoot landscapes or nightscapes I try to avoid people in the frame or composition. When I shoot I really want to show a landscape’s grandeur and often see people in the scene as distracting. So many of my photos are typically taken in locations with big, clean expanses of space and I work hard to eliminate any distractions.
During a recent trip out west we spent several days at the Grand Canyon. This is a landscape photographer’s Mecca. A wide, vast expanse of canyons, ridges and draws with tons of features and visual appeal at every turn. Morning light would highlight areas that would turn to shadow at sunset. Layers of cliff and canyon added depth and texture unlike anywhere else I’d seen. Each day the Grand Canyon showed a new face to us. I understand why some artists have spent years there trying to capture its beauty. For 3 days I photographed from every point along the South Rim trail. I patiently waited for people to move out of the scene before composing my images. I moved down the trail to more solitary vistas to avoid the other photographers and selfie takers. The whole while I soaked in the vastness of the chasms that stretched out before me. I knew the North rim was 17 miles away and the Colorado river a 9 mile hike down into the canyon and I worked hard to convey this immensity in my photos, to show how small I felt compared to this natural wonder.
In the weeks after as I culled through the mountains of images I took I struggled to find that same vastness I felt standing on the edge that day. The photos were great, the color, the lighting, the composition was as good as I could do on those three days but something wasn’t quite right. Everything seemed flat. Then I came across the photo below.
It was part of a panorama I was shooting and as I noticed the person sitting on the ledge looking down into the canyon it instantly made sense to me. As big as the Grand Canyon was to me standing there that day the viewer of my photos never gets the same sense of scale. In an epiphany I discovered that including this human element in the scene made the scale self evident. The viewer gets a sense of how far away the person is, how large the cliffs are and how far away the ridges in the background are. This human element I’ll call it is simply having something like a person, people, or item (a hat, shoes, or hiking pack) added into a traditional landscape scene. It doesn’t even have to be uniquely human. It could be something else as long as it is instantly recognizable to the viewer, such as a vehicle or structure. Think of that solitary cabin surrounded by mountains. The viewer understands how large the mountains are and how secluded the cabin feels.
Now I can already hear the purists clamoring that a landscape is not a landscape unless it is devoid of all human elements, including people and architecture. While this may be true in its purest sense, I think it is important to recognize that this argument is exactly what makes photography, and all art I guess, subjective. I am most certainly not a purist in any sense except that I am a pure amateur but I can instantly see how a human element changes my photos. That person on that ledge gives the viewer a sense of scale, it shows the vastness I felt as I stood there on that day.
As I learn this craft I can see that, though I take the photos for me, it is to the viewer that I am trying to convey what I see. Maybe its a story or a sense of scale, a focal point or a touch of drama, but adding something the viewer recognizes creates a connection in the photo. I can also see that it won’t always be possible, or easy to do that but as humans I think we connect more to a photo when we see a human element in it. A quick scan of the most popular photos at 500px or Pinterest seems to confirm this.
I know I will always take those stoic landscape shots in the style of Ansel Adams and my astro work will be mostly stars and the wonder of the Milky Way but I vow to pay more attention to this human element that I have discovered and add it whenever I can in an effort to create a more perfect photo.