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7 Tips for Adding the Human Element to your Landscape Photography

Updated: Apr 15, 2023

Written by Jessica Santos

Get creative for your next Landscape Photography shoot, learn how to incorporate a personal touch with the Human Element to tell a real story.

Utah Badlands Skyline Overlook Factory Butte Sunset

Sony A7RII with Zeiss 16-34mm | 35mm - f/4 - ISO 100 - 1/5”

Telling the story in a photography can be a difficult web to weave. It takes the viewer on a journey through the image, leading them into a tale handcrafted just for them made seamlessly with unrestrained imagination. One of the many tools at your disposal is the human element and naturally we are more drawn to photos that include our same species. As the viewer, we become free in these moments, to let our minds wander and to imagine being in that place. Transporting us into a sense of awe within these vast or seemingly intimate landscapes laid out before us.

Let’s discuss a possible story we could tell. In this story we want to convey the vastness of a scene, adding a hint of human presence into the composition helps to show the viewer scale. By adding a tiny human in the castles of Utah’s badlands (as shown below) this conveys to the viewer just how boundless this otherworldly landscape is, like an astronaut exploring another planet.

Left Image: Sony A7RIII with 24-70mm | 27mm - f/11 - ISO 100 - 0.8”

Right Image: Sony A7RIII with 70-200mm + 2x Teleconverter | 400mm - f/16 - ISO 100 - 1/10”

The image on the left was shot using the Sony 24-70mm GM f/2.8 at 27mm and at that focal length we have captured closer to what we would see with our eyes. However, we can use a much longer focal length to create the same sense of scale in a more intimate way. The image on the right was captured using the Sony 70-200mm GM f/2.8 with a 2x teleconverter. At this focal length (400mm) I found that this conveyed an equally grand sense of scale with a much smaller portion of the landscape. Even though these two images were taken in the same location, they show two different perspectives. One is through the eyes of the photographer and the other imitates the model’s view as she glimpses her surroundings.

With landscape photography, we want mother nature to be the attention getter, the human element should just be a piece of the puzzle. The photo below creates a scene in the middle of the night, the woman is at the door under a sky full of stars, but it leaves us wondering: What is she looking at? What is she looking for? This is a departure from the traditional idea of a landscape photography and has an added air of mystery. Without that human element this would just be a photo of an old house under the Milky Way.

Left Image: Sony A7Rii with Zeiss Batis 18mm | 18mm - f/2.8 - ISO 1600 - 5” (foreground)

Right Image: Sony A7RIV with 12-24mm GM | 12mm - f/5.6 - ISO 640 - 5” (foreground)

Tip #1 - Always Look for a Story

Look for that story that begs to be told. Whether it is a feeling, emotion or scale. Images that tell a story will be far more compelling. Let the landscape dictate this to you and let your imagination run with it. Make sure to include a foreground, mid-ground and background this will create more depth throughout the image. The image below includes these three layers: the trees in the foreground, the model in the mid-ground and the bridge nestled amongst more trees in the background.

A photographer holding a lantern in the swamp during our photography workshop

Sony A7SIII with 70-200 GM | 88mm - f/2.8 - ISO 1600 - 2.5

Tip #2 - Experiment with Focal Length

Play with different focal lengths. Sometimes a more intimate scene will suit the landscape better than a wide shot. Take test shots and decide on a direction well before the time comes to photograph the light. Try using 3-5 different focal lengths before settling on the ultimate composition. If you are lost with a place to start try using a telephoto zoom lens something in the range of 24-70mm or 24-105mm, these two lenses are a great place to start, you have a wide variety of options to play with when using one of these types of lenses.

"Images that tell a story will be far more compelling, let the landscape dictate this to you and let your imagination run."

Tip #3 - Wear Bright Colors

Use bright colored clothing. If you or the model are in dark, muted tones the human element will most likely be lost among the landscape. However also consider color theory and opt for brighter colors that will compliment the overall image. If your landscape is predominately green try using yellow in the model’s clothing to make it pop but also to keep with an analogous color scheme throughout. Alternatively you can try a red pop of color to immediately draw the viewer in and also to create a more complimentary color scheme. Both these option are bright colors but interact with the landscape and over color of the photograph in a different way.

Left Image: Sony A7RIII with 16-35mm GM | 16mm - f/6.3 - ISO 160 - 30” (foreground)

Right Image: Sony A7RIV with 12-24mm GM | f/11 - 18mm - ISO 640 - 0.5”

Tip #4 - Make Use of your Intervalometer

If you are taking photos of yourself, use a tripod, try using your camera’s built in intervalometer while you are posing. You can set the delay to as many seconds as you need to get into position and adjust the interval setting to 5 seconds giving you time to change up poses in between clicks of the shutter. The camera will continuously shoot until you stop it or it has taken the assigned number of shots.

Tip #5 - How to Focus during Self Portraits

A quick way to focus if you are photographing yourself it to use your backpack as a place holder for where you will be standing. With the camera in manual focus dial in on the backpack for ultimate sharpness. This will of course require a tripod for your camera. You can also set your camera to autofocus and turn on Eye AF and select human as the subject. Then with your focus area set to zone or wide shoot away and you camera will keep focused on your eyes. Keep in mind this only works when your subject is closer to the frame and looking in the direction of the camera.

Photographer holding lantern in front of ghost town building during Mojave Desert Light Painting Photography Workshop

Sony A7RIV with 12-24mm GM | 18mm - f/14.5 - ISO 800 - 1/13”

Tip #6 - Play with Depth of Field

Try different apertures. Using an aperture of f/1.8 will give a nice bokeh effect to the background while keeping the focus on the human. Adversely, using a a higher aperture like f/11 will bring all the elements of the images into focus. As you are setting up your composition really try to visualize the end result and apply an aperture that serves the story best. As a general rule of thumb if my human element is meant to be small within a vast landscape I tend to use a higher aperture to keep the entire scene in focus. If I am closer to the subject and want to really focus on the human in the scene I will opt for a lower aperture, this techniques works great in places that are dense and chaotic in terms of compositional clutter. A forest is a great example of this.

Tip #7 - Keep a Fast Shutter Speed

Keep a fast shutter speed. The longer your shutter speed is, the longer the human will have to hold still. Using a longer shutter speed of 15” for example will often result in blurry people due to tiny movements. Keeping a fast shutter speed will also allow you to capture swift movements like twirling or running. You will also have to take into account your focal length when determining shutter speed, specifically in low light like blue hour. The longer the focal length the longer the shutter speed will have to be to let in more light, so consider adjusting iso to compensate in situations like this. I often use wider focal lengths when photographing these types of images at blue hour, as seen below.

Left Image: Sony A7RIII with 16-35mm GM | 16mm - f/16 - ISO 100 1/10”

Right Image: Sony A7RIII with 16-35mm GM | 19mm - f/7.1 - ISO 500 - 20” (Foreground)

Bonus Tip - The Human Element can mean Human Structures

Sometimes just a hint of human existence in a landscape photograph can tell the story in the same way and actual person would. A small structure in the vastness of a landscape leads a viewer to meander through the scene daydreaming about the story of that little town or what it was like to live and work in that cliffside lighthouse. This creates a curiosity, a spark to want to learn more.

While this idea may be a departure from what we imagine when we think of landscape photography, I encourage you to play and to take us on a journey. It gives you a completely different way to share your story with your audience. It allows us to reach them in a way that ignites their imagination and delivers them into that little slice of time in which we, as the photographer, realized just how small we are in this beautiful universe we call home.

Joshua Tree National Park Astrophotography

Sony A7RIV with 24-70mm GM | 31mm - f/16 - ISO 100 - 2”

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