Should You Use a Human Element in a Landscape Photo or Not?

Should You Use a Human Element in a Landscape Photo or Not?

If you search the internet, you will find a lot of landscape photos that include a human element. Often, a person will be in the frame, sometimes the photographer themselves. In this article, I want to take a closer look at the reason why you should sometimes use a human element in your landscape photo.

I have been photographing landscapes for many years now. During this time, I always tried to capture a landscape without any signs of human existence. It had to be a pure and pristine landscape, even if the location was in the middle of a small town or next to a highway.

Landscapes From My Imagination

The landscapes I preferred were the landscapes from my imagination. Landscapes untouched by man, rough and wild. With mountains and forests. Rivers that ran through meadows, water sparkling with reflected sunlight. Landscapes that were mysterious, like a dark fairytale. These were the landscapes I read about in the books of my favorite science fiction writer, Jack Vance. Yes, these were the landscapes where I would like to wander and photograph, of course.

This is a landscape from my imagination, a landscape where I would like to wander. Fortunately, I was able to do so, and I made sure no sign of human existance was visible in the frame.

Unfortunately, there are not many pristine landscapes left — at least, not in the Netherlands and the surrounding countries. There are signs of civilization everywhere, although the word "civilized" sounds a bit misplaced. I would call it signs of human presence.

There are roads crossing the land. Power lines run through the landscapes, and wind turbines are rising from the horizons. Even the sky itself is filled with manmade clouds, originating from the condensation trails of countless airplanes.

These power lines are dominating the Dutch landscapes. In this shot, I just decided to use the constructions to my own benefit, but it isn't the landscape I prefer.

I often tried to keep these signs of human presence outside the frame when looking for the landscapes from my imagination. There was only one big issue with these landscapes. If I succeeded in shooting them without manmade elements, they lost a sense of perspective.

Size Is Relative in an Image

A photo is a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional world. A photo doesn’t have any depth; it just shows the illusion of depth. This illusion can be achieved by leading lines, depth of field, and the relative size of the foreground objects compared to the background. Place a nice flower in the foreground with mountains in the background, and the illusion of depth is complete. At the same time, this can also misguide you.

Size is relative. Can you tell by looking at this image how large the rock really is? Is it mere centimeters, or meters? 

Take a simple rock in the foreground against a backdrop of mountains. In that case, there is no way of knowing how big the rock in reality is. This is due to the lack of perspective. The photo has nothing that tells you how the dimensions are in reality. On some occasions, the photo of the landscape may be not as impressive  as the landscape in reality.

A landscape without dimensions. Is it small, is it vast? You can't tell unless you find the other photographers in the frame. Can you find them? Only then will you get an idea about the sheer size of the landscape.

How a Human Element Can Help With Perspective

The use of something familiar in the frame can give the viewer a sense of size and dimensions. The easiest way is a sign of human presence. Most of these human-built structures have a well-known size. Incorporating at least one of these recognizable manmade elements in the frame gives the landscape a sense of size.

This cabin gives a dimension to the frame. It gives perspective, but it also offers the image a subject.

But there is another benefit to that human element in the landscape. I noticed how it can help the viewer to imagine how it would be to wander in that landscape. It gives the viewer something to look at, instead of a landscape without any human existence and no sense of size. But that recognizable human element in the landscape can also work as a subject, an anchor that will keep the viewer inside the frame.

Without the cabin on the slope, the image wouldn't give an idea of the dimensions of this valley. It also gives you an idea of how life would be with such a view from your (?) cabin. 

That human element can be everything — a house or cabin, a farm or castle. It can be a silhouette of a church at the horizon or even a wind turbine. Perhaps you can find a road that runs through the landscape towards the horizon. If you place a person in the frame, the photo may not only give a sense of dimension, it can also tell a story. Perhaps that’s the reason why many landscapes show a lonely globetrotter in the frame.

A Human Element Can Be a Benefit, but Use It Sparsely

A lot of photographers, including myself, have combined landscapes with selfies. This is a great memory, but it can also bring a story to the photo, just as I explained. It is possible to distinguish two kinds of landscape selfies.

One landscape selfie is the lonely person looking at a landscape, where the person fills a significant part of the frame. This is the storytelling landscape photo or even a memory from the place where you've been.

A typical landscape selfie. It gives something to hold on to, but it also tells a story. By the way, it is me in the frame, and it holds warm memories of that time. It means a lot to me.

The other landscape selfie is a person or people inside the landscape. They're part of the landscape, taking in only a small part of the frame. These people often give a sense of dimensions of the landscape. They show the viewer how big the landscape is or how vast.

You wouldn't have known how tall these cliffs are if it wasn't for the photographer on the edge. Adding this photographer gives a sense of the size of the cliffs.

This is the reason why I ocassionaly choose to capture a sign of human presence in the frame. I think it gives the landscape an added value. But not always. Although I see the benefit of a human element in the frame, there are also plenty of situations where the original idea of a pristine landscape is the better choice. In other words, only add a human element if it works for the photo.

How do you feel about signs of human existence in a landscape photo? Do you like those landscape photos or not? And how do you feel about the landscape selfie? Should we avoid these photos? Please share your opinion in the comments below.

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10 Comments
Zdenek Malich's picture

Humam element in landscape is not only helping to put some scale to the size but can be used to balance composition. Yet as non of us really wants to wandering alone it creates beholders company for the trip to our fairytale 😊

Nando Harmsen's picture

Great addition. Thanks
I really like the last two images.

Jason Frels's picture

If the human or human build structure is there to convey a sense of scale, I think it is useful. But if the person is more the point of the image, then I don't really want them there. One of the reasons I do landscape photography is to get away from people.

Nando Harmsen's picture

True...

Marko Danek's picture

At one time in search of the answer to this question I thumbed through a lot of photographic literature and pages of the Internet, but I did not find a unambiguous answer. It turned out that even definitions for the term "landscape" can be found in great variety

Nando Harmsen's picture

I always tell people about a city landscape. Some call it a cityscape...

Christian Lainesse's picture

I like humans in landscapes, but I prefer when these humans are doing something that catches my attention, as opposed to just standing there or doing something totally cliché, like illuminating the sky in a starry night shot for example.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Ah, yes. Shining a light torch towards up into the sky is silly. I never understand its purpose.

charles hoffman's picture

when shooting landscapes, bring along a spare cousin for scale

Nando Harmsen's picture

A spare cousin? The one you can leave behind if he serves its purpose?