The Human Element in Landscape Photography

The Human Element in Landscape Photography

As a full time roadtripper, I am constantly in search of amazing landscapes with the hopes of adding a unique take on what is most likely an over-photographed scene already. There are several ways to do this, but I am going to suggest one which is rarely discussed but hard to overlook in today’s social media outlets: the human element. Finding a landscape that has not been photographed several hundred or thousand times over is a real challenge in today’s world as the globe has become increasingly interconnected with far-away destinations that are easier to access. As a result, creating a unique shot can be incredibly difficult if your end goal is to market it for advertising purposes or fine art.  

Some of the most obvious ways to differentiate your shot from another’s are as follows:

  1. Arrive early, stay late: This goes without saying because the light is simply going to be better at the beginning or end of the day. While it is true that a beautiful photo can be taken mid-day, this should be avoided in my opinion, as these shots often lack emotion and are not what most viewers find appealing. If you are looking to make a memorable shot, get there before the sun comes up and stay long after it has gone down, particularly if you are in a zone with little light pollution. 
  2. Visit in the offseason: Yosemite in the spring and summer is a given, as is Yellowstone. Vermont in the fall is no different with its incredible foliage. This is when everyone wants to go and take a picture because it is what they have seen before, and of course, these are some of the best times to visit. However, it is more difficult to imagine most of these places in the winter or during their rainy seasons when the conditions are far harsher and less accessible. Cue an opportunity for striking photography as most do not dare visit at these times, and, better yet, the way a particular scene looked last winter may be far different from the next. 
  3. Get off the beaten path: Antelope Canyon with the infamous midday light rays? Check. Half Dome as viewed from Mirror Lake in Yosemite? Done. These are all awesome shots for good reason, and you better believe I intend to have my own take. But it can also be extremely rewarding to scope out an entirely different area at these locations with the intention of taking a new, or at least less-often, photographed perspective. I often hear of a waterfall, lake, or vista at the end of a long hike that is strenuous and probably a pain to get to, especially with gear. While it is highly unlikely a photo has never been taken at that spot, it will at least be one that is less photographed, and who knows, you might even enjoy your time getting there. Sometimes the best photographs are not made by amazing light, but through amazing experiences.   

This brings me to my main point: What exactly is the human element? The human element can be defined as the introduction of a person, persons, or something else which is uniquely human (for example: a hat, shoes, or hiking pack) into a traditional landscape scene. Take a few minutes next time you’re browsing the ads featured in REI, Patagonia, or any adventure retailer to see if something appears similar between them. What you may notice is that while all of these outlets almost exclusively feature landscapes, these images are also filled with people sitting around a campfire, standing on the edge of a canyon at sunrise, or staring into a mountain-filled horizon clad with said outlet’s gear.

This is a growing trend today and something that differentiates the stoic landscape photography of Ansel Adams' for today’s millennial adventure-seekers. Chris Burkard features this in almost all of this imagery and was one of the first photographers I saw doing it exclusively. People of all ages love to see amazing landscapes from around the world, but even more than this, they love the idea of seeing people experiencing them as well. It transports them away from their day-to-day and gives them a sense of adventure that is hard to come by working the grind in a city. Moreover, it provides a sense of scale and perspective to an otherwise vast and complex landscape image that can often be hard to relate to. Finally, it makes the image completely unique in the sense that the same persons can never be there again in the same image, same pose, etc…

At this very moment, I can hear my professor from my Landscape Photography 101 proclaiming 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 art subjective. What one person may consider to be a landscape may not be the same as what another considers as a landscape image. In fact, most would probably consider images of people in the outdoors having a good time to be lifestyle photographs, not landscapes. There is certainly a fine line from one to the other, but this is not what’s important. What is important is creating an image that is unique and captivating to an audience that has virtually seen it all; and I believe this is a technique that, when used effectively, does exactly that. Here are a few examples from my own adventures that I hope will inspire you to get out and make your own.

Two of my best friends have a sunset chat in Sedona, AZ.

The faint silhouette in the distance emphasizes the vast desert landscape of White Sands National Monument, NM.

Admiring the beauty of Cucumber Falls, PA.

Living on the edge at Portland HeadLight, ME.

Our traveling tiny home makes its way through Acadia National Park, ME.

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great article. I'm always seeking for the perfect, purest shot, without human "contamination", but when I'm reviewing my shots I realize that sometimes having a person in the scene would be so helpful in so many ways. And it's not only the connection you create with the viewer, but also the ability of easily giving a sense of scale. Just looking at your first image here, I tried to imagine it without the couple of photographers, it's still an amazing view of the Grand Canyon (it is the Grand Canyon, isn't?), but these two guys make the canyon even grander

Yes, in some spots adding the human element is great. The Sedona picture tells it best,

From my experience using photography within marketing, having a face tied to a brand makes said brand that much more endearing; it's something that we can connect with on a more intimate level. Now my specialty is far from landscapes, but I feel that the same concept would hold true for landscapes. If not for adding a sense of scale then for creating a conduit through which we become more immersed in the photo. That photo you used for the article cover? Immediately triggered images of my son and I exploring when he gets older and more capable. If there were no people then the thought would be "That's a nice looking canyon".
Art is subjective, yes. When I indulge in art (and especially when I'm producing it) I do so with emotion as a bedrock on which every other element is built. So when I see a landscape, though others may be consuming it for different reasons, it immediately becomes more engaging when including people.

Gorgeous photos, by the way.

Hey MJ,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I myself go back and forth on the idea whether or not to include manmade objects/human elements into my photos and often enough, the scene will dictate it for me. If there is an abandoned building, or a couple standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon; I'll take the shot as is and see how I like it later. However, more often than not I will just shoot a landscape as is because personally speaking, alot of why I love nature and shooting landscapes is the sense of being disconnected and out in the middle of no where. For me, anything human can ruin this feeling. So I guess what I am saying is it depends on my mood and how I feel the scene is presenting itself. But I have noticed for some time now the trend of including people in landscape shots which at that point may be called something else.

BTW, do you have a site? I love to see others work. Thanks again for commenting!

Sounds like we're on the same page. I'm always trying to bring up my weak areas and landscape photography just so happens to be one. And I have a website that's a tad dated as the past three years have been spent as a full-time salaried photographer and felt it would be wrong of me to take photos that were owned by my employers and attach them to my own personal business. If you were ever interested I'd love to send over a link to my Dropbox portfolio. That said, you can venture into my humble beginnings at

And thanks for the article. Every once in awhile we come across a person who's capable of putting into words things that we never knew how and that's exactly what happened for me.

I'm one of those people who strive to avoid people in my landscape shots. I do however like to have some human built element like an empty road or crumbling building.

And I was actually thinking about that exact idea (though the image that came immediately to mind was a crumbling playground) but I feel that this is a prime example of how genres are sometimes separated by the most infinitesimal details that really boil down to how we best engage with something. Some spurn emotion through the emotion of others while others require nothing more than a spotless, untouched vista. The nice thing about being a photographer is that, emotionally engaging or not, we can at the VERY LEAST appreciate the aesthetics of the photo itself.

If you're interested where this type of people-landscape-hybrid actually came from, then I highly recommend to check out the paintings created by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). His paintings are looking kinda like those Instagram-Hipster photos you see on a daily basis.
Some examples:über_dem_Nebelmeer.jpg

P.S.: Still great article and composing in your images. :)

These are really sick man! Will definitely research his work more for inspiration. Thx for sharing !

The first two show contemplative, thought provoking scenes. The second two are part of the selfie generation. The last photo looks like perhaps it could be used in a tourism brochure.
But that's just my opinion.

I think you may be onto something with the tourism brochure... But either way I agree with you, I wanted to include a few examples to show the variety of ways this concept can be photographed.

Thanks for this. But then there was the student on one of my landscape photography courses who declared with absolute certainty that this wasn't a landscape because it had a person in it... Not sure if you'll even be able to see him, he's so small in the frame, but it was obvious enough on a slide projection screen.

Can definitely make out the person there. Frankly I think it is great with that included. The person is so small it doesn't disrupt the landscape, quite the opposite actually. I think it really gives a sense of grandeur to the overlying mountains. Maybe not a technical landscape, tomato, tomatoe; but I like it. If not, just clone him out :)