How to Make Your Photos More Interesting with a Human Element

How to Make Your Photos More Interesting with a Human Element


The human element in photography

I believe that when someone asks how to improve their composition, that what they’re really asking is how they can make their photos more interesting.

The skill of composition is in arranging the elements of the scene in such a way that the resulting image is aesthetically pleasing, and interesting to look at. Composition involves using techniques such as including leading lines, isolating the subject, exploiting tonal contrast, deciding what to leave out of the frame, and so on. But none of this matters much if your subject matter is boring.

The most effective way to create interesting images is to find an interesting subject. Composition becomes much easier when your subject is interesting. You are more likely to be enthusiastic about the photos, and put more effort into finding a good composition, if you are engaged with, or passionate about the subject.

Luckily, there are lots of interesting things to take photos of. But for me the most interesting subject of all is people.

The human element in photography

Unlike static subjects like the landscape, which change slowly or not at all, people are transient. They change. Jobs change. Towns and cities change. The ebb and flow of life creates many interesting and varied subjects for the curious photographer.

Many of the great photographers (and yes, there are exceptions) built their reputations taking photos of people. Masters like Steve McCurry, Sebastião Salgado, David Bailey and Annie Leibovitz predominantly photograph people and their affect on the world.

So, how do you add the human element in your photos? Here are some ideas.

1. Include human figures in the landscape to show scale and context

Including human figures in the landscape provides both a focal point and a guide to scale.

I took the following photo in a remote region of northwest Argentina. The scene caught my eye not just because it is spectacular, but because of the people walking in the middle ground. The presence of the figures reveals the height of the cliff face behind them. We know how big it is because we can compare its size to the them.

Even though the people are small in the frame they are still large enough for you to see they are wearing traditional dress. There are also some stone walls in the foreground, which are animal pens.

The human figures, and evidence of human activity, adds information, providing context about the relationship between the individuals in it and the landscape.

The human element in photography

2. Take environmental portraits

One way to create interesting photos of people is to take environmental portraits – photos that include information about the person’s surroundings. The person will be the focal point of the photo but really there are two stories being told here; one about the person, and another about their environment.

The photo below came about after I asked a friend of mine if I could take some portraits with her new gypsy caravan that she built herself from scratch. She loved the idea. This photo is as much about her caravan and the way she created a unique place for herself to live, as it is about capturing her likeness.

The human element in photography

3. Find interesting people to photograph

The easiest way to find interesting people to take photos of is to set yourself a project. One of my current projects is to take photos of local craftsmen. This led me to take photos of Eoin in his glass blowing studio.

After I had taken some photos of him blowing glass, we went outside to take some portraits. You can see one of the images below. He has a very interesting face, and was a great subject, but I would never have found him if it hadn’t been for the project.

The human element in photography

You may have read the story where a student asks photographer Jay Maisel how to take more interesting photos. The reply was,

“If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.” – Jay Maisel

Another way to find interesting people is to lead a more interesting life. The more hobbies and activities you participate in, the more people you will meet in everyday life. Some of them may make interesting subjects.

Your turn

Do you agree with my idea that people are the most interesting subject for photographers? Please let us know in the comments, I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.

Mastering Composition ebookMastering Composition

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Great article Andrew! I definitely agree with the following sentence: “The most effective way to create interesting images is to find an interesting subject.” And this can be very individual indeed, and may vary depending on one’s mood and how we “click” with our subject. Are photographs necessarily enhanced by the presence of people in them? I would tend to say sometimes, but not always.

  • Find More Interesting People? I would modify that to Find People More Interesting. Everyone is interesting if we’ll make the effort to connect. One of my pet peeves on the 100 Strangers Project on Flickr are group members who zero in on people whose appearance might be considered odd or unusual. I’m much more impressed by portraits of “normal” looking people where the photographer finds in them something both unique and fresh as well as a kindred spirit with whom others can identify. In my opinion, that makes a much more interesting photograph. Andrew develops this idea a bit in the article but I wanted to add my two cents. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

  • Diana

    These are great tips and I totally agree that people are the most interesting subjects. If I could add anything it would be to make the most of natural light whenever possible, and to keep shooting when your subject isn’t trying to “pose”. The best photos I’ve taken (in my opinion at least) were of candid expressions when the subjects were just being their amazing selves and their inner personality shone through.

  • Assled

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  • nice tips, thank you 🙂

  • That’s a good tip Diana. You might enjoy this article by DPS author Mitchell K. who writes about the same thing:

  • Leonard Schrock

    I agree. People can add to a photo. While waiting at a traffic light I saw this musical reflection of a light pole.

  • ColininOz

    Cartier Bresson started it all with ‘candid’ shots almost always of people just ‘doing their thing’ . In streets, on river banks, leaning out of windows. Informal. Un-posed. This shot of a lone man fishing as the storm comes closer. is my poor effort to emulate his style. The ‘American Express Card ‘ tag line applies to your camera – ” Don’t leave home without it ” .

  • Sabyasachi

    Well said. Its always not just about the technicalities but to get into it whatever you are clicking. I like more to know the people I capture usually,the people of my surrounding. If the conversation is not possible then I try observe them and their activities , it helps to get a fruitful shot and a good caption too. And while clicking making myself as the first person is what I love the most. Any way thanks for this article , keep writing more 🙂

  • Susan Palmer Gutterman

    I agree that adding people to landscapes makes the photo more interesting. I snapped this on my iPhone the orher evening and realized that, in addition to the beautiful Maui sunset, what I liked about it was the photographer in the foreground. I keep rotating it and can’t get it to post “right side up”.

  • I really enjoyed this piece. Thanks Andrew!

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