How Including People or Manmade Objects in Your Landscapes Can Add a Sense of Scale

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My natural instinct as a landscape photographer has always been to keep people and manmade objects out of my images. I want to create images of nature that are pure and free (or at least appear to be free) of human interference. That said, over the past few years, I have started to backtrack on this a bit, especially when the camera fails to show the true scale of a landscape. In this article, I’ll share a small collection of images from my portfolio that include situations where allowing people or objects into the scene made the image a success.

Add a manmade object to show size

Na Pali Coast Sunset Sony A7RII and Sony 16-35 f/4 | ISO 500, f/4.5, 1/800th.

Here is (quite possibly) the most beautiful and rugged stretch of coastline on Earth, the Na Pali Coast of Kauai. I’ve photographed it from land, sea and air and still there is just no way to truly capture how incredible it is in person. On my most recent trip to the Garden Isle, I took my workshop group on a sunset cruise up to photograph whales and the Na Pali Coast.

As we were taking in the incredible scenery, I noticed one of the many helicopters that tour the coastline cutting through the scene. Using my Sony FE 16-35 f/4 lens, I framed a shot with the helicopter (flying right to left) on the right side of the frame (it’s the tiny little white spot) with plenty of space on the left side to see where it was headed. Take away the helicopter and it’s still an incredible scene, but without the helicopter, there’s just no way to accurately communicate how massive these cliffs are.

Use tourists to show scale

Balanced Rock Sunset Sony A7 and Canon 16-35 f/2.8 | ISO 100, f/11, 1/20th.

One of the easiest to reach landmarks in Arches National Park (located in Moab, Utah) is Balanced Rock. You just drive to the parking lot, and you’re pretty much there. But to get the sunset in the background, you’ll need to walk to the other side.

As our group was getting into position for what was turning out to be a beautiful sunset, a tourist climbed right up onto the rocks and started taking selfies. Ugh. Well, instead of getting upset, I decided to make lemonade out of the lemons and yelled over to him, asking if he’d mind throwing his hands up in the air. We were able to get a shot showing just how huge this sandstone rock formation really is, and the pose of the tourist turned out quite nice.

Go with the flow

Grand Canyon Lookout Sony A7RII and Sony 16-35 f/4 | ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/10th.

Like the previous image, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. As Bruce Lee so famously said, “Be water, my friend.”

As the sun set over Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, I was in position to walk away with some really nice shots of the pink glow over the canyon. And just like in Moab, I saw a tourist walk right into the frame as I was about to press the shutter. This time though, he was much closer to the camera and as luck would have it, he was dressed in a cowboy hat, boots, and a leather backpack. Perfect! I never said a single word to this guy, he just stood there looking out over the canyon holding onto the tip of his cowboy hat. I assume he posing for someone else, but I was plenty happy to steal a few frames for myself.

Add yourself into the shot

Delicate Arch Beneath the Milky Way Sony A7S and Sony 16-35 f/4 | ISO 4000, f/4, 30 seconds.

You can’t always have people walk into your frame at the perfect time, wearing clothing that perfectly matches the location you’re photographing. Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands, as I did here at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.

My workshop group and co-instructor Mike were down inside the “bowl” beneath the arch and I stayed up top to light paint the arch for them during their 30-second exposures. We had walkie-talkies and Mike would give me a countdown to begin painting the arch in different ways. Since I couldn’t really concentrate on getting any of my own shots, I set my Sony A7S on a tripod, put it in time-lapse mode and just hoped to come out with one or two shots at the end of the night.

In the image above, that light shining under the arch is yours truly. I was standing beneath it, wearing a headlamp, so the students could get a silhouette of me looking up at the arch. After the shot, I looked over toward my camera (not on purpose though) and the direct light caused a starburst effect. This turned out to be my favorite image I’ve taken at this location by far. Not bad for the “set it and forget it” method!

Conclusion

 

Sometimes there just isn’t a good way to transfer a three-dimensional landscape to a two-dimensional photograph. Things always get lost in translation to some extent. At the end of the day, we are part of nature and if including a human or manmade object into an image help give the viewer a more accurate sense of scale, I say go for it.

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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

  • Great article, James! And how true it is. Be well.

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