This is my jam: I love photographing people in nature. Give me a stunning landscape combined with a person enjoying the place and I’m camera happy. That’s why today I’m sharing some photography tips for landscapes with people in them.
You might think that landscapes shouldn’t have people in them, and that’s fair. However, sometimes adding a person to a landscape photo can tell a deeper story of the scale or experience of a place. And I think that’s what I love, trying to capture the spirit of a place and not just how beautiful it is but how it makes me feel and the impact it has on my life.
The tips ahead are going to talk about how to photograph landscapes with people in them. Whether you want to tell the story of an enchanting environment or the scale of a particular place, having more intentionality about adding people to your landscapes will help you achieve the desired effect. You can think about it as landscape photography with people in it or environmental portraiture, but either way the interaction between people and the environment can be a wellspring of creativity.
People as Scale
One of the popular reasons you might hear to use people in your landscape photography is because they provide scale. Take a location like the Redwoods or Sequoia National Park where the trees are larger than life. People who have never been to those places can’t possibly understand the scale without knowing that it takes seven people to hug one giant Sequoia.
Adding a person for scale might mean a small person in a big landscape to show how vast an area is but it also might mean the placement of a person on a trail to show how far away a mountain is or other details about the surroundings. The person in the landscape adds some storytelling, context, and perspective to what we’re looking at.
Sometimes your decision of how to include the person will make the person your subject, while other times the landscape remains the subject of the photography and the person is a part of it. Then you want to think about what your person is doing in the landscape. Are they sitting and admiring the view or walking through the landscape or are they doing a sport like hiking, running, or biking?
The Experience of a Place
As you start to think about the purpose of the person in your landscape and what they’re doing, you start to answer the question of how we experience a place. A landscape of a dramatic sunset shows the beauty of a place at sunset. A landscape of a person sitting relaxed watching that same sunset communicates the peace and tranquility we feel when we get to experience that sunset.
Adding movement can say a lot too. If we capture a hiker moving through the mountains or a surfer riding the waves of the ocean then the story becomes even more complex. It tells a story about the place, how it feels, and now also where the person is going or what kind of adventure they’re having.
This is one of the things I love most about landscape photographs with people in them. Instead of just showing the beauty of a place, we’re able to create a story around the impact that beauty has on us. Whenever I return from an adventure, it’s amazing to be able to share a glimpse of my experience with someone else through photography.
Vibrant Colors, Complimentary Colors, or Silhouettes
From a practical standpoint, once you’ve selected your landscape and determined how a person is interacting with it for the sake of your photography, you can pay attention to some of the smaller details. For example, does the person blend into the landscape with complimentary colors to where it takes the viewer a second to notice them? Or do they pop out from the landscape through the vibrant colors they’re wearing or how they’re standing in a sunbeam?
I personally love when the people in my landscapes are wearing vibrant solid colors, colors that pop from the background. The smaller they are in the image the more important that is to help them stand out. If the person is larger in the landscape it can be nice if they compliment the backdrop like in family photos taken in fall colors. Another option is that the person has very little detail and is just a silhouette.
Sometimes you can’t control the colors of your backdrop or your subject. However, if you’re heading out to shoot wildflowers why not make sure your companions are wearing wildflower colors? If you’re working with clients or models you can guide their wardrobe choices to match the aesthetic you’re looking for.
Composition and Placement
The next thing to consider is how the person falls into your landscape composition. Where in the frame do you plan to place them? Start by considering everything we’ve talked about so far in terms of the scale you’re trying to communicate, the experience you’re telling the story of, and how the person contrasts or compliments the landscape.
Next, you’ll look at how you plan to compose your landscape and how the person fits in. Are you following the rule of thirds and need your person in the foreground? Or are you using leading lines and need your person to be heading somewhere along the way?
Sometimes I find it helpful to imagine how I would compose the photograph without a person and then decide where the person should go to add to the frame. Other times the person is the subject or key piece of composition. Regardless, it’s time to remember your composition rules and design techniques.
Let’s review some of the concepts we talked about:
- Use people to add scale, dimension, and perspective to your landscape images.
- Decide if you want the person to be the subject or the landscape to be the subject that a person is a part of.
- What the person is doing can help add context, movement, and story to your photograph.
- Tell a deeper story than how a place looks, tell the story of the impact a place has.
- Pay attention to details like color and contrast to help your person stand out or compliment the scene.
- Use your composition techniques to decide where to place the person in the frame.
It’s hard and feels impossible to ever, “do a place justice.” When we go out in nature it can be life-changing, mood-altering, and perspective-shifting. It’s no wonder we want to share that experience through our art.
While we can’t capture the entirety of a place simply by clicking our shutter button, we can absolutely use what we know about art and design to tell a story or create a photograph that will evoke meaning and feeling for the viewer. That’s the challenge. And for me, it’s part of the joy of photographing people in nature.
About the author: Brenda Bergreen is a Colorado wedding photographer, videographer, yoga teacher, and writer who works alongside her husband at Bergreen Photography. With their mission and mantra “love. adventurously.” they are dedicated to telling adventurous stories in beautiful places.