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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Add Scale To Your Grand Scapes


Incorporating a person into a big vista gives a sense of scale and human interaction to the scene. It’s not right for every photo, but think about it the next time you’re in front of a grand scene.

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Notice how the inclusion of people in these photographs gives the scenes scale. As nature photographers, we frequently work to avoid any human element in our photos, but you can see here how a person can positively make the shot. Above: hiking the salty shore of Lago Tuyajito in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

Like many of us, my love of photography began with the wild landscape. My early years were spent emulating icons like Ansel Adams, David Muench and Eliot Porter. I followed the grand landscape dream all over the American West, and after years of chasing light and doing "pure" landscapes with no signs of humanity whatsoever, I began to feel a little boxed in, as if I was repeating my favorite lighting formulas everywhere I went, and missing something I could sense, but not see.


Kayaking under a double arch of sandstone, Lake Powell, Utah.
Eventually, I broke out of that mold by showing the friends and guides with whom I was exploring the natural world—on backpacking trips, river-rafting and kayaking adventures, climbing and every activity I could envision. Over time, these new images of landscapes with people meant far more to me, and not coincidentally, had more success in the world of magazine travel photography than the classic landscapes of my youth.

I believe that many viewers and readers react more strongly to photographs that show people like them, exploring and being challenged by their environment. We can imagine ourselves in their places—kayaking in a desert canyon, hiking through a rainbow in Yosemite, marveling at the Milky Way under an arch of granite or crossing a remote glacier in Alaska.

Over the years, I've evolved a set of principles that seem to work for me when shooting adventure travel stories and subjects. I don't believe in rules, but I do believe in doing what works. So, perhaps start with these guidelines, but know that's what they are. They're merely a way to get started on your own adventures.

Way Beyond Scale
The classic idea of placing a person in a scene to provide some sense of the scale of a location is still valid, but you must go way beyond that truism to make dynamic images. The danger is having your friends model and render the scene static. I often look for ways to silhouette them for graphic impact, but most importantly, they have to be engaged in some tangible way with the landscape—seeming to lean into the sand-laden gale on an Australian beach, playing a haunting flute in a magical side canyon of the Grand Canyon or exuberantly reaching out to the sun while atop a sea arch on the Big Island. Watch and be ready for their moments of joy, discovery and awe, but be certain you're in the absolute best place to compose for those reactions. Revealing moments vanish quickly and are never the same twice.

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