I See Little People

Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver

‘Eye to Eye’ - Turret Arch seen through North Window.

Most landscape photographers shy away from using people in their images. I have never quite understood this, as adding people will not only add a sense of adventure to your image, it will also add a sense of scale. With some landscape images it can be hard to figure out what the size of the landscape actually is if you’ve never been there before. A good example of this is the iconic view of Turret Arch through North Window in Arches National Park.

In the weeks before my first visit to Arches, I searched the internet for images that were taken in the park to get an idea of what it had to offer and what had been already been shot by other photographers, to prevent duplicates. It wasn’t until I stood in front of North Window myself, looking at Turret Arch in the background, that I realized that this window was at least four times bigger than I thought it was. The images I had seen prior to my trip had no sense of scale. As soon as I realized this, I decided to add a human element to the image to better show the sheer size of North Window. I asked my wife (and experienced miniature model) Daniella to climb up to the far left and sit down and look into the frame at Turret Arch. Nikon D3s, AF-S 24-70/2.8, 1/160 @ f/11, ISO 200

Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver ‘Klosterruine im Schnee’ by Caspar David Friedrich, oil on canvas, 1818. Notice the small monks. It looks like a scene from a Tim Burton movie.

‘Klosterruine im Schnee’ by Caspar David Friedrich, oil on canvas, 1818. Notice the small monks. It looks like a scene from a Tim Burton movie.

Adding people to landscape images is of course nothing new. Many photographers have done it before me, and many painters before them. The one painter that has inspired me most, is German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). His paintings characteristically set a human presence in diminished perspective amid expansive landscapes, reducing the figures to a scale that directs the viewer's gaze towards their metaphysical dimension. When I first saw his work back in art school it made a big impression on me, and it's been a source for inspiration ever since.

A few years ago I started working on a series of photographs called 'Dwarfed' – epic landscapes from all over the world with a human element in it. The people are always tiny, but their presence is vital to fully appreciate the grandeur of the scenes. At just a few pixels high the little figures seem insignificant, but the images would lose a lot of their impact if you were to remove them from the landscape. Not only do they build a stronger connection between the viewer and the image, but they also add a sense of scale that is seldom achievable in de-humanized landscapes, and most importantly, impact.

‘Dwarfed’ - Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver

‘Dwarfed’ - Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland

Skogafoss is one of the most iconic waterfalls that we visit on our Iceland workshop, and one of the most photographed ones. One reason is that it's one of the biggest waterfalls in the country (200 ft. high), another is that you can park your car almost right next to it. Getting a shot with a human element in it is therefore not very difficult. But to get Daniella this small in the frame required for her to walk right up to where the water came crashing down, which is not something most people like to do in winter. Daniella's Gore-Tex jacket lasted for about two minutes.

Due to the amount of spray the waterfall constantly produces, a rainbow can be seen on sunny days when the sun is at the right angle. I wanted the rainbow, but I didn't want a blue sky or a featureless white sky, so we paid several visits until the light conditions were ideal - sun on the waterfall with a moody sky above it. To get a slightly different perspective, I decided to wade into the icy cold river. To blur the water of the waterfall and the water in the foreground, I used a neutral density filter to lengthen my exposure. Nikon D3s, AF-S 24-70/2.8, 2 sec. @ f/16, ISO 100

Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver Tuareg standing next to gigantic natural rock monolith at sunset. Acacus region, Libya.

‘Equilibrium’ - Natural rock monolith in Libya, shot at sunset.

Libya is one of my favorite landscape photography destinations in Africa. Not only is the country incredibly beautiful, it is unspoiled by tourism and there are still a lot of places that have rarely been visited or photographed. This balancing natural rock monolith is not one of them, but it is still completely unknown to most people. Images like this really benefit from including a human element. Just put your finger on the person in the picture, and you will notice that the impact is completely gone. I asked our local tuareg guide to change into a white outfit, climb up the rocks and look towards the setting sun. It is his presence that not only tells you how tall this rock is, it also adds tension to the image as it makes the person look tiny and vulnerable, and his spot not a very safe place to be. Nikon D3s, AF-S 24-70/2.8, 2 sec. @ f/16, ISO 100

Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver ‘Algerian Giants’ – Silhouetted natural rock shapes in a remote part of Algeria. Shot after sunset.

‘Algerian Giants’ – Silhouetted natural rock shapes in a remote part of Algeria. Shot after sunset.

Algeria is without a doubt the country with the most undiscovered wilderness areas that I have ever visited. The country is truly massive with little or no infrastructure, and on our five week expedition in the Sahara we only managed to explore a very small part of it. When I hiked through this particular area in daytime, I noticed the interesting outlines of these bizarre rock formations, and decided that they would probably look more powerful and graphic when shot as a silhouette. Daniella climbed on the lowest rock in the distance to get as much distance from the camera as possible, rendering her smaller and increasing the impact of the difference in scale. I waited until after sunset to get rid of the blue tones in the sky and to get lower contrast. Without the human element, you would have no idea what you're looking at. Nikon D3, AF-S 14-24/2.8, 1/160 @ f/11, ISO 200

Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver 'Fire In The Hole' - Looking Glass Rock in Utah from a less familiar angle. Highly Commended in Nature’s Best International Photography Awards.

'Fire In The Hole' - Looking Glass Rock in Utah from a less familiar angle. Highly Commended in Nature’s Best International Photography Awards.

Arches National Park and most of the surrounding parks have been shot to death, and the most iconic landmarks beyond that. Looking Glass Rock is one of the lesser known natural rock windows in the Moab area, and the vast majority of the images of this place have been taken from the same side - the side that's next to the parking. I decided to walk around to check out the other side, and immediately saw that it was much more interesting. I climbed around to find a good composition, and then waited for the sun to drop and the light to warm up. The clouds were almost going to kill the light, but just before sunset it briefly appeared again, creating a nice warm glow near the opening. Again, it's the human element that makes all the difference for this image. Nikon D3s, AF-S 14-24/2.8, 1/80 @ f/11, ISO 400. Two blended exposures.

Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver 'To Tame a Glacier' - Two climbers on Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, the largest ice cap in Europe.

'To Tame a Glacier' - Two climbers on Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, the largest ice cap in Europe.

The Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland is the largest ice cap in Europe, covering more than 8 percent of the country. Vatnajökull has around 30 outlet glaciers flowing from the ice cap, and this is one of them. When you photograph a glacier with the mountains that usually support it, you will have no problems to guess the approximate size of it - they're usually pretty big. But the moment you zoom in on just the ice to show the ridges, the subtle colors and the interesting texture, you lose all sense of scale. On my first visit to this glacier there were no climbers on it, and the shot just didn't work. I knew that glacier walks were being offered for this glacier, so I checked their schedule and decided to return when there was a group going up. That turned out to be the right call, because suddenly those walls of ice looked much bigger and a lot more dramatic. Nikon D3x, AF-S 200-400/4 VR II, 1/160 @ f/11

Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver 'The Edge' - African elephant on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls.

'The Edge' - African elephant on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls.

Another reason to include people in your landscape shots, is that there is a much bigger market for them than for de-humanized landscape images. Most stock agencies, travel companies and magazines such as National Geographic Traveler actually prefer shots with people in them because it will add a sense of adventure and make it easier for the viewers to relate to it. And when in doubt, you can always shoot both - it's not that much extra work.

So can you only add scale to a landscape by adding a human element? Clearly not. The idea is simply to use an element that has a known size, and this might just as well be a tree, a lighthouse or an animal. The image above of Victoria Falls works fine without the elephant, but it's the elephant that adds tons of drama and scale, and it's the elephant that makes this shot unique. When National Geographic published the horizontal version of this image as a double page spread in their magazine, it was because of the tension that the ellie creates and how it brings the landscape to life. Nikon D2x, AF-S 24-70/2.8, 1/180 @ f/11, ISO 250

Marsel van Oosten, Marsel, Squiver 'Ice Capades' - Shot on the iconic black lava beach in Iceland.

'Ice Capades' - Shot on the iconic black lava beach in Iceland.

Now is not having scale element in your picture a problem? No, it is not. Just look at the image above that was shot on last year's Iceland workshop. How big is that diamond-like chunk of ice in the foreground? Most people think it is rather small, and certainly not the 3 ft. it actually was. Does it change the impact of the image? I don't think so, therefore I don't feel it's an issue. Actually, it may very well be your intention to be less obvious in your imagery and use the lack of scale to let the viewer wonder about the size of the subject matter or the intention of the photographer. You're the artist, you decide. Nikon D3x, AF-S 14-24/2.8, 1/2 @ f/18. Two exposures - one for the foreground, one for the sky.

If you would like to join me on one of our photo tours and workshops, please check out my website: www.squiver.com

3 Comments

    I can’t agree with you more Marsel! I have recently started doing this as well. I even have used other subjects such as boats, (canoes), animals, old tractors, etc. Thanks for the post!

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