As photographers, a large part of our creative process is to establish a relationship between our viewer and the subjects of our photographs. That relationship can be staring into the eyes of a carnivore who might consider you a snack, creating an internal short story about what the subject is doing, or even better, allowing the story of your human subject matter to generate a connection directly to its viewer. And when you’re out photographing, what better choice of human subject than one of those friends and family that you bring with you into the wilds.
Traveling to the furthest corners of the globe isn’t a requirement for this sort of imagery; you can often find it much closer to home, but you can also utilize your subjects when you travel internationally as well. We can easily break down locations as if we were making a call…
If you’ve looked at many of my images you’ll see that I often include my kids. I include them for a number of reasons, some of which are the same as yours. Here’s an image of my son from a few years ago; the story here is simple – little boy hanging out riding his bicycle, yet the image is powerful. He is obviously pretty young to be riding a bike. The lack of expression on his face allows us to make an immediate connection with his blue eyes. Viewers always connect with a subject’s eyes. From there our connection becomes how we interacted with a bicycle when we were young. Do you not remember the days of your youth? Those first pedal strokes as you rode away from your parent? It was the first step in gaining your own freedom. For my son it happened when he was two and now I chase him down the mountain bike park hoping he doesn’t crash when landing two-foot airs.
A few years ago I was in Yellowstone National Park, shooting with fellow photographer and dear friend Brendan Quigley, aka “Uncle Shiny”; we were scouting locations for upcoming workshops and tours. As we were wandering around the park one morning and discovering images everywhere, I asked Brendan to put down his camera gear and walk through the fog along the boardwalk at Mammoth Hot Springs. By itself, the boardwalk and fog aren’t necessarily enough to hold your attention within the image, but by introducing the human element, a story begins to grow for your viewer; what is that person doing, where’s he going or coming from, and what prompted him to be there on the boardwalk. I chose to turn the original color image into a black and white to highlight the contrast and interplay of light and shadow. By showing the person as a silhouette, the image becomes even more intriguing as we begin to become curious about the subject.
Often times, finding and adding a sense of mystery to your photo brings the viewer into a closer relationship with your image, and keeping their attention is what we are all trying to do as photographers. Find a way to grab them and give them a reason to keep staring at your picture while they try to see, feel and understand what is going on, and you have succeeded over the photographer who doesn’t use his friends and family.
Unlike most couples who choose to spend their honeymoons in a location that holds some sort of white sand beach and cocktails adorned with those little umbrellas, my wife and I rode 500 miles across Alaska on our mountain bikes for our honeymoon. Fast forward 15 years later and we returned to produce a feature story on what we believed was some of the best single track in the state of Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. We managed to con Dirt Rag Magazine into allowing us to produce a feature article of our story. I was able to use Heather as the subject for most of the images that I created during the trip as she is a sponsored pro rider, but amongst many standout moments there was this crash, caught mid-series, that really catches the viewer off guard and asking the question was she ok. There was blood and she probably needed stitches, but she chose to ignore it all in lieu of producing more images that further refined the story she was about to write for the magazine.
Now what if we are traveling on another continent, and we see a photograph that just needs a person or two in it to further take our viewer on a journey? Well, I make my guide and driver stand in the shot and do what I say. It is kind of cool when you get to become the master of puppets. When I was in Patagonia this spring, a cloud moved over the Paine Massive while were hiking a trail to some rock art. I had everyone in my group grab their cameras and instructed Chris and Guido to create various poses that were reminiscent of the carvings as we shot photograph after photograph. Again, I deliberately chose to turn the image into black and white as the time of day wasn’t producing a warm brilliant color. The monochrome shot also allowed the texture to really pop within the photograph.
I never hesitate to ask even the most remote stranger to become part of my composition in a photograph. And all of my friends and family know that they are more likely than not going to become part of any scene, at any moment, at any place on our planet. Adding the human element into a photograph not only allows us to further tell a story, people inevitably connect with other people, making a sometimes empty composition sing. Next time you head out with your friends and family try putting them into your photo and see how the results produce an interesting and different look for your work.
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