The Human Element in Nature Photos: 5 Examples From Patagonia

(© Ian Plant) Although I am a bit of a “purist” when it comes to my nature images, in the sense that I usually do my best to exclude the “hand of man,” sometimes adding a person to the composition can really help complete the scene. A person in the landscape can introduce a sense of scale to an image, and becomes an obvious and eye-catching reference point. Also, people can add to the composition, as their posture, line of sight, and direction of movement can all be used creatively—in ways that static landscape features sometimes cannot. Last but not least, a person can help tell the story of a place. Here are five examples from Patagonia (four from my most recent trip and one from several years ago) where I used the human element as part of my nature composition.

1. “Sam at the Cascades”—Rio de las Vueltas, Argentina

For the image above, I decided to include one of my workshop clients in the composition—Sam, who was busy making some images of his own. I was immediately attracted to the curving trees arcing over the scene. So, instead of moving closer to the water’s edge in an effort to focus my composition on the waterfall, I pulled back and focused on the shapes and forms created by the trees, which framed Sam perfectly. At first, I was tempted to wait until Sam was done, but then I realized he made a perfect addition to the scene. He creates a strong focal point, which balances against the visual energy (formed by the trees and the motion of the stream) which otherwise pulls the eye to the right.

2. “Hiker Below Fitz Roy”—Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

For this shot of Fitz Roy, I waited for a moment when a hiker ambled to the shore of Laguna de Los Tres. I first photographed him looking into the scene, but I felt that I needed something different to balance the composition. When he looked down and to the left, checking his footing before jumping off the large boulder he was standing on, I knew I had the right pose to complete the shot. His line of sight creates compositional energy pointing towards the lower left corner of the image, which is necessary to balance against the looming eye-catchiness of Fitz Roy, dominating the upper third of the image. The hiker is also balanced by the shadows in the lower right. By photographing the hiker looking out of the scene, rather than in, his visual prominence is enhanced, allowing him to visually compete with the much larger mountain in the background. I talk more about the merits of “looking in vs. looking out” in my eBook Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition.

3. “On Belay”—Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

I made this image one day while exploring the Grande Glacier below Cerro Torre with my guide. He took me out on some giant seracs, which are essentially house-sized blocks of ice formed as a glacier splits into a crisscross pattern of crevasses. At one point we decided to rappel down one side of a serac. After securing a few ice screws, my guide lowered me by rope to the bottom. Before heading down, I secured my camera strap around me neck, as I sensed a good photo opportunity. On the way down, I asked him to stop lowering me. As I dangled from the rope, twenty feet above the ground, I quickly composed a wide-angle shot, using the rope as a line leading straight to my guide. Lucky for me, the sun was behind the serac just below where my guide was standing. This meant that he was surrounded by an eye-catching halo of light. Bright areas automatically attract the viewer’s attention, so by placing the brightest part of the scene right behind my guide, he automatically became the main focal point of the image. Once again, I discuss the “halo effect” in more detail in Visual Flow.

4. “Jumping For Joy”—Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Okay, this was me having a little bit of fun with my workshop group. By zooming in with a telephoto lens, I was able to “compress” the perspective of this scene. I asked Richard, my workshop co-leader, and a few of my clients to jump in the air after a fantastic morning shoot. The result is rather amusing, in large part because only Richard managed to get some air!

5. “Glorious Morning”—Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

I shared this photo in a previous post, but didn’t talk about the story behind the image. After photographing sunrise on Fitz Roy at Laguna de Los Tres, I was walking around looking for some new angles. A young Japanese hiker approached me and asked if I could take his picture with his camera. I obliged, and then asked in return if he would pose for me. I asked him to jump up on a boulder he had been standing on when I arrived, and directed him into the classic (clichéd) “King of the World” pose. I think this would make a very nice magazine cover (Chris Robinson at Outdoor Photographer, this hint is for you . . .).

Adding a human element to your nature photos can open new artistic opportunities, and can be fun as well. So next time you are impatiently waiting for some tourist to walk out of your shot, consider instead some creative ways to use the human presence to your advantage.

P.S. I’ll be returning next March to lead my Ultimate Patagonia Photo Tour. We’re already beginning to receive registrations, so don’t delay—sign up now!