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Here's Why You Should Put Yourself in Your Landscape Images

Here's Why You Should Put Yourself in Your Landscape Images

A lot of landscape photographers will tell you that the best types of images are devoid of people — just nature in all its splendid, unspoiled glory. I beg to differ. Here are some reasons why you should put yourself in the frame of your landscape images.

To be clear from the off, you'll notice that I didn't write "always" in the title. There are no absolutes in life, much less in photography. Naturally, an equally compelling case could be made for why landscape images without the interfering distraction of people are better, but for this article, I'm going to focus on why putting yourself in the frame of your landscape images can help the image and your photography.

Be Unique

One of the problems of the internet and its ubiquitous access to information is that nothing is sacred anymore, especially photographic locations. You only need to go to Instagram and type in the hashtag of a famous landscape spot to see how many photos have been taken and uploaded of that place: Horseshoe Bend, Mesa Arch, Kirkjuffelsfoss Waterfall, the blue domes of Santorini — all stunningly gorgeous places that are irresistible for visiting photographers owing to their sheer awe-inspiring majesty, but all of them shot to absolute death.

Thus, as a photographer, how do you come away with something that does justice to a location's beauty but also shows it in an original, unique way? There are many options, of course, but one way is to put yourself in the frame. Now, before I continue, I will say that you have to be careful not to simply copy some boring position or pose in your image that has been done a thousand times before as well. Simply sticking yourself in the frame the same way everyone else has doesn't add creativity to your image and might land you as an unwitting subject on Instagram's insta_repeat account. You don't want that. 

The image above was taken at Fingal Head in the far northern part of NSW, Australia. This is a very famous surfing and fishing location and is also hugely popular with landscape photographers because of the volcanic rock formations, the canyon, and the rushing water, as well as the sunrise that emerges over the top-of-the-rock soldiers. To be sure, without me in the frame here, this would still be a lovely image. And perhaps many photographers or readers who don't know this location might now be thinking that the surfer in the frame is wholly unnecessary. You have a point.

However, if you live in this area or have visited any (or many) of the small galleries and photography boutique cafes along this stretch of coast, you'd know that sunrise shots of Fingal Causeway are like ants in the middle of summer — everywhere, much like the locations mentioned above. Without the surfer in the frame here, this shot would be like dozens and dozens I've seen hung on walls over the years. Lovely? Yes. Unique? Not in the slightest. Also of importance here is that Fingal is a very popular surfing spot, especially out in front of these rocks. Therefore, lacing a surfer in the frame here is not incongruous at all — something you need to consider.

Be Personal

A second reason to put yourself into the frame of your landscape images is that it can add a personal touch to an image that might be lacking any real character. Let me use the image below as an example.

Both my father and my mother served many years in the British Royal Navy before they emigrated to Australia, and once in Australia, they settled near the coast in Sydney. Therefore, I grew up next to the ocean, and my family spent much of its time enjoying everything that the ocean offers. When my mother visited me in Japan a few years back, she wanted to know where I surfed, where I went to relax, and where I drank beers each evening while watching the sun fall. I brought her to the location above, and she absolutely loved it. It's not as treacherous as it seems, as there's an easy entry point to the right of the frame.

My mother and I spent many hours on these very rocks, and she loved the tranquility. Indeed, before she returned home, she asked me to go to the exact position I sat in most often. When I went over and sat there, she asked me to stand up, and upon doing so, she insisted I get a photo exactly like the one above, with me in the frame. This added a very personal touch and a specific reminder of our time together in the far south of Japan. It has become an ever more poignant image owing to current world circumstances and the prevention of international travel. Without me in the frame, I highly doubt it would have the same emotional significance or impact for my mother.

Give the Eye a Resting Point

Often, we talk about subjects in our composition, but equally as important is giving the eye a point to rest. We might sometimes have four or five interesting elements in our frames, but if we don't give particular prominence to something, then our viewer's eyes will just flit from corner to corner and edge to edge and never rest somewhere. When that happens, we haven't engaged the viewer long enough for them to actively want to stop and examine the image a little more closely. Take the two images below as examples.

The image above is a place where I surf very often. It's a nice enough image with the ethereal, misty water in the foreground, the volcanic rocks which jut out into the water, and the blazing sunrise. However, there's nothing here that really stands out. It's another sunrise image with a filter used on the water to get that long-exposure look. But the eye doesn't really have anything solid to grab on to and rest on. The eye just moves around slowly until it thinks, "nice enough" and moves on to whatever's next. Contrast that with the image below.

In this image, the eye has a specific point it can hold on to. Sure, it can dance around the other elements and take in everything that's happening, but it will invariably come back to the surfer standing on the rock. It might look at the ghostly water, but then, it will rest once again momentarily on the surfer. After that, it might look at the sun or the composition, but again, it will return to the surfer. Putting a person (yourself is much more creatively challenging and fun) in the frame gives the eye an anchor point where it can rest. When you give that resting point to the viewer, you can often hold their interest in the image much longer.

Summing Up

There are no absolutes in art, including photography. Experimentation and providing yourself with options can really help your development as a photographer. One option is to add yourself to the frame. It helps you think about your compositional choices and adds a layer of originality to the image that is often missing, particularly with images taken from famous locations. No doubt, there are times when the majesty of the scene in front of you does not need the interfering presence of a human element. But there are times when adding yourself can add a lot for the final image.

Do you ever put yourself in images when you shoot landscape photography? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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Good article 👍 I rarely put myself in as I don’t tend to carry a tripod but I often put one of my dogs in there. Even the dog’s eyeline can be used as a leading line to take the viewer into the frame.

My dogs have never been obedient enough to sit still while I frame my shot!

I agree. Many times a person adds a subject and a story to an otherwise empty landscape. Also a sense of scale, especially with architecture.

Scale is also good, yes. You just have to try to find creative ways of showing it.

Okay, but what if I'm really ugly?

The camera doesn't judge I wouldn't worry.

Silhouettes hide all my imperfections!

DIGITAL GARBAGE! Wow, never saw that in all caps. Must be quite the societal bane.

I believe the author wrote, "No doubt, there are times when the majesty of the scene in front of you does not need the interfering presence of a human element. But there are times when adding yourself can add a lot for the final image." Don't think he said you should put someone in every landscape photo.

For your viewing pleasure, here are a couple of famous Ansel Adams photos. "If a landscape cannot stand on it's own merit one is a poor photographer" He was kind of a hack, I guess.

I am not a professional photographer. Simply an enthusiastic picture taker of limited ability. I am; however, a very decent person. Everybody loves me. I do many charitable things. And I try to bring civility to the world around me. But I freely admit to being a hack at photography.

The irony of my comment apparently escaped you. I was not actually calling Ansel Adams a hack. I was applying your litmus test to his photographs and drawing the inference that you imply with your statement about photographers who choose to put humans in their landscape photos. If the author's proposition makes one a poor photographer, ipso facto, Ansel Adams, must be a poor photographer. And, so that it is not misconstrued, I am not saying you believe Ansel Adams is a poor photographer. Merely that he was not averse to doing what you eschew as a gimmick of poor photography. Gilding the lily, as it were.

I, personally, am profoundly in awe of Adams' talent.

Not all who post here claim to be great photographers, nor feel the need to denigrate others. I come to this site to try to learn from those much more knowledgeable than me. I appreciate the efforts of those who take the time to present material, and I get inspired by the diversity of the articles posted and the creativity of the authors. Not all of it is to my taste, yet I can appreciate that someone has taken the time to try to help me be better at my avocation. Lambasting the author by calling his efforts "DIGITAL GARBAGE!" is not very civil.

Emerson wrote,"every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I can learn from him".

Yes. I am a raving egomaniac. You can probably tell by my admiration of others' efforts and contributions, and the Emerson quote, which is the epitome of self-love. You got me.

You make good points, but I just don't like people.

Putting yourself in the frame precludes the need to deal with any of those pesky human types!

No way. I'm fugly plus I don't own a surf board.

Seriously folks, this is another case of “to each their own”.
I’ll just make a few points:
Placing a figure into a landscape turns the image, basically, into a narrative illustration. You might like that but it is a distancing motif for the viewer who is turned into a voyeur.
Landscapes without people allow the viewer to be more immediately immersed in the aesthetics of the landscape. The exceptions to this would be city scapes or pastoral images in which people would naturally be present. The examples in the article are “plopped” in without appropriate context.
The last example is somewhat sneaky because the initial shot is out of balance. The sun and rocky formation are shoved to the viewers left leaving a gap on the right. The only reason adding the figure is better is that it adds visual weight to the relatively empty right side balancing the composition. If the initial shot was composed better, then the plopping in of a figure would be unnecessary. So that compositional comparison would be more instructive without this sleight of hand.
At the very least the issue of when to include a figure or not in a landscape is whether the added figure is in a viable narrative context or if it is an attempt to add gimmicky (vacuous?) punch to the image.
Again, landscapes with or without human figures is a personal choice,
but photographers might want to think about reasons for or against with any given image based on informed decision making based on aesthetic discernment.
Otherwise you run the risk of acting like a fashion photographer dumping models into a a colorful background. It might be effective for fashion photography, but is that a motivation for the rest of us?

I've never really thought about doing this but it sounds like an interesting idea or at least a way to make a couple of unique pictures. I'm not very good at adding people to photos yet even after all the Photoworks tutorials, so a good opportunity to practice for me lol

This isn't really talking about adding people to images after the fact, but that's an option, I suppose. I'm talking about putting yourself into the composition when you take the photo.