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.
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.
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.
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.