Is a Human Element Valuable in Landscape and Astro Photography?

Yes, a human element can be an amazing addition to your landscape and astro photography.  Prior to this year, I would go out of my way to avoid any human element or ignore shots that included it.  I thought the shot would not be very natural and that a human element would ruin a pristine nature photo.   Well that all changed early in the year at the Nights of Wonder workshops with Paul Zizka and Dave Broscha.  Dave and Paul are both exceptionally creative at adding a human element to their landscape and astro photography.   Since the workshop, I have really enjoyed including a human element, namely myself, in my landscape and astro photography.   Here are examples where I have incorporated a human element in my recent photography.

  1.  Story telling – The essence of photography is story telling.  The human element can add a lot to the story in a landscape or astro photo.  Here are a couple of examples where I used myself to help tell a story in the photo.

Example 1

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Falling Over Orion

This photo was taken at Elbow Falls in Kananaskis Country, west of Calgary, Canada.  That is me sitting on the rock.  I wanted to tell the story of star gazing on a beautiful peaceful moonlit night. If you look in the background you can see the Orion constellation which was what originally attracted me to this shot.  Without me in the photo, to me it would have been a nice photograph, but in the end, it would lack the compelling story.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 14 mm, ISO 2000, f4, 20 seconds.

Example 2

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River Aurora Dancing

This photo was taken at one of my very first aurora shows in southern Alberta, and it was an amazing show!  Lady Aurora was dancing like no tomorrow, so I wanted the photo to tell that story.  I thought adding myself with the guitar would make the story of the dance much more interesting.  By the way, I am the least musically inclined person on earth.  So fortunately for you, photos do not have sound. Technical information – Nikon D800 – 14 mm, ISO 4,000, 3.5 and 30 seconds.

2.  Scale – Mother nature has provided us with many beautiful and majestic elements in nature that are difficult to portray their size and scale in a 2d photo.  Including the human element is a great way to help overcome this challenge.  Putting people into the photo however needs to add to the story.

Example 1

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Enjoying Moraine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountains are one of the majestic and beautiful elements in nature that are very difficult to portray their size and scale.  The people in the canoe really help portray the scale and size of one of the 10 peaks that tower above Moraine Lake.  Also the story of canoeing in a beautiful turquoise mountain lake helps give a feeling of peace and tranquility.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 70 mm, ISO 200, f11, 1/80 seconds.

Example 2

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The Milky Way

I visited Dinosaur Provincial Park in July this year with the Calgary Camera Club.  After our sunset tour, I went back into the park as I was excited to get some nights shots.  It was a clear beautiful dark night so I was very fortunate to see the Milky Way which I find to be very mysterious and it’s size a wonder.  I was very excited to find this spot and the location of the Milky Way.  It provided the perfect opportunity for me to add myself to provide context in terms of the size of the Milky Way.  The location, Dinosaur Provincial Park, also gave the perfect setting for the mysterious Milky Way.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 14 mm, ISO 4,000, f4 and 20 seconds.  If I were to re-shoot this shot, I would lower my ISO and open up my fstop to 3.5 or 3.2 as at 4,000 it was too noisy.

3.  Lack of interesting or exciting fore or mid ground

If you have looked at a landscape or nightscape and thought hmmmm, something is missing from this composition, consider adding the human element.  The key is to put the human element in a position and pose that helps with the story.

Example 1

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Morning Stroll

My eye caught the light on the snow covered moraines on the mountain so I stopped on my hike to capture this moment.  In looking at the composition, I felt I could use the road with the curve as a leading line, but it was still missing something.  Therefore, I felt that adding myself (set camera up on a tripod with a timer set for multiple exposures) walking up the trail would add to the composition and the story.  For me, a photo without me would have been rather plain and would not have told a very interesting story.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 58 mm, ISO 1,250, f16 and 1/500.

Example 2

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Stargazing

I love these reeds at the lake we go to each summer.  I have three different compositions this year taken almost at the very same spot.  Despite my love for the reeds, I felt that the gap in the lake needed to be filled to give this photograph life.  So I inserted myself into it.  The story is of someone stargazing and enjoying the beautiful Milky Way.  My reflection adds a leading line into the photo.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 16 mm, ISO – 2,500, f3.5 and 30 seconds.

4. Pick the right moment – Learning to pick the right moment and scene to use the human element is pivotal.  In the photo below, I shot one composition with me in it and one with out.  I am having to do this more and more now because my wife has let me know that she is not a big fan of the human element.  I live by the adage, happy wife, happy life.  

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Triple Threat – Milky Way, Aurora and Meteors

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I was quite happy with the photo of me sitting on the rock (see below) when I was out shooting, but when I looked at the photos the day after, I really like the one without me in it (to left). For me, it tells a much better story.  The rock draws you into the photo and the cottage gives the story of lake life under the night sky.  Perhaps someone could be sitting on their deck enjoying time with friends and a glass of wine looking up enjoying the night sky.  Whereas the one with me on the rock is less interesting and does not leave much to the imagination.  Technical information – Both using Nikon D4 – 15 mm, ISO 4,000,  f3.5 and 20 seconds.

My next step in my journey of including a human element in my photography will be with environmental portraits, a much bigger challenge, at least for me, as it will really stretch my creativity and understanding of lighting.  Stay tuned for hopefully a future blog on this.

With the age of digital you have the ability to experiment for free so get out there and try adding a human element using different perspectives and different stories.  You will will not regret it for sure.  To help you out, here are a few tips on how to include a human element:

  1.  If you are alone or shooting at night –
    • Use a sturdy tripod
    • Use an intervelometer – Fancy name for a timer that allows for hundreds of photo’s to be taken at various intervals.  The advantage of an intervelometer vs. a timer is you can set the elapsed time before the shutter goes off to be a lot longer than most cameras’ timers will allow.  This is handy when you have a fair ways to go to get into position in the photo.  They are relatively cheap.  I bought mine for around $70 but I think you can get them for cheaper.
    • Set the intervelometer or timer to take multiple exposures – I set mine for up to 5.  This allows you to get into position, rest a bit if need be, gives time for the environment that you disturbed to settle (e.g. water), etc.
  2. If you are with someone, include them as the human element or bribe them to take the photo.
  3. Night exposures – general max of 20 second exposure time – holding yourself very still is a difficult task.  I find that I can get a pretty sharp photo of my silhouette at 20 seconds, but anything more and I run the risk of blur.  Another tip to help keep yourself still is too look into the distance, similar to driving.
  4. Wear contrasting colours to the environment you are shooting in.  Generally, lighter colours work for me even in the day because my backgrounds tend to be darker.  Bright does not necessarily mean fluorescent.

I truly hope you found this blog useful.  Feedback is always appreciated so I know what to continue to do and what to change.  Enjoy getting out there shooting.