Travel Photography Tip #3: Include the Human Element

Travel Photography Tip #3:  Include the Human Element

For most people, one of the first signs getting ‘serious’ about travel photography is a desire to take people-free pictures of an Iconic Location.  This is often a good thing – unless you are trying to make a point about the number of brightly-clad travellers wandering around, they generally aren’t adding anything to the message you do want to convey.

However, unless your travel consists solely of unaccompanied trips to uninhabited wildernesses, sooner or later you are going to have to include your fellow travellers (or locals) in your pictures – and this isn’t a bad thing!  While it can be extremely annoying to have random person wandering into your carefully-framed shot, there are times when it’s worth considering including people in your pictures.

This is the case if you are trying to show scale in a picture – nothing conveys a sense of scale like a person.  We all know the (rough) size of a person, and can instinctively get a feeling for the size of a scene when there is a person in the picture.  But more than that, including a person gives the viewer something to latch on to, a point of view for them to adopt.  It directly engages the imagination, and invites the viewer to imagine themselves in the scene – there’s a reason travel ads always include people, after all.

Picture of person standing on the edge of the Giant's Causeway, Northern IrelandOf course, there is a knack to picking the right person to feature in your photograph.  You may not always have a choice, but here are a few things to keep in mind when including people in your pictures:

Local or Traveller? A local can add a sense of authenticity, while a traveller gives an even stronger sense of identification for the viewer.

Colourful or Drab? What the person is wearing can really make or break the scene – bright colours draw the eye (red is great for this),but they can also clash with the rest of the scene.  Look for something distinctive, but harmonious.

Generic Person or Specific Individual? When including people in pictures, consider whether or not you are looking to include them specifically, or if you just want a Generic Person.  Specific people may be appealing for reasons unique to the individual- their appearance, or their connection to the location, for instance.  If you do want to include this specific individual, make sure your picture shows what made them important to you.  Generic People are often there to fill one of the roles above, and may serve their roles best when their identify is unknown – shot from behind with faces obscured, or even silhouetted.

So the next time you are trying to photograph an Iconic Location overrun with people, don’t despair – selective inclusion of people can lead to more engaging and involving travel pictures for your audience.

(Just getting started? You can read the rest of the Travel Photography Tips series here)

20 thoughts on “Travel Photography Tip #3: Include the Human Element

  1. I think this is a tricky thing for me since I’m not that great in taking photos of people. I’m better at taking pictures of inanimate objects, ha.

    Great example, too.

    • Taking pictures of people is tricky, especially if you don’t know them. One of the things I like about the ‘Generic Person’ method is that you generally aren’t taking a picture ‘of’ them, just a picture they happen to be in. I find this a lot easier.

  2. Great tips, JP! I shy away from photographing strangers but do appreciate that others don’t! They do add ‘life’ to images and our minds immediately want to know everything about the person (or people) in the photo. I hope I get better at this!

    • I’m actually the same – very shy at approaching people for photographs. That said, one of the reasons I like this method is because you aren’t really photographing the person, but the location, in which the person is just one element. Much less confronting than a close-up portrait, and you aren’t doing anything sneaky like trying to use a telephoto to take a portrait.

  3. That person does add to the photograph. I have just been to the Carnevale in Viareggio – a bit hard to avoid the human element there, not that you would want to.

  4. These are excellent tips. Sometimes I wonder if people want to see the human element in landscape pics, but you’re right, they add something to the image.

  5. I can definitely relate to your thoughts about this. Having people in photographs adds interest and tension. However, I often find it difficult taking pictures of strangers as I respect their privacy and I definitely don’t want to upset anyone. This is a thin line we walk as photographers. I really like your image in the article, it gives a sense of scale and dimension to the scene!

    • That’s a very good point, Martina. My person rule of thumb is not to take pictures of people in situations where I wouldn’t want to have pictures taken of me. That said, this is also why I lean towards taking pictures of the ‘Generic Person’ – pictures where I can include a person, but respect their privacy by maintaining their anonymity, like in the picture above. But you’re right, it’s a difficult line to tread.

  6. You made a number of valid points and therefor I agree with your overview – like I said before, I like the fact that you are sharing.
    Some thoughts from my side (and I am only relating to travel pictures):

    1. The first and most important is to show my experience. In this case you have the typical ‘on the one hand, but then on the other’. So if you arrived at the iconic landmark at the height of the tourism season, the place will be overrun. (I recall places where you can stand and wait for hours to enter). My point is – that is/was my experience and I share in reality. So, on the one hand you have to accept that if you go at that time, the place will be overrun. If you want the place without tourists, go at a time that is way out of tourism season. That is the other hand. But you will find there is a reason why people don’t visit the place at the time.

    2. A good photographer will find a way to show the iconic place in a different view. Your picture of the Sydney Opera House is a case in point. You have found and is highlighting what is so different about the place – the lines of the building. In this case you have worked around the issue of tourists overrunning the place.

    3. To people or not to people. My approach is to mix it up. To explain. I once followed a series of about 20 pictures about a journey on a barge on canals in the south of France. Afterwards, my comment was ‘Why no people?’ as it was the case. Some pictures should have had people in them to show people enjoy the area, or how the boat is steered, etc. That is what I mean: you don’t have to include people in all your pictures, but do so in some pictures.

    The bottom line is – why travel photography? To show and share experiences. My short advice: Keep it real.

    All the best.

  7. Lovely photograph, and a great tip. I’ve heard this one over and over again from different sources, and you cover it quite nicely. I am one of those who love landscape images without people, but I often forget that the human element in the image can make it a better image.

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