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How to effectively include people in landscape photography

We’ve all been there — there’s an amazing sunset or landscape scene that you want to capture, only to find multiple people sitting in front of your camera. Oftentimes dealing with — and including — people in landscape photography is necessary. If you know how to effectively work with people, it can make your photograph that much more impactful.

Two weeks ago, I went to St. Joseph, MI., to check out the sunset and towering waves that were coming in on the Lake Michigan shoreline. The waves were predicted to reach anywhere from 8-10 feet, so I was excited with what I could potentially get. There were a few photographers shooting the waves with us, and we all knew better to stay out of each other’s frame. But when the general public started showing up (including actor Jeff Daniels, or his look-alike), that’s when it became a bit more difficult to manage.

I knew that in order to get the capture the size of the waves, I couldn’t shoot an exposure longer than a few seconds, otherwise the water would smooth out. So I started out by shooting a series of bracketed images. Putting those together with Lightroom and Aurora HDR, I was pretty happy with both my wide and close-up shots that focused on the lighthouse.

St. Joseph Lighthouse

While I was pleased, I also wanted to capture the entirety of the scene around me. I decided to put on my wide angle Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 lens, along with my 3-stop NiSi Neutral Density (ND) filter. This allowed me to attain a shutter speed of 3.5 seconds. While this was a long exposure, keeping it under five seconds meant I was still able to capture the movement and scale of the waves. The wide-angle view allowed me to capture the broader scene, complete with grass in the foreground and people walking on the beach.

Long Exposure with People

The result was almost exactly what I had aimed for, minus all those heads peeking above the grass. With quick work of Aurora’s Eraser tool, I was able to get rid of every person, leaving a woman sitting in the grass. As I went to erase her, I suddenly paused.

What makes for an effective landscape with a person?

While I could have taken the woman and clone back in the tall grasses, I wondered if I should leave her in the photograph. I took a screenshot of what I saw so I could have a reference point and then erased her anyway. I brought up the screenshot so I could look at both versions side by side, and immediately clicked the Undo button in Aurora, placing her back in the scene.

St. Joseph Lighthouse and Waves

For me, it was much more powerful to have her there and looked like a piece of fine art where she was appropriately planned out. While taking her out would have given me a better focus on the lighthouse, I thought that leaving her in brought some personality to the scene.

While including people can be great, it’s also important where to place them. To change their position, you have to change your position, unless you want to spend time with the clone stamp tool. In the frame below, I changed my angle (and zoomed in) to place the woman more towards the left of my frame. Regardless, having a person sitting right in the middle would be competing with the lighthouse and the rest of the scene, which is something I didn’t want. By offsetting where the subject is, you can create the effect you’re going for without any major distractions.

St. Joseph Lighthouse and Waves

Another thing to note is that it’s often less effective to have lots of people in the photograph, which is why I got rid of everyone else on the beach. Having one or two people together helps to create life and bring balance into the photograph.

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