Nevada Wier - chop

Landscapes and People
Adding People to a Landscape Can Give it Scale and Bring a Special Energy to it

Reprinted from Outdoor Photographer

By Nevada Wier


Mekong River, Laos

A good landscape photograph is more than a mere record of where you've been. It reflects your basic understanding of yourself in nature at that moment, so there can be no such thing as an objective landscape photograph. Each photographer makes subjective decisions at every stage of picture-taking, from the moment he or she stops to view a scene through the click of the shutter. That's why there will always be photographs with different viewpoints, magic and vision. I'm delighted when chance, premonition or acumen directs me to a place where light, composition and colors collide. I'm moved by the raw splendor of nature and light. Yet, rarely do I photograph a scene without a hint of humanity. My camera is attracted to people, tribes, herds of animals and teeming humankind like water to a divining rod. Inevitably, my "landscape" photographs end up with a person or activity set against a grand scene.

For me, people add interest and intrigue to a photograph. The human figure draws the eye and can easily dominate the scene. Even a tiny figure on the horizon is a counterpoint to a towering landscape. In an unfamiliar environment, the eye seeks out familiar objects. The presence of a human, an animal or a manmade structure triggers personal cues inside ourselves.

Depending on the colors and patterns in the photograph, the human figure may not be the immediate interest, but the eye eventually recognizes the figure and the mind registers kinship and empathy. Since the human figure is instantly recognizable and relatively constant in size, it becomes an unconscious yardstick for assessing distance in landscape images.

A human element can also improve or enhance a composition. Generally, a composition is made up of three basic, independent elements: the format of the frame, i.e., vertical, horizontal or square; the negative space, or the area around the main subject; and the positive form, the subject in the photograph.

We don't usually think in terms of negative space. In Western cultures, the objects in a scene are perceived, but often the spaces between are not. In Japan and other Asian countries, the spaces are perceived, named and revered as the ma or intervening interval. In a photograph, positive and negative space are equally important.

A good landscape image makes use of positive and negative space, such as a dominant mountain (positive space) lit by the brilliant light of sunset in a steel blue sky (negative space). By injecting the presence of a person in this landscape, you now have two powerful positive elements creating the image -- the person and the mountain. Varying the position and size of the person (positive space) correspondingly alters the negative space and, thus, substantially alters the symbolic and emotional meaning of the image.

When I'm photographing a landscape, I usually "see" from the edges of the frame inward. Often, what I choose to leave out is equally as important as what I include. When including a figure in a landscape, I move my eyes back from the figure to the edge of the frame in the camera to ensure that the composition is balanced and the positive and negative spaces are in harmony.

Many of my "landscape photographs" are monochromatic or environment tally spare, with a human figure or activity (like a fishing boat or a group of people) providing a dramatic focus. I like to simplify as much as possible, deleting any element that doesn't make a significant contribution.

Adding people to landscape photographs can make them more publishable. Photojournalism magazines are interested in photographs that set the stage for the action and give readers more information about the subjects' life and work. This is where a wide angle lens works perfectly. It can create a sense of closeness and involvement between subjects and their environments.

I use all types of lenses for landscapes. Since most of my photography is in remote wilderness settings in the United States or overseas, I must be lightweight and mobile. I use two Canon EOS -1 N bodies with an assortment of Canon zoom lenses: 20-35mm fl2.8, 28-7) mm fl3.5-4.5, 75-300mm fl4-5.6 IS (Image Stabilization) and a 300mm J /4 with I .4X and 2X extenders. All this fits into a camera bag along with a photo vest. Whenever possible I use a tripod. I always lock up my mirror and use a cable release to ensure ultimate sharpeness.

Any translation of a personal vision into a photograph requires the skillful use of equipment. Without mastery of your cameras and lenses, you can't consistently translate your vision onto film. I don't always have the luxury of working slowly when a human figure steps into a landscape, often there are only seconds to choose a lens, focus, compose and set the exposure. My fingers have to flow across the dials of my camera as unconsciously as a pianist during a concert.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote in  The Hidden Dimension, "Few people realize that vision is not passive but active, in fact, a transition between man and his environment in which both participate."

My photography reflects my love of wide-open spaces and people. I've learned to "watch" people -- their expressions, habits, gestures and movements. It's only natural that I inject human presence in a landscape. It's the finishing touch that epitomizes my intrigue with the world and its wondrous inhabitants.

© 1996 Nevada Wier and Outdoor Photographer Magazine