An Unnatural Element :: Digital Photo Secrets

An Unnatural Element

by David Peterson 0 comments

Have you ever sort of felt like you're done with landscape photography? Even the most die-hard enthusiasts can start to feel a little uninspired after photographing their millionth snowcapped mountain, their million and first waterfall or their million and twentieth scenic overlook. Now I'm not saying that landscape photographs aren't worth taking, because that would be a statement of great stupidity. But I'll bet if you could ask him, even Ansel Adams would tell you that he occasionally got a little bored. Don't worry, though, boredom is easily conquered. Read on to find out how.


Sometimes you need to mix it up, especially if you’re really in love with any one sort of photographic endeavor. Man (or woman) does not live by landscape photography alone—to keep your photographic life interesting, you have to find new ways to approach old subjects.

One way that you can do this is by deviating just a little bit from those strict, “wild places” subjects you might always take photos of. Yes, there’s a lot of beauty and natural perfection in places that are untouched or unspoiled by human occupation, but the truth is that it’s almost always an illusion. Human beings are everywhere, not just in cities and towns. We love “unspoiled” places, so we visit them, we hike through them, we take pictures of them, we camp in them (and as a result some of us actually do end up spoiling them).

You can angle out the signs of human occupation and visitation and that can give your viewer the illusion that those places aren’t popular tourist traps, but that’s not the only approach and it’s certainly not a truthful one. Let’s take a look at this photo as an example:

  • Nikon COOLSCAN V ED

Mount Lassen 1st Shot 10-14-2006 by Flickr user Passerine

When you view this shot of Mount Lassen in beautiful Northern California, you might imagine that this volcano looks out across a lonely, empty landscape, and that it just exists in perfect, serene, natural beauty day after day. What you don’t get from this photo is that more than 400,000 people visit Lassen National Park every year, and that a lot of those visitors were probably standing or hiking somewhere on Lassen Peak Trail at the moment this photo was taken. So it’s an illusion that this “unspoiled” landscape is truly unspoiled.

So now that you know the hard and painful truth, why not embrace it? Why should you shoot only photographs that make it appear as if there are no humans on planet Earth? Instead, why not embrace those little signs of human occupation and include them in your photo in a way that suggests harmony between humans and the natural world, or for an opposite take—disharmony?

Let’s look at this photograph of Mount Lassen:

  • Canon EOS 400D Digital
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 17 mm

Trailhead for Mt Lassen by Flickr user alexispz

The trail is in the foreground, and you can follow it off towards the peak in the distance. Looking at this photograph, you probably experience a couple of different things. First, you get a sense of just how big this mountain is, and how far you have to go up that trail before you finally reach the summit. You also get a sense of how big and powerful this volcano is compared to the average person who might be trying to climb to the top. The trail seems pretty big and doable in the foreground, but by the time you get to the middle of the frame it becomes a lot more diminutive and steep. Without that trail cutting through the frame, would you still have an idea about what it might mean for the average person to climb Mount Lassen?

You can accomplish the same thing with natural objects such as trees and boulders, but the impact is not going to be the same. The trail is a human element—it’s something that you can relate to personally. Without it you could certainly imagine yourself standing in this scene, but would you also imagine yourself hiking to the top of the volcano? The manmade element allows us to put ourselves in that scene much more easily, and it says something about the human relationship to places of great natural beauty.

  • Olympus E-M1
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 9 mm

Wastwater Fence by Flickr user Richard Walker Photography

The manmade element you add to your scene could be as simple as a trail or even a footprint, or you could make the element a more prominent part of the scene. Landscapes are still beautiful when they contain fences, roads or cabins—just take care that the human element you select doesn’t overwhelm the natural part of the scene, unless of course that’s your goal. And make sure that you have a reason for adding that manmade object—a fence, for example, can help your photograph look three dimensional by giving your viewer a set of converging lines to follow into the distance.

You can give your natural scene a sense of isolation, or a feeling of nature ultimately holding sway over human beings by making that man made element small or diminutive compared to everything else in the frame. For example, a mountain cabin with a line of smoke coming out of the chimney is going to make for a nice photo even up close, but if you want to say something about that cabin and its occupants and their relationship to their environment, you need to put a wide-angle lens on your camera and take a few steps back. Show that cabin as it really is—dwarfed by the landscape and all that natural beauty.

Remember that the season can dramatically change your viewer’s perception of the scene, too. A mountain cabin in the spring surrounded by a lot of lovely wildflowers is going to seem inviting, while the same cabin half buried in the winter snow may seem vulnerable. In the latter scene, we get a strong sense that humans aren’t always going to triumph over nature.

Nothing is quite so unnatural as a human being, so in the absence of trails, roads or fences remember that you can always add a person. Try not to take a posed photo (they scream “tourist!”)—instead, place the person in a position where he is interacting with the landscape. That could mean that he’s looking at the scenery, or climbing over a particularly challenging boulder, or disappearing at the bend in a trail.

What not to include

You could make a negative statement about man vs. the environment by including more undesirable elements in your scene, such as litter, a trash can or a parking lot full of cars, but if your goal is to simply accent an already beautiful scene you should obviously avoid these objects. Signposts also really don’t add a whole lot to a photo because they are informational and not really indicative of the human relationship with the land. Ask yourself what that element will add to the scene and what statement it will make before you actually set up the shot. If it’s just an eyesore with no discernible reason for being a part of the shot, angle it out.

Sometimes an overflowing trashcan with a lovely mountain scene in the distance does make for a strong statement about humans and their relationship with the natural world, so if you feel inspired then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t shoot this scene. Do keep in mind, though, that the size of the manmade object matters a lot when you’re making this statement—if the trashcan is large and prominent in the foreground, it can be seen to overwhelm the scenery—that’s a pretty significant statement. But if it’s just a very small part of an otherwise lovely landscape, then it’s litter—both in real life and in the context of your photo.

Settings and equipment

No discussion of landscapes would be complete without some discussion about settings, so keep the usual rules in mind—use a small aperture (large f-number) and bring a tripod in case you need to use a slow shutter speed to compensate for that small aperture. Shoot at low ISOs (100 is ideal) in order to promote good definition between tones and to keep unwanted digital noise out of your shots.

Composition

Most of the time, that manmade object in your photo is going to be your focal point, so you want to make sure that it’s crystal clear and well placed in the frame. Try putting the element at or close to one of the rule of thirds intersections—to do this, imagine that the scene is divided up into nine equal-sized parts by drawing two equally space lines vertically and two equally spaced lines horizontally. The points where those lines intersect are the rule of thirds “sweet spots,” and any one of them would be an ideal place for your subject. Remember that if your unnatural element is a person, you should always make sure that he’s looking off into the larger part of the frame, rather than at the edge. When you leave plenty of room between him and the place he’s looking at you give the shot a much more profound feeling of enormity. If he’s just looking at the edge of the frame, that can make the shot feel uncomfortable, and we might get a sense that your subject is somewhat boxed in even despite the obvious size of the landscape.

If the scene is particularly vast, you can also tuck your subject into a corner of the frame, or closer to an edge. Because one of the primary goals of the image is to convey the size of the landscape to your viewer, you can use this method to make your subject seem smaller in comparison to the rest of the scene.

Conclusion

This can be a great way to mix up your ordinary landscape photography outing. That is not, of course to say that you should always look for the man-made element, but if there is one, there's no need angle it out just because it breaks up the unspoiled natural beauty that surrounds it. Instead, think about ways that you can incorporate it into the scene that would make for a more meaningful photograph. It doesn’t matter what you decide—if you really don't want that mountain cabin in your shot you don't have to include it. But you should never totally discount those manmade objects without first considering how they might benefit your photograph. And when all else fails, you can also always take one shot with and one shot without. There are no wrong answers, just different photographs.

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
14 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.