This is the second in my series of articles on the use of the human figure in landscape photography. Part I is here.
Photoshop is a fantastic tool and it enables us to do things that until a few years ago we could only dream of, like cleanly and easily remove distracting elements from a photograph, using just a few clicks of the mouse.
When confronted with a photograph of a landscape that contains some people in it, the temptation to use the healing brush or the content-aware fill tools is strong. However, we should always ask ourselves whether the human presence adds or subtracts from the composition. The choice is not always obvious and a lot depends on what is our intent with the image. What kind of feeling or atmosphere do we want to convey to the viewer?
Of course, the sensations a viewer feels when watching one of our images depend a lot on the viewers themselves and we can’t always control them. At least in my case, but I think this is true for many, I am almost never conscious of what precise emotions I am putting in my pictures. I suspect that whoever sees my photos is able to perceive my own emotions better than myself. I also do not believe fine art photography should be didascalic and intentionally transmit a precise message. But I digress.
By way of example, here is a photograph I took a few years ago at the Pura Batu Bolong temple in Bali, a truly magical place where lots of people gather to admire the sunset.
Here below is a previous version of the same image. Aside from some tonal adjustments, if you look closely (click on the image to enlarge them) you will notice I removed three people from the beach. Two of them were wearing white t-shirts and I judged those bright spots to be way too distracting.
At the same time, I decided to leave alone the people standing on the stone bridge that connects the temple to the mainland, who were waiting for sunset. In a way, I think they help establishing the atmosphere of festiveness of the moment, but it could be argued that the photograph would be better if I removed them, which would be fairly easy.
There is no question, in my mind, that the people on the beach must be removed, however.
Here is another example where the choice to clone or not to clone people is not so obvious (click to enlarge).
The one on the left is the original image. The middle one is a processed version where I removed the green bus and the people on the right. The one on the right is the final version, without any people.
While it could be argued that the two human figures in the middle one provide a sense of scale and appear as climbers who have just reached a summit (which, thanks to the perspective distortion afforded by the wide angle lens used here, looks much taller than it is in reality), in the end I decided to print the third version, which depicts a pristine (one could even say Jurassic) natural scenario.
Again, it’s all a matter of intent and we, as photographers, must always reflect on what is the intent of our images. If we don’t, we might as well be shooting casual snapshots.
Update: Part III is here.