Trail runner running in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, Alaska © Michael DeYoung

I really like photographing mountain/trail running and my goal is often to establish a sense of place. I choose my locations carefully based on light and background. It was important to show and expansive and colorful environment and its close proximity to Anchorage seen in the background. I often style or look for colors on my human subjects that are either complimentary and contrasting colors (like cold color on warm color as in this image), or my subject has a color splash that is echoed somewhere in the landscape. And, as always, the smaller your subject, the better your subject to immediate background separation has to be.


 
Even after 35 years in Alaska I am still amazed with the scale of the mountains and landscape. On our latest trip to the Peruvian Andes, I was even more blown away by the size, scale and prominence of the peaks and canyons. Including a recognizable living subject, like a person or animal as a small element into a landscape image, is a great way to show scale and size and add impact.

When we do this with wildlife it’s often labeled as an environmental portrait. Creatively, photographing wildlife as part of the landscape is far more difficult than filling the frame with your subject with a long lens. There is a distinct difference between a well done environmental portrait and an image where the subject is just too small and too far away from camera.

Crafting a good landscape image using a human to add scale is more involved than just zooming way out, or asking your travel companion, “Hey, go stand over there and pose.”

Here’s how to consistently make good, scaled landscapes or environmental portraits.

The landscape should be a good stand-alone image. The inclusion of a person or animal enhances the landscape and the goal is to reveal some of the scale and awe of the landscape that you lose going from real life to a photo. The main subject is still the landscape and the small person or animal becomes a secondary and supporting subject. Simply placing an animal or person into a ho-hum landscape won’t save the image. You still need to have warm, dramatic or moody light and incorporate good design and composition that showcases both elements in your image using texture, colors and effective use of flowing curved and/or diagonal lines and triangles to hold interest.

Separation is paramount. The smaller your subject is in the frame, the better your separation needs to be. Your small subject should interrupt a pattern or clearly stand out from a complimentary but contrasting color or tone.

Achieving good separation isn’t that hard, it’s just something that needs to be brought to your conscious forefront. Your small figure needs to stand out against its immediate surroundings. This can be done with selective light, or color and contrast separation.

Environmental photo of coastal brown bear walking lake shore in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska © Michael DeYoung

I have plenty of portrait shots of bears. On this particular day I focused almost entirely on getting images that show scale and the incredible environment that these bears live in. Getting a good environmental shot is a much harder image to create than close ups with a long lens.
This image falls far short of my goal. If violates the 2 main ingredients that makes for a good environmental portrait or a landscape with a sense of scale.
1. The shot as a landscape is not compelling. The light is flat, my lines are mostly horizontal, and it lacks shapes and color that add visual interest.
2. The bear is a bit small but suffers most from poor separation from its immediate surroundings.

Coastal Brown Bear along lake shore in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska © Michael DeYoung

In this attempt, I saw the mountains had more interesting lines and even though the light was flat the clouds were moody. When the bear went on this rock, I saw I had decent separation except I had to make one more move. I was sitting in the boat and had to stand up so that the line of its back had better separation from the background. I wasn’t completely satisfied that I got the shot I was after and kept trying for the rest of the day.

Coastal brown bear on sandy beach along lake shore in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska © Michael DeYoung

After a morning of frustration, the light got better during the afternoon. I was focusing really hard on anticipating opportunities to get the shot I was visualizing. The 2 main principles of getting a decent environmental portrait/scaled landscape shot worked here.
1. The landscape light is decent with nicer colors and textures and the mountain has a dominant diagonal line.
2. I anticipated this bear walking out on this triangle shaped gravel bar (thinking the triangle shape would add more visual interest than a boring rectangle) and had the boat captain position me to where I knew the separation would work.
3. My personal preference is that anything that looks good stationary looks better in motion. My hope was I would capture some nice body language and not just the bear standing.


 

A connection to the environment. I understand, this is very subjective but the image has to convey a connection between person/animal and the environment. You don’t want the image to look like your small subject was just airdropped or Photoshopped in for impact. Authenticity matters.

Action poses are better than static. Yes, it’s possible to have stunning scale images where your subject is just still and gazing out at the scene, but my personal taste and preference is that anything that looks good standing still looks even better in motion.

For human subjects, try to echo a color found in the landscape. One of the reasons we choose certain colors for our adventure images is to increase the chance of an article of clothing or gear that closely matches something found in the scene. This is a refined design decision that can really strengthen and image. This is something I learned from several creative directors from several stock agencies that licensed my work for years.

Woman informally skating on ice in a ice cave by Knik Glacier near Palmer, Alaska © Michael DeYoung

Like everything else, getting a decent image requires thought and working the situation. Hurried photos look hurried. We came back to this ice cave on the Knik Glacier when I thought I could get a sun star and when warm light would flood the inside. I knew adding Lauri would add a sense of scale but my point of view to achieve maximum separation wouldn’t happen on the first try. I had to move around until she was completely surrounded by the warm, sunlit ice and that her head would not merge with the dark horizontal line behind her in the distance creating an unwanted merger. Her jacket echoed the colder colors of the ice walls and finally, instead of her just standing there (I deleted those shots), I had her slide around the ice for more visual interest.

I think scaled landscapes are best done with medium telephoto lenses. This helps strengthen the relationship between your secondary subject (animal or human) by bringing their connection closer together. My favorite is a 70-200 in full frame. Shooting with longer focal lengths makes it difficult to get full depth of field unless you take a minute or two to really determine the best hyperfocal focus point or focus stack if necessary. Focus stacking is really challenging with a moving subject even if it only moves its head slightly. Your living subject has to be still for several frames in order for that to work.

Finding ways to draw maximum attention to your main subject. Successful landscape photography is 90% planning and timing and 10% camera operation.

Woman by tent gazing at aurora (Northern Lights) display over interior Alaska lake. © Michael DeYoung

My favorite technique for creating separation when my subject(s) are small in a landscape is to use selective lighting. There are 2 lights working here. The first is a simple flashlight to light the tent. The second is an off camera strobe in front of the tent lighting my subject and creating better separation of her from the green reflection of the aurora on the water. Purple and green are complimentary contrasting colors and I wanted to show the color of her jacket – another reason to take the time to make an off camera flash work.


 

WHAT TO AVOID:

Using wide angle lenses and placing subject in corners. This can create softness that is often seen in corners of wide angle lenses and unacceptable body proportion distortion. The golden rule with any wide angle lens is don’t put anything important in the corners.

Not focusing on effective separation so your subject pops from its immediate background.

Unwanted mergers. This is closely tied to separation. If doing silhouettes, for example, an unwanted merger would be a subject’s head merging into a shadow area on the opposite shore of a lake. Another example would be branches emerging behind body parts and things like that.

Improper depth of field. Some of the most dramatic small subject in big landscape images are done with telephoto lenses. When using a long lens it’s easy to just focus on your small subject and let the larger landscape just fall where it falls on the focus. If 90% of your image is soft, even if your small subject is sharp, the image loses impact. Take measures to achieve hyper-focal focus to that all your image is sharp.

 

Hiker takes in the majestic view of the Peruvian Ande mountains from Laguna Carhuacocha. © Michael DeYoung

What if there is nobody around or nobody willing to be in your image to add scale to your landscape? Well, then use yourself! This is a distinct advantage of always having a tripod when shooting landscapes. I knew my jacket and white pack would echo the colors found in the landscape and it took several attempts for me to get my positioning and separation where I wanted it. I had to work fast as the golden “hour” in low latitudes is a matter of minutes.

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