What do you do when people get in the way of your photographs, blocking the view and sometimes ruining your composition with their unwanted presence? Do you wait until they leave and make the area suitably vacant for your photography and ideal composition? Do you ask them to leave? Or do you use various photography techniques with filters and multiple exposures to remove all subjects from the scene? While all these methods can work, sometimes it is actually better to wait for the right moment and incorporate people in the scene.
I think many of us can identify with this. It certainly used to bug me. I’d wait ages for people to move out of the way before taking the shot. My preferred style was a picture postcard of wherever in the world I happened to be and I didn’t want people in the way of the building or landmark. Of course, they had as much right to be there as I did to absorb the full splendour of the location. But in my head I’d be saying please move along soon so I can take my shot!
It’s very tricky to get an empty shot when the place is busy. And when friends or family accompany you, their patience is rightly strained while you wait for eternity to get that shot. Unless you’re there early in the morning or late in the day (which is what I often resorted to), chances are there’ll be swathes of people alongside you. At some point, therefore, one has to accept that there will be people in the frame. But rather than being a problem for the image, you can creatively incorporate them into your composition.
This may sound like a desperate capitulation, but I like to think of it as embracing a creative challenge (well, I suppose I would say that). Allowing people in your image isn’t simply surrender to inevitability. It can be useful to the composition in many ways.
As appealing as it may be to photograph a place naked of any human presence, people invariably give the image a sense of scale. With some landmarks, such as waterfalls or buildings, it is very difficult for a viewer to gauge just how tall and mighty something is without a person present to offer perspective.
Perhaps your original intention for taking the image can change when a person appears in the frame. Perhaps now, instead of simply recording the place, you can tell a story too. Remember that adage that a good photographer captures but a great photographer reveals? Putting a person in the image to create a narrative is an easy way of revealing something new about the location.
Perhaps seeing people viewing a vista with wonder can add to the sense of wonder we feel when we see the image. After all, we all express generally the same range of emotions and will tend to mirror those of others; seeing other people smile or laugh often engenders the same in us. Capturing awe in others gives the viewer something extra to relate to, and their gaze can direct ours.
Having someone in the shot can also add balance to the overall image, occupying dead space in an otherwise uninteresting composition. Often I’ll look at a scene and think that it needs something extra. Yes, it needs a person in it! Having someone there will also bring life to the scene, giving the viewer a sense that the place is accessible and enjoyable to visit.
I find that when there is someone in the image, rendering it as black and white can be particularly effective (to my own eyes, at least). The figure becomes almost an abstract form with no unnecessary facial detail to identify them. Just their body and perhaps its shadow lend an additional element to the image as a whole.
I’m not suggesting we adapt our composition parameters having found a person in the shot after we’ve taken it. Nor am I referring to photography where people are deliberately sought as the subject (e.g. street photography). I’m talking about wilfully incorporating persons that wander into your frame as part of your composition. This will still involve some waiting for the person(s) to be in an interesting position, but perhaps not as much as waiting for an area to be utterly desolate of human life. It may also prove more rewarding in the long run as the image will tell a story rather than simply exhibit a place.
So the next time you feel like someone is in the way of your shot, consider that their presence may actually enhance the composition and reveal something different about the place. It’s entirely probable that another photographer may be using you for exactly that reason.