The human element…


Recently, a photographer told me my photo graphs  were empty, lifeless. He said they lacked “the human element,” the little something that takes a good view and makes it great…He sent me some pics as examples…the one I especially liked was a park…the human interest: a piece of litter!

I’ve taken this piece of (constructive) criticism to heart…and I’m trying to visulise a new perspective into my photos (a difficult thing for me, because I find the human element uncomfortable against the backdrop of the rural landscape…)

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These photos were taken in Zaka, where it is difficult (but not impossible) to take photos and NOT include the effects of humans. I’d love to know which ones you prefer? Did the human element make a better pic?

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This sequence is of the same view! I just zoomed in on different features…

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Same view again, different orientation.


Does this photo need someone walking on that path, or is it enough human element?

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Ant, taken in Matusadona National Park


About frankiekay

I'm an author from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. I've written a novel, Silk Threads and a few short stories. Although Frankie is a pen name, she is the me who never grew up, the crazy kid who spoke to animals, talked to the wildflowers and asked awkward questions...I love: music, the silence..., distant horizons. I hate: crowds and spending money

42 responses »

  1. I think your landscapes are great and no need to try to introduce anything human because that’s not what you are trying to portray. I think people want to see humans doing stuff eg children at play or a captured moment but that’s a different style. Stick with what you like and what you are good at! Just my 2 cents.

    • Thanks – but the lifeless comment stung…I suppose the real photographers sit for ages waiting for a bird to enter a frame, or a cloud in just the right place…Of course some of the places we go…we would have to wait for days for “a live thing” other than a human, entered the frame…

  2. I don’t think you need a human element in most of them. Though I did prefer the view with the huts. Lovely to see Zaka again, we lived there for nearly 4 years, my husband was Mic BSAP in 1973-76

    • Woah…dodgy place to be at that time…my husband was in the South East in ’78 ’79 and it was pretty tight there…we went to the police camp when we worked at Zaka – didn’t take photos of course!! Looks fairly smart still and,unlike Manoti, they were reasonably well educated. As to the human element – I’ve been thinking about waiting for a bird, perhaps …something to make them more alive…although for me, the trees and grass and even the mountains are alive! We spent a week in Zaka and were with a very knowledgeable bush guy – I took a stack of photos of the edible plants and such that abound there. Coming from dry Matland, we couldn’t believe the guava, banana and those coffee bean things all over the place…

  3. When I go out into nature, I leave out the human element, 99.9% of the time, when I take photos. Why do us humans think we are so important that we have to insert ourselves into photos, to make them more interesting? Just my opinion! Maybe it’s because I live in the city, with humans all around that me, that I don’t want to take photos of them out in nature/the bush………. Your photos are great without the human element.

    • I agree with you about humans thinking they are important!! Its possible that the critic thought that my viewers (generally, in his opinion, townspeople) would feel that the landscapes were barren…but I think perhaps most of the people who look at my photos are like me…bush people or those who lived in Zimbabwe. I feel that humans impose on the landscape.
      If a scene has been built by humans, say a bridge, I don’t mind so much…but a picture of the Chimanimani???Ouch.
      In the past, I have always asked people to move out of the way when I intend to take a photo, but since his comment, I’ve been consciously including them…Seems most people don’t agree!
      Thank you for taking the time to give your opinion.

      Oh – he wasn’t being nasty or anything – he said he liked my photos generally…just thought they were empty

    • Yes, Ive got a thing about roads and paths, they are always going somewhere, and I want to know where!
      If you are riding a horse, its important not to follow a path – cos you don’t necessarily get to a gate when you finally reach the fence – a road always gets to a gate! So I’m guessing a path implies a person!
      Thanks for dropping by and leaving your opinion

  4. Not a very nice comment to make in my opinion…but then it is just that – an opinion. Everyone has their likes and styles and yours obviously didn’t work for him.
    I went to an exhibition recently and just literally ‘didn’t get it’…so I left 🙂

    There’s a place for the human element definitely – just not in landscape photography! I take heaps of landscape shots and I don’t want people anywhere near me when I’m doing it!!!! I like your Zim bush photos because I haven’t seen as much of Zim as you have and I enjoy them. Although pro photos can be amazing, some are so over processed that it’s glaringly obvious they’ve been heavily adjusted to make them glamorous…makes me want to see the raw version…

    • I’m a bit worried now I misrepresented his comment a little – but, again, it WAS his comment from looking at quite a number of photos.
      Reading people’s comments on this blog and on FB I think perhaps its in my photos that my appreciation of unspoilt landscape comes across strongest. So I take a photo of it and I post only those.
      I can’t imagine anyone would be interested in photos I take for my own memories (of people) so I don’t post them, and that photographer therefore didn’t see them.
      It hadn’t occurred to me that the pro’s over process theirs…I love the way they manage the light. It’s something I’m working on. We are planning a trip to Mtshabezi soon…and intend to stay over night…cant resist the very early morning light. I’m always driving in the evening, so sometimes miss the shots going on at the back! One thing that does not come off very well in my photos is the hot, hot bruised purple of mid day overlooking the Gwayi or off the escarpment…still practicing that one!

      • Light is extremely important (alongside a couple other interrelated things too). The sooner you learn to master it the better you’ll feel and you’ll notice it immediately in your photos. Most pros use filters or adjust heavily in photoshop or such like. What camera do you use? Do you do any basic post processing such as adjusting light?
        If it’s a little point and shoot jobbie then you have little control over many of the settings…
        Do yourself a favour and use a tripod for the dawn shots if you don’t already. I take a lot of low light shots and I always use a tripod to prevent blur. Mstabezi is very special to me – I love it. Look forward to the shots 🙂

      • Btw…post processing is common for landscapes because nature is fickle…the light may not play ball on the day 🙂
        Knowing the basic fixes can rescue what may have begun as a dull somewhat boring picture…

  5. I’m not a photographer but I take a lot of pictures. Humans or human elements are nice in pictures but far from a prerequisite in my opinion. I look for composition when I’m taking a picture. Perhaps there is a prominent thing that attracts my attention. It doesn’t have to be in the center of the photo. I look for framing and balance. Balance doesn’t mean evenly weighted either. Perhaps there is a distant mountain framed by closeup trees. Perhaps the mountain is on the left and an interesting-looking small bush on the right. Perhaps lake, mountain, and sky are given equal proportion, or not. Something in a picture I take has usually grabbed my attention and I try to draw the eye to that like a painter would. Here is a post with some of my pix, with and without human elements. (It helps to have breathtaking scenery of course.)

    • Beautiful country – I’ve never seen snow and only ski’ed on water (oh and like all Zimboe’s, behind the landrover!)
      I’m also not a photographer, and I don’t have a fancy camera like yours…(although I’m seriously thinking about it!) I agree about the ‘framing’ I took some photos of sunsets…the sun was too bright, it messed up the picture, but if I hid the sun behind a branch, it made all the difference…there is one example in this post…sorry, I don’t know how to insert one photo here! These were some of the first photos I took, still with my fujipix! Oh – the colours really are like that! The camera didn’t enhance them

      • Thank you. Although I live here, that was almost a magical experience. I don’t know what deer are like where you come from, but those impala pictured are fairly timid things. To sit there, oh so quietly and watch them move slowly around us…and then to get the pictures, a permanent reminder, was a special thing. I have a number of images with that fantastic golden light, but some of them are tilted, cos I was holding the camera one handed and trying to take the photos without moving or making any sound. All taken with our fujipix point and shoot, will you believe that! I’m glad I could share them with you

  6. Hmmm, you took the ‘constructive’ criticism a little bit too much to heart. What if you liked your pictures as they were? I think this ‘human element’ thing is just a preference. Personally, I loved your photos!

    • Ya maybe – but he said lifeless…and that’s what made me think. But Judging by the comments on this page, it looks like most people don’t agree with him anyway! I’m always super sensitive about taking photos of people …so maybe its just over flowed into my landscape photography. I still don’t like the’human element’ in them. I like to have some record of the pristine environment!

      • Yes I’ve seen the comments too and most don’t agree with the criticism. I think people photos are pretty sensitive too, especially the classic ‘Save Africa’ ones.

      • I think its an incredible cheek and invasion of privacy to take a photo of someone and put it all over the internet…After all, who owns the image? The person depicted or the photographer. I also cringe if I ever see a wild animal used in an advert or dressed up in a silly way. I’m not great on domestic animals used in this way, but wild ones for me is a no no. And yeah – I agree with you about the “Africa” photos – drives me mad

      • If a photographer took an unauthorised picture of me and won an award with it, Id be pretty bleak. I would consider it an invasion of my privacy and for that he should pay!

      • Behind you 100%. Come to think of it, do those award-winning photographers ever share their prizes with the subjects of their photographs?

      • Well someone should sue them if they don’t – remember that Afgani woman all those years ago on Nat Geo (with the green eyes?) I wonder if she got anything out of that photo? I’m very careful not to have people in my photos unless I have asked them first. If I haven’t, I blur them out some how…like my pic of my nieces.

      • Ya I think that’s one of the most famous of them all. I’m curious to know if she knows (or has benefited) from her own image that is so famous and has given somebody so much fame. And yes, I’ve seen you do that in your photos.

      • I heard someone went back and found her and now she is ….. unremarkable. So obviously, if they had to go back and find her she didn’t know how famous her image was. Do you know, neither Twinks nor Vikki like to have their portraits taken…a bee so, so nearly zapped me taking his, the other day and you would have laughed to have seen me trying to capture the image of a butterfly in the garden on Sunday…so maybe its not only people who are shy!

    • I am sure you are right that there are always at least two people: the photographer and the viewer, but there shouldn’t be. There should only be the viewer.
      To produce a good book, (maybe all art) the writer should be invisible. The less you see of the writer and the further he is from his characters, the better he gets his point across. It’s much easier, say, to stomach a racist position if portrayed as one of the character in the book. If you, the reader, think that I am a racist you may not want to read my book. But one of my characters… you can learn to hate…
      The same with my photographs – I should be asking you what YOU think of this view. You may say, “I loved the mist from the Victoria Falls, it reminded me of when I was five and we went there…”or you may say, “it scared the life out of me..” I as the photographer should not be seen pushing someone off…or holding a child by the hand.
      So when a person looked at my photo and felt it was barren and empty, I listened. I’m sure by now you must have guessed I haven’t done any photography 101…because I bet they cover such topics!
      I had not really even stopped to ask myself the question…”why am I taking this particular shot?” And further, “why am I placing it on my blog?” Am I taking it to remember this person, or this time? Or am I taking it to post on the internet for other people to take something from. The lesson I learned from this critic is that I need to more careful what I put “out” there…what it is I am trying to say. Portray.
      Of course the same goes for my writing, and I do try in my books to remain invisible. I chose a pen name in order for me to be a completely different persona, but it didn’t work at all well…you do a far better job than me! I admit, your blog has inspired me to write more fiction – the crazy stuff I have floating about in my head…! Haven’t posted any yet – but have written one or two…(pssstt…it may chase a potential reader away if he got a glimpse of the shit I have going on inside there!)

  7. Does the person who told you that the photo’s where lifeless know the areas you are photographing? I see life in them because I see the leaves and can hear the little creatures in the African bush. You can walk in the photo’s.

    • He is Indian, but seems to get around the world – the photo of the park was in Virginia USA..I guess he knows I come from Africa, I make that clear on this blog – but perhaps he hasn’t been to the Africa I know. We were all posting on a photography forum something like “Photos 101” or something like that

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