How to Use People to Enhance Your Photography

People, they’re literally everywhere. At least that’s how it feels when you live in a country as densely populated as Japan. For the longest time, I was incredibly fussy about having people in my frame.

I’d painstakingly remove people in post with the clone tool or by blending multiple exposures. In some cases, I wouldn’t even take my camera out of my bag because I believed there was no shot to be had due to the mere presence of a human being. I used to spend the majority of my time looking at the work of professional landscape photographers shooting in remote parts of the world, so I’d developed this notion that scenes looked better without people in them. I’ve since come to realize that not only was I too stubborn, I was wrong and it was holding my photography back.

While it’s true that some locations work well enough on their own, sometimes the addition of people can enhance an image. I’d like to share some of the ways I’ve not only learned to use people in my frame but have actually begun to embrace them in order to enhance the scenes I was photographing.

I will also state up front that none of the images used in this write-up were staged. I know a lot of photographers will use models, friends, or themselves within the frame of their landscape or cityscape photography. That’s a totally valid way to use people in your images, but for these examples, I’ve only selected photos that were captured organically, thus I won’t be including anything about posing or outfit choices.

I also won’t be covering pure street photography, as the inclusion of people in that style is more or less the entire point. While some of these photos use elements of street photography, they’re not what I would consider to be primarily street photography.

Add Scale to the Scene

In a perfect world, we’d always have a banana with us for scale. However, absent the potassium-rich fruit, there’s almost no better way to add a sense of scale to your images than with the inclusion of a person. In the past, the mere presence of a person would have turned me away from a number of scenes, but in recent years, I’ve often found myself hoping for someone to be at the location I’m planning to shoot with the intent of using them in my image for scale. When using people for scale, it’s important to consider things like focal length; distance from your camera and the subject; and placement within the frame.

I have a few images in my portfolio that were taken in remarkable locations but simply wouldn’t work as well without people in them.

This image from Lake Shoji is a classic example of how a person can add a sense of scale to an already iconic landmark. While the location is stunning, the inclusion of a person changes it from what appears to be an early morning snapshot into a perfectly timed photograph. Ensuring that the boat was positioned between the reflection of the trees and the snowy area of Fuji was key for the balance of this image. Taken at 86mm

Scale isn’t limited to natural landmarks; it can be used for man-made ones as well. This early morning image from Senso-ji in Tokyo uses a person to not only show the scale of the gate but the lantern that hangs in the center of it. There was a bit of good fortune with the light in the right spot, but patience in photography is sometimes rewarded with images like this. Taken at 62mm

While the light and the landscape in this image from Kanagawa do work well on their own, the subtle addition of the fisherman adds an extra sense of scale to the image that brings it all together. Had I taken this image back in 2017, I would have removed the fisherman on the left and the people on the right, but I now understand that they serve to enhance an already picturesque location. The image is a 3-image panoramic stitch taken at 42mm.

Introduce Life to the Scene

Sometimes a scene or location works on its own. The light and elements within the scene all come together to create a stunning image that doesn’t need any additional elements. However, other times we may look at a scene or photograph and think to ourselves that something is missing or that the photo could use a little something extra. I’ve often found that that something extra is a sense of life within the scene. As I mentioned earlier, I was once adamant about my landscapes containing no people. However, in the years since I’ve begun to embrace people, I’ve taken quite a few photos that wouldn’t have worked without that sense of life that the people within the frame add. I’ve found that using people to add a hint of life works best in city areas or villages; we don’t live in the post-apocalypse after all.

As with scale, the tricky part of using people to add life to the frame is to ensure that the people within the frame are enhancing the elements around them with ideal placement within the scene. It all comes down to having the person blend into the scene organically without sticking out like a sore thumb. This is why I prefer using people organically, rather than opting to pose people within the scene.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is likely the most photographed izakaya on the planet. I’ve seen it photographed countless times by both famous and lesser-known photographers from all over the world. However, the photos from this location that stand out to me are the ones that added the extra element of life within the frame in an organic way. I’m not going to declare this as the best photo ever taken from this location, but it wouldn’t have made my portfolio without the people within the frame adding life to the scene.

From an iconic spot in the bustling streets of Tokyo to a lesser-known one nestled in the mountains of the Toyama prefecture, the technique remains the same. The second I found this location online; I knew I’d need a person to enhance an already stunning location. Taken during the middle of the day, the inclusion of the woman on the bottom left is doing most of the heavy lifting in this image.

A younger less experienced version of me would have left this location without a photo, as the harsh light leaves a lot to be desired. However, the more experienced version of me who took this photo sat there for over 30 minutes for just the right person to walk into the frame, and it was well worth the wait. Along with adding life to the frame, the person serves as a sense of scale for both the village and the mountains that surround it. If you find a location but you feel like it needs a little something extra, it’s worth waiting around for the right moment to develop.

Using people goes beyond photographing vast city scenes or landscapes, it can be applied in more intimate settings as well. This is an example of an image that simply doesn’t work without the inclusion of life within the frame. While the angle of this building in this abstract architecture image is trippy on its own, it’s not quite enough to make a strong image. In addition to a splash of color, the window cleaner gives the viewer a clear focal point in an otherwise simple image.

Convey Motion Within the Scene

While photography is a medium of art focusing on still images, it doesn’t mean that your image must be devoid of motion. In an interview regarding his art installation entitled “Work No. 850”, Martain Creed said, “If you think about death as being completely still and movement as a sign of life, then the fastest movement possible is the biggest sign of life.” In the spirit of that, one of the best ways to use people in photographs is to shoot them with a long exposure to add a sense of motion within the image. While this can be tricky because it can require extra equipment such as a tripod and ND filters on top of choosing the ideal shutter speed, the motion created can add an extra level of interest that brings a photo to the next level. Additionally, this is a great way to practice shooting with intent, as it requires you to envision the location in a way the human eye is incapable of doing.

In this image, I was able to frame the two women in the middle of the image and get off this single shot just in time. The chaos in the movement around them adds to the atmosphere of the image, while they remain isolated as the subject. Had this photo been taken at a faster shutter speed, the women would have been lost in the sea of people. Had it been taken with a longer exposure, they would have moved, removing them as the subject. Precision is key when trying to take a single image that blends stillness and motion, but when it’s done correctly it can enhance what would otherwise be a snapshot into something much stronger. Taken with a 2.5-second exposure.

Another single image, taken in Kamakura, the exposure of this image leaves the people walking around this iconic shrine looking like ghosts. With techniques like this, it’s possible to take interesting photographs, even mid-day at one of the most popular tourist attractions in the prefecture. Of course, timing is still important. Too many people walking through the frame, and you’ll end with a mash of indistinguishable colors. Expose the image for too long, as you’ll lose the people altogether. Weather conditions and the number of people passing through the frame will change the specifics of these settings, so be sure to take a few test shots before waiting for the perfect moment to develop. Taken with a 30-second exposure and a 10-stop ND filter.

I previously discussed the importance of intent and how it pertains to using more advanced editing techniques. This image is an example of shooting with intent and using people within your frame. While this photo might appear staged at first glance, it’s completely candid – believe it or not, I didn’t ask people to stand completely motionless on these steps for a prolonged period of time. Instead, I captured people in modern-day clothes walking up and down the stairs with a long exposure and then took a single image of this pair in traditional Japanese clothing to create a fine-art image using motion to separate the past from the present. Multiple 3-second exposures were used for this image.

Tell a Story

I used to think that storytelling was reserved for street photography, not landscape or architectural photography. However, I now understand that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As Fan Ho showed through his work, it’s possible to capture a larger scene while using the people within it the environment to tell a story.

Whether the following images are street photography or not is a discussion for another day, the fact remains that the inclusion of a person in each of these images adds a story that enhances them. This technique is a great way to enhance an image when you don’t have perfect conditions or want to create a unique image in a popular area. The challenge with storytelling is that you don’t have control over how people behave in public, but you want to capture them doing something that appears to convey a story. These kinds of images become easier to capture the more familiar you are with a location or culture. None of the following images were taken by accident. Rather, they’re a direct product of understanding Japanese culture, how people tend to behave in these locations or situations, and an immense amount of patience.

While this location is quite interesting on its own, the flat light and the overwhelming amount of green within the scene left a lot to be desired. The addition of the man taking a moment to pay his respects at the shrine adds a simple but essential story to this image that so many others from this exact location lack. His presence also adds the touch of life I mentioned before, as well as a sense of scale and a splash of color contrast.

Sticking with the theme of using shrines to tell a story, this is a shot that combines architectural photography with a splash of storytelling. While the fine details and near-perfect symmetry that traditional Japanese architecture offers are photo-worthy on their own, having the woman in the red dress not only adds scale and life to the photo, it tells a simple but effective story through culture. I often hear people talking about how they don’t live in an interesting area, but the inclusion of a story can turn an otherwise unknown location into a unique photo opportunity.

Sometimes, even a sunrise needs a little something extra. Anyone familiar with Japanese culture will know that it’s a longstanding tradition for people to view the first sunrise of the year. With this four-image panoramic stitch, I captured the tradition and the stories that go along with it on my local beach. Taken on January 1st of 2021, this is another otherwise mundane landscape that is enhanced by the stories going on within the frame, as locals tried to get whatever enjoyment they could, during the rather difficult times we were facing here.

Show the Culture

Sometimes, it’s not enough to simply capture a location. Whether it be a traditional area or a landscape, the addition of people within the frame can be used to capture the essence of the location, local culture, or event. While many of these locations and scenes work well enough on their own, the inclusion of people helps capture the distinct culture within them. I mentioned the word culture in the section about storytelling because they often go hand-in-hand, however, culture deserves its own section because it can vary from location to location. That is why when adding splashes of culture to your image it’s imperative to have an understanding of the regional traditions and cultures that define it.

There are some out there who thumb their nose at fireworks photography, but when done right, they can make for a powerful subject. One mistake I often see from newer photographers is to only photograph the fireworks. However, when you add people to the foreground, they can enhance the scene by adding a hint of energy and culture to the image. This particular image is an exposure blend, using the girl in the kimono to show the fireworks culture here in Japan. As summer draws close, I recommend trying this technique at your local fireworks festival. Arrive earlier than you usually would and try to find interesting compositions, just as you would when shooting a landscape and take a few test shots. If you’re concerned that the scene might change or become too dark, it’s possible to shoot the foreground in advance and blend in the fireworks later.

The Higashi-Chaya area of Kanazawa is a breathtaking location that can stand on its own. However, as I was photographing it on this very rainy morning, I couldn’t pass up the chance to capture this traditional part of the city with these girls in kimonos. While the inclusion of the girls doesn’t really tell a story, they help display the rich traditional culture of this area of the city, while also adding life and a splash of color. Of all the photos I took in this location, none quite show the essence of this area quite like this photo, thanks to these girls… and, well, the rain. Sorry, Kanazawa, you know it to be true.

The Shonan area of Japan is like no other. While the location is lesser known to most tourists, it’s the only place in the entire country where you’ll find a view of Mount Fuji with surfers, at least to my knowledge. While a photo of Mount Fuji would ordinarily stand on its own, the addition of the surfer in this image adds a splash of local culture that makes it unmistakably Shonan. When you include people within the image, it’s not only an opportunity to show off the scenery, but it also allows you to introduce an aspect of the culture unique to the area with people from around the world.

The Wrap-Up

Photography is a powerful thing. It can be used to tell stories, document history, capture personal memories, or make art. These things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For newer photographers focusing on landscapes and cityscapes, I encourage you to try including more people in your photography. Rather than thinking of people in your frame as a nuisance, use them to enhance your work using the techniques I’ve highlighted in this write-up. I promise that you will spend more time with my camera in your hands, resulting in more keepers. What’s more, you may begin to appreciate those places you’ve been brushing off as boring in a new way. At the end of the day, the power to help us see the world in new ways is what makes photography so special.

About the author: Jordan McChesney is a landscape, cityscape, and abstract Canadian photographer living in Chigasaki, Japan. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of McChesney’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.