Do People Belong in Landscape Photography?

Reader question: Is it true that a great landscape image will almost always be better if there’s a human presence in it?

My answer: It depends on the intended use of the picture.

In general I would say that landscape pictures meant for magazines usually benefit from the presence of human figures because they lend a sense of scale to the scene. On the other hand, landscape pictures used in calendars almost never include humans.

Including the color red can also increase the visual impact of a figure in a landscape. In fact, the effect is so strong that it led to what some people call the “Red Shirt School of Photography.”

This term was usually used in reference to photography in National Geographic Magazine. From the beginning of color photography until the 1960s, photographers at National Geographic and other magazines were accused of traveling with red props — shirts, umbrellas, you name it — in their trunks to add a little extra color to their photos.

I must tell you that the Red Shirt School is now used as a deprecating label because those same colorful photos often had a cheesy, posed look.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.


  1. Gordon Joslin
    July 5, 2013, 4:14 am

    Figures in Landscape depend on the original idea and it’s expression by the Photographer. The ” Blue ” Landscapes, Seascapes often require a figure to provide a sense of scale.
    Landscapes require pictroial qualities of Distance, Tranquility
    Serenity and Harmony if the original idea is to express a mood then the inclusion of a figure could destroy the visual effect.
    A Montaineer in a Widlerness could bring home the power of awe of a Mountain and the Fragility of the Human Being.

    What I do not like is to hear a Judge say” Should include a Figure” and is in conflict with the orginal creative idea of the Photographer/Artist. A Judge has to read the picture. The Artist has the idea and is required to express by composition the message.
    All a question of Communication of the orginal idea.
    Speaking about viewing a Landscape. Acute Vision Colour and Sharpness in the Fovea of the Retina is limited to 2 degrees.
    Hence the reason to zoom into a 100 and scan every part of the Picture.

    Best wishes GJ.

  2. Pete Jones
    Lincoln UK
    March 29, 2013, 5:05 am

    I agree with the thoughts on scale and human interest but would add a point on focus. In real life one tends to take in landscape as a panorama. Eyes scan over a large area. It’s magnitude that is the basis of view. When viewed in a photograph that process is interrupted by the smaller fixed view; therefore, the eye (and mind) like to have a pointing which to to settle. Essentially a point of reference.

  3. Marcus & Kate Westberg
    March 26, 2013, 10:40 pm

    Another strong reason to include people in landscape photographs, particularly for magazines and travel articles, is that it allows the reader to imagine him- or herself in that particular scene – in the shoes of the person or people photographed, so to speak.

  4. Jose Alonso
    La Rioja, Spain
    March 26, 2013, 5:08 pm

    Hello Dan,

    perhaps as a photographer you can understand and help the photography community in Spain and across the world for that matter. I mentioned Spain first because this is where the plague that we are suffering originates from. There is currently a large number of FAKE impostor Twitter accounts that publish photos stolen from legal web sites like Flickr, 500px and many others. In rare cases we can see the photographers name if his watermark is visible in the final crop. But never do these people give the proper credits to the photographers and never do they point to the source of the photography.

    These Twitter accounts pretend to be National Geographic, that’s how they call their accounts but their Tweeter handles are things like @iPaisajes, or @_Ipaisajes or and many like them.

    These fraudulent Twitter accounts in some cases have more then 400,000 followers when the NatGeo Twitter account has a little more then 7000. No wonder, most people already think they are following NatGeo on Twitter when in fact it’s a fake account.

    These people are building a business on the reputation of National Geographic and in the process they are abusing of photographers work without properly crediting them.

    I wrote a letter to NatGeo using the email address but no reply and a colleague of mine here in Spain wrote to NatGeo Spain but yet no one has replied to him either.

    Is there anyone at NatGeo that can help? I tried contacting Twitter but their position is clear, Only National Geographic can complain and ask them to take down these fake accounts. As a third party not representing NatGeo I cannot take action with Twitter.

    Can you help, please?

    • Leslie Trew Magraw
      April 22, 2013, 10:14 am

      Hi Jose,
      We so appreciate your taking the time to contact us about this matter. Thank you. Our social media team has been looking into these abuses on Twitter for some time and hopes to have it resolved soon. For anyone looking to find the OFFICIAL Twitter handle for the National Geographic Society, let me direct you to: If you’re looking for the travel team, please find us at

  5. Daniel Lowe (@FilmTimelapse)
    United States
    March 26, 2013, 2:56 pm

    I’ve been photographing solitary landscapes with no people for years. And you know what?

    People like to see people in their photographs.

    It can change the entire “meaning” of the photo to have a human subject in the frame.

    I’m actually working now on bringing “the human element” more into my own photography.

  6. Nishi Jain
    March 25, 2013, 2:13 am

    Well, apart from the sense of scale, I think, human figures also add a sense of perception to the photograph. No, it’s not just the sentimental idea of character and story, but a subtle appeal for the viewer to see himself/herself as part of the picture. (This concept too should have a fancy name as the ‘Red Shirt theory’) :)

    I often get stuck when it comes to selecting photographs… I like the sober ones but they are usually too dull and pale. Is it also true that if a photograph has pale sunshine yellow or any other light colour, it does not really impact a viewer’s brain as a ‘Red shirt’ photograph would do?

  7. Steve
    March 25, 2013, 12:21 am

    Would love to follow Dan on Twitter – if he had a real account or tweeted about photography and not all the money he makes doing surveys!

  8. photography ideas
    March 23, 2013, 1:57 am

    I think some people has sense of art diferently, artist become so famous because their taste was same with their fans, am I right? just like my taste in photography ideas would be diferent with you right?