Weekly Theme #17: Captivating Compositions With The Human Element

By now I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me proclaim everything as my one of my favorite things to shoot. I can’t help it, maybe I should come to realize I just love to take photographs, regardless of what they’re of. But capturing the human element, I gotta say, is especially relevant to me. It’s kinda my thing–I actually taught a class on this very subject. I love adventure photography. I love candids. Of course I want to combine the two!

Photo by Kalen Emsley
Photo by Kalen Emsley

Obviously, I’m pretty pumped about this week’s theme. But let’s take a look at last week’s leading entries so we can get started on a fresh challenge.

Last week, we took on self portraits. A tricky subject because most photographers much prefer being behind the camera rather than in front of it. Let’s see how we did…

Weekly Theme #16 – Self Portraits Leaderboard:

We certainly had some creative entries into the self portrait weekly theme, which is great, because that’s what we were shooting for! Be sure to check out all of the entries here.

Weekly Theme #17: The Human Element

I think you’re going to like this challenge, too. So why not join us in this week’s shooting challenge and give your hand a try at the human element. It’s not too difficult and it’s a great exercise for photographers of all skill levels. If you’re new to the term, I’ll share a few pointers below. But first, here’s all the info you need to know to join in on the fun.

How To Participate:

Deadline: December 4th, 2016

How to submit: Add weeklytheme17 as one of the tags in your post on the PhotoBlog platform

Check out the submissions: Check the tag weeklytheme17

Vote on your favorites: Like and comment on your favorite posts

What Is The Human Element?

In it’s most basic definition, the human element simply refers to a person inside of a photograph. Seems simple enough, right? It is a pretty simple theory, but it’s slightly more complicated than that. To use the human element effectively, it really needs to display the ephemeral. A fleeting moment captured perfectly with your camera.

Here’s the trailer to the class I taught over on Skillshare. It’s not packed with tips, but there are lots of photos you can check out and draw some inspiration from. Take a look, then I’ll share some tips with you on how you can start capturing your own human element photos after the video.

Capturing The Human Element

There’s more to it than just snapping a shot with a person in it. If the composition isn’t planned and well thought out, the human element can actually take away from the quality of the image. We want to do the opposite. Ideally, the human element will make a composition stronger. Let’s take a look at an example:

Looking at the original composition with the two young men, this is a fairly eye catching photo. The pier divers give the eye something to look at and add interest to the frame. The eye is immediately drawn to them and the mind is transported to the pier as the viewer begins to process the emotion and excitement of the moment.

However, when we drag the slider all the way to the right (go ahead and do that now) and remove the human element, we see kind of a boring photo. Sure, it’s a pretty sunset over a beautiful Hawaiian bay, but we’ve seen photos like this thousands of times. It’s common and not particularly interesting.

Spotting The Moment

For me, it’s easier to see these moments when I’m an outsider looking in. Rather than feeling the need to be involved in every conversation and activity, step back and see things from a different perspective. In the photo below, I was headed to the beach for a relaxing day with three of my good friends. We were all anxious to get into the water and the guys rushed down to the water as fast as we could get the car doors open.

I noticed their excitement early and realized something photogenic was potentially about to happen, so I stuck back and gave them a bit of a head start. Sure enough, they headed right to this tree and stopped to take it all in. Perfect because the tree blocked the midday sun from glaring right into my camera! I was ready in the shadows, camera in hand.

Tree amigos | Photo by Tiffany Mueller
Tree amigos | Photo by Tiffany Mueller

Being able to recognize and predict a powerful moment, however, isn’t always easy to do. It doesn’t come naturally to many of us. You can learn to do it though.

We shared this quote over on our Instagram the other day and I think it perfectly summarizes it:


Recognizing Social Cues

In your everyday life, make it a habit to look for interesting bits and moments to photograph. Take notice of social cues that indicate something is about to happen. Using social cues, you will be able to predict a moment in time you want to photograph. Essential, because this allows you to place yourself where you need to be to get the most powerful composition.

The three most recognizable social cues are:

  • Visual – The most obvious of the social cues. All you have to do is look. And look closely. Don’t just look to see, look to understand. Study what’s going on around you. Look at what people are doing. What is the next step in their process? Is it something that could be photo worthy?
  • Verbal/audible – Listen to the tones of the voices around you. Are they excited? Sad? What do they tell you about the current situation? Also be sure to take note of ambient sounds to see if you notice anything particularly interesting that can give you insight on what is about to happen.
  • Emotional – What’s the mood of the current situation? Are there emotions–good or bad–hanging in the air? Could someone burst out in tears of joy at any moment? Will you be ready to capture it with your camera?

Pay attention to all of these things, all of the time. Whether you’re shooting or not. And, low and behold, once you see all that’s going on, the most interesting bits will make themselves known!

Community Member Spotlight

This concept is one PhotoBlog community member, Jay Keywood, most surely understands. Just look at this great example of how he was able to use the human element to strengthen this composition.

Photo by Jay Keywood
Photo by Jay Keywood

Check out his photoblog for even more examples, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be swooning over his portfolio, just like me. Wowzers, that’s good stuff!

Think Outside The Box

One last bit of advice before I send you along. Try to think outside the box. The easy route to this challenge would be to click a quick snapshot and call it a day. Technically, it would still be the human element, but we call these weekly themes challenges for a reason!

Get creative with your composition. Look for ways to make the human in your composition complement and interact with the rest of the image. Using the human element in your photos can be the ultimate form of storytelling. So make sure the photo you are taking is actually telling a story!

Your Assignment

Should you choose to accept it–and you should, you really, really should–is to capture a photo that includes the human element in a captivating way. It can be a landscape, a lifestyle shot, street photography, the choice is up to you. Just make sure it’s a good use of the human element! Show us your best shots! Now, before I take up too much of your time, I’ll wrap things up. Just remember to tag your photos with:


In the meantime, I’ll be over on the platform waiting for all your amazing photos to come pouring in. Chop! Chop! It’s time to get shooting my friends!


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About the author

Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller is an adventurer and photographer based in Hawaii. When she's not climbing volcanoes or swimming with sharks, you can find her here on PhotoBlog serving as the fearless leader to the wonderful editorial staff.

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