Posted by: kerryl29 | September 25, 2013

Hand of Man

Quite a few years ago, when I was in the relatively early stages after becoming serious about landscape photography, I was a member of a camera club with a focus on nature as a subject.  The club had regular slide competitions (this was back in the film era), with a set of rules that included a prohibition of the inclusion of “the hand of man.”  In other words, for images to qualify for competition they could include no trace of man-made subjects.  Since the vast majority of my shots don’t involve man-made elements this didn’t really impact my ability to take part.  And–particularly given the stated predilection of the club for nature subjects–I understood that it was easier to simply implement a hard and fast rule to disallow the hand of man than to try to enforce a more amorphous (and potentially contentious) set of guidelines about which non-nature elements were incidental and permissible and which would result in exclusion.

Nevertheless, as I’ve continued to pursue my own work as a landscape photographer I’ve found that man-made subjects often enhance landscape imagery as secondary elements.  Sometimes, they work nicely as primary elements.  (Whether photographs with a man-made object as the center of interest qualify as “landscape images” is a subject that has occasionally been much debated in some forums and which I find essentially irrelevant.)  Occasionally they’re simply there, adding little or nothing, but not really subtracting anything either.

Perhaps as a function of my involvement with the camera club, there was a time when I typically ignored man-made elements as I sought out images in the field, but that’s no longer true.  Inclusion of certain man-made objects as complementary elements can, at times, add compositional structure to an image.  Use of man-made objects as a center of interest can, on occasion, produce a compelling image where one otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Here are a few examples:

Newfound Gap

Newfound Gap at Sunrise, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Newfound Gap at Sunrise, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

There are certainly shots to be had at the Newfound Gap overlook that omit the road, but I don’t think this is one of them.  The inclusion of the road gives the viewer’s eye a starting point and serves as a pattern-breaking element in what would otherwise be a fairly non-descript set of tree-lined ridges at a time of year before the foliage reached the high country.

Bridle Path

Bridle Path, Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

Bridle Path, Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

There would probably still be a shot here without the trail and bridle fencing, but it would be a very different image, lacking in the sense of depth that these man-made elements convey to the photograph, and to be honest I’m not sure if my attention would have been attracted to the scene without the trail and fence line.  This is a classic example of leading lines, and in this image it’s the hand of man that is producing them.

McConnells Mill

McConnell's Mill, McConnell's Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

McConnell’s Mill, McConnell’s Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

The mill serves as a kind of subdued center of interest–if that makes any sense–in the above image.  The mist coming off Slippery Rock Creek combined with the straggling leaves of late autumn produce a softness to this shot that creates a distinct mood, but without the anchoring presence of the mill in the background, I doubt there would be much to grab onto–to anchor the viewer’s eye–with this photograph.

Cannon Beach

Crescent Beach and Cannon Beach from Ecola State Park, Oregon

Crescent Beach and Cannon Beach from Ecola State Park, Oregon

It’s hard to tell at this size, but the buildings of the town of Cannon Beach are present along the shoreline in the background; in a good-sized print, it’s easy to see them.  This is a good example of an image where hand of man elements add absolutely nothing–clearly there’s still a shot here without them–but they don’t ruin the image either.  They’re incidental and basically irrelevant.  Whether someone likes this image or not is unlikely to have anything to do with the adornment of the man-made elements.

Nachusa Grasslands

Prairie Dawn, Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois

Prairie Dawn, Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois

The presence of the lone tree means that there would almost certainly be some kind of a shot here even without the man-made elements, but it’s hard for me to imagine that things would lay out as nicely as they have with the inclusion of the hand of man.  The sweep of the road leads the viewer’s eye to the tree in the upper right of the frame, which is balanced by the barn in the upper left-hand power point.  The top part of the inverted S-curve created by the road is mostly hidden by the prairie grass, but just enough is visible to allow the viewer to fill in the missing details…and naturally draws the eye to the barn.  Man-made elements aren’t necessary here to produce an image but they’re absolutely essential to whatever success lies in this image.

I hope this set of photographs illustrates a point that it took me some time to learn years ago:  hand of man and landscape photography do not necessarily represent an either/or proposition.  Man-made objects can be parts of the landscape that are:

  1. at worst, no detriment to your image-making;
  2. possible enhancements to your landscape images as secondary or tertiary elements;
  3. occasionally the difference between a keeper image and no image at all as crucial pieces of the compositional and/or emotional puzzle.

Perhaps it will take you less time to draw these conclusions than it took me.



  1. Love the photos…especially the bridle path. I have also grown to include the hand of man in some compositions. Often times it will add to the photo as you have illustrated, and at times it is essential to “make” the photo, and at other times it really doesn’t add or detract. Another great piece of writing!

    • Thanks, David. It’s somewhat difficult for me to believe, but there was a time when I almost reflexively omitted HoM elements from my images. I think that period came to a conclusive end about 10 years ago, and now I treat man-made elements pretty much the same way as natural ones; sometimes they’re included and sometimes they’re not.

  2. Kerry- Interesting point and I completely agree. These beautiful images illustrate your point beautifully. I also embrace having people in my landscape shots at times to give the viewer some perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Jane. I almost literally never include people in my landscapes; that’s probably at least partly a function of the fact that I typically shoot alone, but there’s almost certainly more to it than that.

      • Hi- I understand. For me, I’ve been to a dozen or so national parks in the past couple of years and found that taking some shots with people in the scenes does give the image a sense of place. Seems that these images are very well received and evoke emotion from viewers. I have a low percentage of “people in” compared to straight landscapes.

  3. My favorite is the Mill/Slippery Rock Creek image – beautiful, and I enjoyed your analysis as well. From western PA but have not visited this park. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Nick. Since you’re in the vicinity, you definitely should check out McConnell’s Mill S.P. It’s not a huge park, but it’s very, very interesting and surprisingly diverse if you move beyond the area immediately around the mill itself.

  4. There are quite a few occasions when I like to include not only HoM, but man him(her)self to add a sense of scale to some of the sea stacks at the beach, or elsewhere. Without that reference point, the mammoth rocks might be mistaken for pebbles.

    • Yes, if you’re looking for scale in a landscape, a person is just what the doctor ordered.

  5. Thank you for the tips! Very informative 🙂

    • My pleasure.

  6. You do wonderful work. Some photo club shows in my area have the same hand of man rules. The photos you have on this post are clearly nature and should not be dismissed because they include hand of man I think these types of rules need to be a little more flexible

    • Thanks very much.

      No question about it–none of the images accompanying this entry would be permissible in any of the competitions my old camera club ran; more flexible rules would have been much appreciated.

  7. There are so many beautiful shots of places far from each other; you do all of them credit!

    • Thanks very much!

  8. Great photos as always! I just returned from Michigan’s UP, and there was very little color yet. Most of what I found was in the interior parts of the UP, almost none in the Porkies or Pictured Rocks areas.

    • Thanks for the update–makes perfect sense. The areas close to Superior (e.g. Porkies, Pictured Rocks) always turn later than inland locations. My source in Munising tells me that he expects this to be a terrific color season in the UP and that my timing (Oct. 2-10) should be ideal for capturing peak. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

      • I’m afraid that you’ll still be a little too early, I’ll be doing a highlight post today or tomorrow, if you can stand my rookie mistakes.

        • We’ll see what happens. Things can change VERY quickly depending on the weather conditions and the current forecast for Munising calls for much cooler weather beginning on Thursday. I would guess–if the forecast holds–that things will peak in the Hiawatha next weekend or early the following week. Pictured Rocks (as always) will be later and–again, assuming no vast changes one way or the other–probably won’t peak until the following weekend or early in the third week of October. But it’s all highly variable and we’ll see what happens.

          I look forward to your post.

  9. Kerry, this is a fascinating post. I never thought about the “hand of man” issue consciously, nor did I know that landscape photographers would eschew it. I think that at times, I unconsciously try to eliminate it when shooting in nature but other times it is the focus or at least part of the image. Mostly, my reaction is one of a garden designer. When designing gardens, the presence of man made objects focuses a scene by providing hard lines to contrast the soft lines of plants (as you proved in the bridle trail fence.) So using fences, arches, sculpture, etc. give shape and a unique quality to a garden. It also makes it very photogenic since it provides a focal point in all seasons.

    As always, your photos are beautiful and your words have given me something to ponder. I’m planning a trip to McConnell’s Mill Park this week to shoot video and stills. Your photo will be in the back of my mind, I’m sure 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Lynn. And the example of the garden is an excellent one; the considerations are essentially identical to those that revolve around photographing the landscape.

      I think you’ll enjoy McConnell’s Mill SP a great deal. By all means, don’t limit yourself to the area immediately around the mill itself. There’s are several other parts of the park that flank Slippery Rock Creek and they aren’t to be missed, IMO.

  10. I agree with you Kerry, the hand of man can certainly enhance an image. Maybe because there’s more of a ‘story’? I prefer the color images over the lone B&W. The shot of the Mill is my favorite.

    I found a neat article with some handsome photos that I think you might like on the Luminous Landscape Web site. Here’s the link:

    • Thanks very much, John, and thanks for the LL link. I’ll definitely check it out.

  11. Fantastic shots, as usual. I can see how and why people would prefer images without any presence of man, and sometimes I crave exactly that, but your shots above are all absolutely gorgeous. I prefer an attitude of appreciation for the beauty of a landscape, influenced by man or not. I’m addicted to trees, love cityscapes now and then, and have a particular love of man-made things being retaken by natural processes, I find no conflict in these tastes.

    • Thanks for the kind words and I agree with your conclusions.

  12. Wow! These landscapes are amazing! You captured the beauty of each scene.

    • Thanks very much!

  13. Wonderful work!

    • Thanks very much, Lana.

  14. You do beautiful work! I agree with you, I think the hand of man rule is a bit much. How man interacts with nature is as much a subject of nature photography as nature itself. What I have found humorous seeing clubs that have strict hand of man rules but seem to have no restrictions when it comes to digitally enhancing images. That being said, I digitally enhance from time to time, but I think it would be unfair to put up a straight out out of camera image against an enhanced image in a contest.

    • Thank you very much.

      Most of the clubs I’m aware of (I haven’t belonged to one myself in at least 10 years) do have pretty stiff rules about image manipulation, but I don’t know what kind of luck they have trying to enforce them.

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