The Human Element (and Pink Birthday Cake)

All photos have a subject. Many photos incorporate the human element to draw the viewer’s eye. If there is not human in the photo, the viewer will find a different subject. It may be a landscape feature such as a mountain, or even a color or a shape.

When composing an image for a photo, there are several different ways to feature people in the photo. Compositions that incorporate the human element can more interesting because they tell a story about life. They also tend to elicit more emotion from the viewer. Here are a few different ways that the human element can show up in a photo.

The primary subject


In this photo, our eye will be immediately drawn to the little girl. More specifically, we will probably notice that her lips are in the shape of an “O” like she is blowing something. Within a split second, we see that there is a birthday cake in front of her and we fondly remember other birthday parties when we felt happy and loved.

This technique is commonly used in formal portrait photography. Obviously, the person should be the central focus. However a person as a secondary subject can have a very striking effect and give a more informal feel to a portrait.

The secondary subject


Although I wouldn’t consider this photo a portrait, it does show the human as a secondary subject. This is accomplished by not showing the girl’s face. Notice however, that the cake and the girl’s hand are in focus. In this photo, the pink birthday cake is the primary subject. The emotions we may feel could be associated with the idea of cake sticking to our fingers, or the plates and napkins ready to be used.

The background

A third way to add the human element to a photo is to compose the photo with a human in the background.


In this photo, the birthday cake is the strong primary subject. It may take a couple of seconds to even notice that there is someone in the background. However, once you see the background subject, you immediately want to know the story. Is it her birthday? Did she make the cake? Does she look happy? This is what photography is all about: the story.

Telling a story with photos is impossible without a subject, human or otherwise. Although it can be done without people, the human element makes telling that story easier. Which of these techniques do you think best tells a story? Have you found other creative ways to incorporate people into your photos?

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