Picture this: You’re standing in front of an awe-inspiring natural wonder, a giant mountain or an extraordinary monument. Eagerly, you raise your camera to your eye and *click* you snap a shot.
There, on the LCD screen on the back of your camera, you see that all the majesty of the scene has disappeared.
A photo of Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland, taken to show the scale and majesty of the scene.
In its transition from reality to the screen on your camera, your subject has lost its grandeur and sense of scale – there’s no true representation of how impressive the scene is. Has this happened to you?
Photography works with only two dimensions, for the most part. The world, on the other hand, is viewed in three dimensions. Missing that extra dimension can be a big deal.
Without giving a bit of thought to your composition, you can lose a lot of the sense of scale – making even the most remarkable subject matter look completely unremarkable on camera.
Understanding lens distortion
A camera doesn’t necessarily see the same thing our eyes do. Depending on your type of lens, and how much zoom you are using, there can be quite a difference between the image and reality.
Wide-angle lenses can make a real mess of perspective, making objects close to the camera seem significantly bigger than ones farther off. This can be used to your advantage for creative shots, but it will completely ruin the sense of scale.
From up close and seen with a wide-angle lens of 17mm, this gigantic-looking gnome looms over the fence it is sitting on.
A gnome photographed from a distance to show how lens distortion influences scale.
At a focal length of 55mm, the sense of scale is restored and we can see that the gnome is actually quite small compared to the fence.
The more you zoom in (use a longer focal length), the less distorted your object will appear. Unfortunately, if you are taking pictures of large buildings or natural wonders, this has fairly limited application. It isn’t always possible to jog several hundred meters down the road in order to have room to zoom into 200mm when photography a tall building.
If we want to get the entire object in the frame, we’ll need to make some compromises with lens distortion, which leads us to our next trick for properly showing scale.
Provide a reference
So how can we tell if something is big?
Well, it’s not usually a problem in real life to know if an object is big or not. But in photography, we don’t always have the same opportunity to glance around and get a sense of proportion. This bothersome little detail can mean that even a huge, incredible wonder in real life can look insignificant.
A photo of a mountain, with a reference point of a village below to show scale.
So how can we make sure that immense size is properly appreciated? Provide a familiar reference point to define scale. By including people or common objects in a scene, the viewer can quickly understand the scale.
Skip giving that reference point and your mighty mountains could just as well be macro shots of pebbles, for all your viewer knows.
This is the incredible Gullfoss in Iceland, but without a clear point of reference, we don’t have a strong idea of its scale.
Use of a longer lens helps us to see that those tiny specks on the rock are actually hikers – and helps us to understand that this waterfall is massive!
How can we tell if something is far away?
Again, it isn’t difficult to recognize distance in real life. Once again, two-dimensional pictures have a habit of looking extremely flat without paying a bit of attention to what is included in the frame.
Well, for starters, you can use depth-of-field to provide a sense of depth. When the background drops off into a blur, it helps the viewer to more easily recognize distance.
Depth-of-field refers to the amount of area that is in focus in a picture. You can make sure that the background falls out of focus by using one or combining multiple of the following methods:
- Selecting a wide lens aperture
- Zooming in on your subject
- By having a significant distance to the background behind your subject
A man exploring the mountain photographed to show a narrow depth of field.
But you’ll need to do more than just shoot with a wide aperture if you want a mountain range to look imposing.
Another good technique you can use is to layer your background elements. This is easiest to recognize with mountains.
Including the whole scene
Sometimes showing the true scale of a scene requires a bit of give and take – you need to make a few compromises.
Zooming in and capturing expressions or the human element can cause you to lose the sense of scale. On the other hand, zooming out can cause your image to lose any interaction or interest.
The hiker is sitting on the edge of a cliff – but without zooming back the viewer has no idea how big the drop is.
The best way to account for this is to simply be aware of it as you set up your shot. Balance the objects in the frame and decide what is the priority and purpose of the shot. If you want to show the scale of a scene, you probably won’t be able to take a tight shot that shows reactions or emotions.
By pulling back a bit, we can see the entire cliff – but now we can’t see the hiker’s expression!
Changing up your perspective
Sometimes capturing the majesty of a scene requires a creative perspective. Many photographers forget to explore the potential that comes from mixing up the camera’s point of view.
Taking a low shot can help add emphasis or might to a scene.
A low angle shot of a waterfall, showing its grandeur
Using a drone to cruise overhead and look down over an area can also be a fun way to show scale. The bird’s eye view perspective can be used to discover new angles of looking at otherwise familiar landscapes.
Drone – image by dPS author Suzi Pratt.
Lines have always been an important element of any composition. They give an image a sense of movement and can direct the viewer’s eye around a shot, especially when they all tend towards a single vanishing point on the horizon.
The strong lines in this image help us to understand the size of this mountain trip.
Using leading lines is also a way to provide a sense of depth and show distance. You get a quick comparison of the distance between objects in the frame, giving you a quick point of reference to work with for the rest of the picture.
Recognizing and using natural lines in a scene is a surefire way to create a dynamic and interesting composition.
A deliberate approach to photography
By having the different techniques that can be used to show a sense of scale top of mind when you are out exploring with your camera, you can increase your chance of coming back with some real keepers.
It’s a common complaint of beginner or casual photographers that they can’t quite seem to make their pictures look as impressive as real life. But with a bit of practice, you can shoot pictures that leave your audience in awe!
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Author: Frank Myrland
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