A landscape photographer’s goal, especially in the most dramatic and massive locations, is to demonstrate the size and scope of the landscape in a photo. However, it is quite difficult to translate the three-dimensional world into a flat rectangle — certain aspects of a scene, including the scale of the landscape, can get lost along the way. In this article, I’ll go over some common ways to put the size of a scene into perspective.
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Perhaps the most common way to show the size of a grand landscape is to include a person for scale. Some find this technique overused, but there is a reason it is so popular — people are easy to find. If you hike with a friend, for example, it isn’t hard to include him or her in a photo. Or, if you have a tripod, it’s easy enough to be your own model.
People are generally similar in height, too, which makes it easy for a viewer to sense the comparative size of a landscape. The precise scale of a scene is nearly always impossible to judge, but it is hard to find a more consistent model than a human.
The farther from the camera a person stands (and thus, the smaller he or she appears in the photo), the larger a landscape looks by comparison. Some of the most interesting photos I have ever seen — and those which demonstrate scale perfectly — include a barely-visible person hidden inside a tremendous scene. Certainly, it is only feasible to walk so far from the camera for a photo, but this is an easy way to put a massive landscape into perspective.
In the same way that it is easy to judge the size of people in a landscape, other animals also are quite good at providing a sense of scale to your photos. Of course, it is difficult to find a beautiful landscape with picturesque wildlife in the same frame — which is why it is easier to use people for scale, if that works for your image.
However, in some locations, you may find that wildlife is prevalent enough to be a compositional element. This is based upon happenstance more than anything else, but there is something to be said for landscape photos that include beautiful wildlife as well. Such images look more “wild” than photos with people.
Similarly, trees or other plants can provide scale to landscape photos, although they tend to vary in size somewhat. This isn’t a huge problem — trees certainly vary in size less than, for example, rocks — but animals are better for providing scale, if you have the option.
3) Manmade Structures
So far, I have discussed the living creatures that can provide scale to a scene — people, wildlife, and plants — but nonliving structures can do the same job. Everything from roads to houses can be incorporated into a landscape photo, and they make it possible to demonstrate the size of the scene as well. Manmade structures are a bit more deceiving than living objects, since they vary in size quite a bit, but they still can provide useful perspective when photographed amidst a grand landscape.
Not all places have such structures, of course, but it is easy to find some landscapes that do. Personally, I enjoy seeing photos with farmhouses or fences in the distance — these images show the size of a scene quite well, and they also include visually-interesting structures.
Although I tend to prefer landscapes without manmade objects, I recently have begun to experiment with some human-element scenes as well. Whether these qualify as traditional “landscapes” is debatable, but I enjoy them all the same.
Though not as exact as including objects for scale, it also is possible to compose your photos in a way that shows the size of your scene. Sometimes, this isn’t feasible — for example, it can be impossible to show the size of a distant sand dune without including an object for scale — but other landscapes can be put into perspective simply by the way you frame your photo.
On one hand, it is possible to show the grand size of a scene by including a vast sky overhead. A wide-angle shot of massive clouds can show this scale quite well, particularly if you include a sliver of foreground for comparison.
5) Focal Length
Lenses of any focal length can show scale in a landscape, but typically in different ways.
A wide or ultra-wide lens can “stretch” an image, making the scene appear vaster and more expansive than photos taken with a standard focal length. This effect tends to make a landscape look larger — which is one reason why real estate photographers like to use the widest lenses possible.
However, wide angle lenses also make backgrounds appear to shrink, at least in relation to the size of the foreground. So, if you are trying to show the tremendous size of a distant mountain, a wide-angle lens is far from ideal.
Instead, to show the scale of distant landscapes, telephoto lenses can be extremely useful. By magnifying your subject, a long lens provides the psychological effect of making a scene look larger-than-life. This magnification comes at the expense of a more compressed field of view — you lose the three-dimensional feeling that comes from a dramatic wide-angle photo — but it can be the only way to show the scale of a distant scene.
And, of course, you can increase the apparent scale of your subject by printing your photos at a large size. A dramatic landscape will look even more impressive when it spans the length of a wall — this is one reason why enormous prints are so compelling.
It is not always possible to demonstrate the scale of a massive landscape — and sometimes it is not even desirable — but you undoubtedly will find some scenes that are too large to depict properly in a photo. In such a scenario, one of the best ways to show the scene’s scale is to use commonly-known items for comparison, such as a person or a man-made structure.
On the other hand, if your scene doesn’t have any common items that show scale, consider composing the photo in a way which suggests the scene’s size. By using a wide angle lens, for example, it is possible to convey the vastness of an expansive landscape; on the other hand, a properly-used telephoto can magnify distant objects to show their size.
Scale certainly is not a hard science, though, and some grand landscapes simply don’t convert to a two-dimensional photo. When I travelled to Iceland recently, I found some scenes that were far too large to depict properly in a photo. Still, if you are familiar with some ways to demonstrate the scale of a scene, your landscape photos can appear far more life-like and dramatic.