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.
This was a great article and I’ve used many of these in the past. The hardest one is people, since I like to go out early on my photography jaunts, and nobody wants to get up and hike before the sun comes up.
I would like to point out that the caption under the photo of what I assume is an iceberg or ice flow states a seagull is in the photo for scale. It’s a great photo and is sharp enough to tell the bird is actually a tern not a gull.
Thanks again for the informative article.
Nice article Spencer!
Though it is helpful, i feel we have to use our own perspective and goal for what to press shutter button. Every time it won’t be possible to struggle and scale the landscape specifically for presence of human or any wildlife.
But surely scaling makes the image more realistic.
Keep on posting.
Spencer: LOVED the article! Scale in landscapes is really hard to include in a shot. And it is especially hard bring it altogether, light, composition, subject and scale in the field.
I really enjoy your writing and your images. They are both so inspirational and helpful for all of us on our own individual photographic journeys. Don’t be put off by nitpicking criticisms from outliers. Keep up the great work and keep us striving to keep up with you.
Thank you for the kind words, Ned!
“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”
This may be how you like to photograph but it definitely is not everyone’s goal and it should not be.
I get a feeling you are preaching before you have been ordained.
Hi Picture Perfect,
I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m certainly not trying to tell people how they should take photos, just trying to offer helpful tips to beginners. The line you quoted was simply my attempt at writing a compelling intro — many of my favorite landscape photos are abstracts, or the scale is otherwise impossible to determine. I can see how that line could be misleading, though, so I apologize.
I must say, even as a metaphor, the concept of being “ordained” to teach photography does not make sense to me. At what point does one become qualified to help other people practice art? We are all learning, and I just like to offer tips to people who find them useful.
And hopefully shall we keep religious similes, metaphors and matters altogether out of photography! We need no preacher, and Spencer does not write or behave like one… No wonder Picture perfect does. Judging by their modest name, I suppose they make perfect photographs…
Spencer is merely helpful, and not into political-speak—everybody understands he is not being bossy although he did not write that “One of the goals […] may be…”
Please don’t apologise Spencer. This is a fascinating article written with your customary skill and elocution.
I’m afraid the internet is such that there will always be (thankfully a minority) of people feeling threatened or resentful who have little to offer that is constructive. One has to be indifferent to those and remember that many of your readers, including myself, gain much insight and reward from reading your articles. Keep it up please! :)
I agree with you, Sharif.
I thoroughly enjoyed Spencer’s educational, and beautifully illustrated, article.
I am sorry.
No worries, thanks : )
A very interesting article. Thanks!!! Also could you please let me know your thoughts on scaling using low camera angle for landscape to make cloud patterns predominant in the frame and bringing tiny foreground objects?
I’m glad you enjoyed it!
More than the camera angle itself, the best way to change the apparent scale of tiny objects is to change the distance between the camera and the objects. If you are quite close to these objects with a wide-angle lens, they will appear large no matter how much sky you include in the frame.
As always, the best way to test these effects is to practice them in the real-world. It certainly is possible to take interesting photos with small foreground objects against a dramatic sky.
grab a 70-200 kid! you’ll be happier!
It’s on my list : )
These are very helpful, but what is number 4?
Thank you for pointing that out! I have fixed the article. Number four never existed — I just can’t count : )
Sure. And the person makes all the difference. He also hiked… It looks like it’s your dad, but I don’t want to be nosy…
Yep, that was my dad. We were both wandering around and looking for the next marker on the path. We actually had to turn back at this point, since we couldn’t find it!
Well done, Spencer. I only hope to also see more… say, “cheerful“ pics in your next paper. I mean, no doubt you’re very good at the type of photos above, now won’t you show us your skills under clear skies… :-)
Thank you, Jean-Daniel! Indeed, I took most of these photos under quite gloomy conditions : ). Actually, the first photo was probably the worst, even though it doesn’t look like it — I took that one after several hours of hiking uphill through slushy ice/snow, and I was ready to collapse. But it certainly was beautiful.
Interesting, I was not aware of these techniques. Especially the picture with the 105mm lens was unexpected. Thanks!
I’m glad to hear that you found these tips useful!