You might find that sometimes you take pictures of grand, scenic landscapes only to have viewers not react to the picture the way you had hoped. You present them with a well composed, properly exposed photo of a dramatic scene, but the viewers quickly pass it by. Why is this happening with your landscape photos?
One reason might be that the viewer cannot get a sense of the scale of the scene. They cannot tell if they are looking at something really big, or just something that looks big in a picture. Viewers are used to being tricked by the camera, such that small things look huge.
Remember that a picture is just a two-dimensional representation of a scene and it is hard for the viewer to put things in the right context. You only have a split second to do so, or the viewer has likely moved on to other things.
Using items to add a sense of scale
It can be tricky to relay a sense of proper perspective in your photographs. For example, you might have a photo of some cliffs, but it might not be clear to the viewer whether these cliffs were 7 feet tall or 700 feet tall.
It happens to me all the time, and my hard drive is littered with photos of large cliffs and mountains that did not translate into compelling photographs because there is no sense of scale. In the example below, however, I think you get a sense of the height of these cliffs. How?
I think it is because of the castle in the middle of the picture. It is just a tiny item, but your eye picks up on it and uses it to put the rest of the picture into context.
It is probably not something you really think about, but it happens nonetheless. You know that castles are fairly tall, and you subconsciously use that knowledge to add a sense of scale to the entire picture.
Finding items to use to add a sense of scale
The same dynamic works in other contexts. Your picture doesn’t need to be dramatic cliffs like the one above. It can be any landscape or coastal scene.
Look for things that your viewer knows. Those items give them something to use to add a sense of scale to the picture. It can be anything. Sometimes the item you use is the actual subject of the picture. For example, in this picture below, the lighthouse provides an actual subject or center of interest for the picture.
In addition to providing a point to the picture, the lighthouse is also providing your viewer with a sense of scale. It makes the viewer’s mind more comfortable with the entire image. The viewer has a better idea of what they are looking at, and the relative size of all the elements.
Small things provide scale too
You don’t have to use a large structure like a lighthouse to provide this sense of scale though. You can also include small things that just give your viewer a little clue. In the case of landscapes, perhaps a bird or birds in the distance will help. In fact, animals of any kind often work. In the picture below, the herd of cows provides context for the picture.
When there is nothing else available, just use trees. We have a sense of the general height of trees and our mind will use that to provide context to the photo. Of course, there are trees everywhere (you almost cannot avoid them) so that should be easy to do.
Keep the people in your pictures
The final item I want to mention is the one that you may struggle with, and that is adding people to your pictures. This is an incredibly powerful tool. We, humans, are amazingly adept at recognizing people in a picture and we will use that to provide context to the entire scene.
Therefore, there is no more powerful way to add a sense of scale than by including people to your pictures. Your viewer will see those people in the pictures and naturally use them to gain a sense of scale.
To do this, you will have to reverse your thinking in a lot of ways, particularly if you are a landscape photographer. You probably spend a lot of time trying to avoid having people in your pictures.
You probably ask the people you are with to step out of your frame. Or you might spend a lot of time standing around waiting for people to move. In many cases, you will still want to do that, but sometimes – to add this sense of scale – you might want to include those people in your image.
There is no magic bullet to creating a sense of scale in your images. It is something I get asked about from time to time, and I do not have a quick answer. The good news is that just thinking about it puts you ahead of the curve.
So next time you are out shooting, look around and find things that will work for you. Use them to add that sense of scale. Hopefully, the ideas in this article will provide you with some things you can use for your images.