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Scale in landscapes

How big is that hoodoo?


How big is that hoodoo?
How big is that hoodoo?

Occasionally, you will make a landscape image that does not have any recognizable features in terms of size, and viewers of your picture will wonder just how big or small the objects in the scene are. Sometimes that is desirable, when you might purposefully shoot a scene that has no clues about the size of elements in the picture.

But, when you want there to be no mistake as to just how big or small something is, you need to ensure there is another element of known size in the picture, too - something that is immediately recognizable by most everyone.

We have all seen photographs of a tiny object alongside a ruler or a coin, placed there for comparison to illustrate the object's actual dimensions. Well, that is what you must do when your landscape scene needs to have its scale evident, but obviously not with a ruler or coin for a landscape scene. Just about any object of known size that looks to be a natural part of the scene will do - trees, people or animals, for example. The key word is "natural." The object must look as if it belongs in the scene.


The picture above of a hoodoo provides no clue as to whether it is a foot tall or a hundred feet tall, yet there is no question of the size of the hoodoos on the right that were photographed with a person alongside. Without that person in the image, close to the hoodoos, your eyes would probably be fooled into thinking that they were much larger. This, of course, also tells you that by removing the person from the scene before you take the photo, you could purposefully lead the picture's viewers to have the impression of greater size. This would be important if you wished to provide a sense of grandeur.

Aside from the importance of showing scale in your landscapes, we'd like to draw your attention to the light in both these pictures. Notice that it is coming from the side. That is not accidental. Side lighting is effective at causing a number of objects to stand out from one another, and from the background. It also brings out texture and form (three-dimensionality) in landscapes, particularly hoodoo landscapes. (There's a tip out of place for you.)

It is important to note that, other than to demonstrate scale, the placement of the person in this particular scene does not really do anything beneficial for it as a landscape. It actually change's the picture's emphasis, making the person the center of interest, which is not the objective of a good landscape photograph. It says, "Look, here I am with these unusual geological forms." But, if the landscape showed the face of a mountain that had climbers or mountain goats in it, they would achieve the dual purpose of showing scale and of "belonging" naturally in the scene.

So that's how big they are!
So that's how big they are!

 Sometimes, scale is a matter of viewpoint. We see the people, but can't tell how big the cliff is.
Sometimes, scale is a matter of viewpoint. We see the people, but can't tell how big the cliff is.

A wide-angle lens reveals its immensity, and the people now provide scale.
A wide-angle lens reveals its immensity, and the people now provide scale.

Everyone knows how big a cowboy hat is, or so we think. Pictures can be deceptive. The model's fingers show the true scale of the miniature hat. Be sure to include an object of recognizable size when your picture needs something to illustrate its scale.
Everyone knows how big a cowboy hat is, or so we think. Pictures can be deceptive. The model's fingers show the true scale of the miniature hat. Be sure to include an object of recognizable size when your picture needs something to illustrate its scale.

Related topics...

Foreground

Relative sizes of objects in a composition