Above photo by Jamie Rubeis
Have you ever photographed something or somewhere really large and majestic and the resulting photo just fell flat?
Maybe you went on vacation to the Grand Canyon or to Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower (If so, I’m jealous!) and the photos just didn’t convey how big and majestic those places are. Something was missing, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.
That something is scale.
What is scale?
Scale is the size of one object relative to another. In photography we have a huge impact on the way we represent the scale of a place or object by the way we photograph it. Great photos are less about chance and more about knowing how to use the tools at your disposal to make the photo you want to create become reality.
Photography is kind of like baking in that way. You have to know the recipe to make a cake come out the way you want it to. Varying ingredients or cook times slightly can leave you with entirely different outcomes. So it is with scale; where you stand and what lens you use can have a big impact on your image.
Why is scale important?
Scale is one of the most powerful ways to add drama and interest to a photo. Not knowing how to accurately represent the scale of a place can leave us as photographers frustrated that our images don’t represent what we saw and felt when we clicked the shutter. Good use of scale in a photograph can make the viewer ponder the size of the world and how small they are in comparison. Scale can make us marvel.
How can we display scale better?
1. Use Reference Objects
Have you ever seen an ad on Craigslist or Ebay where the seller photographed a quarter next to the item for sale to show how big or small it is? The quarter in this example is a reference object. Using something that is of a known approximate size to most people gives the viewer cues about the size of your subject.
People are great reference objects. Search the hashtag #tinypeopleinbigplaces on Instagram and you will see tons of examples where photographers have used the known size of the human body to highlight how grand or expansive the surrounding landscapes are.
You don’t have to be shooting sand dunes or cliffs to employ scale using a reference object. I use them all the time in newborn photography. One of the major purposes of newborn photography is to capture how small a new baby is, because they won’t stay that way for long. You can tell by looking at a photo of a baby alone that they have little features, but you don’t get the full message about how tiny they actually are. Luckily the perfect reference object is usually nearby – mom and dad!
People are not the only reference objects. You can also use trees, buildings, anything that is of a relatively known size to most people.
2. Use Perspective
Perspective is how things seem from the angle or distance from which you view them. It plays a big part in portraying scale. If you photograph a person from below it will make them seem taller and more imposing.
If you photograph them from above it makes them seem shorter and smaller. The same goes for near and far. The closer your subject is to the camera, the bigger they will seem compared to their surroundings.
3. Use the Right Lens
The lens you choose has a massive impact on your perspective, and you need to understand how different focal lengths work to portray scale. In the following images, my subject (my three year old son Jake) did not move and is standing in the exact same spot in front of the Parthenon in Nashville.
Standard Focal length lenses:
These lenses see the world closest to the way your eye sees it. Usually this is considered about 50mm on a full frame camera or 35mm on a crop sensor. Using a standard focal length will not dramatically make the foreground or background seem any bigger or smaller than you see it in real life.
Wide angle lenses:
These lenses expand the depth of the scene and exaggerate perspective by making objects in the foreground seem larger and objects in the background seem smaller and farther away.
We already know that shooting our perspective from below will make our subject seem tall and imposing. The characteristics of a wide-angle lens will make subjects shot from below seem even taller and more imposing.
These lenses compress the depth of the scene and will make objects in the foreground seem smaller and farther away and objects in the background seem closer and larger.
4. Use Composition
Composition can also represent scale when used purposefully. Leading lines can be used to show the depth of a scene and negative space is a great way to make something seem small.
In the above image, the sky is negative space that makes the earth below seem small in comparison. This photo also utilizes the rule of thirds and uses the family as reference objects to show how expansive the landscape is.