What is Scale?

When you see a photo of a person standing at the base of a gigantic mountain, you're witnessing the effects of scale. The human eye depends on scale to put objects into perspective. Otherwise, it's difficult to tell how large an object is. So what is scale? Below, we've defined this important visual technique and shared a few ways you can convey scale in your photography.  

What is scale?

Everything is relative. If you take a photo of an impressive mountain range, the average viewer probably won't be able to tell how tall the peaks really are. Scale provides a visual frame of reference, so that viewers have something else to compare with the mountains. Many aspiring photographers think that landscapes and cityscapes should be free of distractions, such as people or cars, but these details provide context that improves the overall composition. That's the beauty of scale. 

Showcasing the Third Dimension

Next, we need to remember that photos are two-dimensional, even if our subjects are three-dimensional. Scale is a great way to show dimensionality. For example, a photo of endless sand dunes can be strengthened with a tree or camel in the foreground, so that viewers comprehend the vastness of the landscape. When framing your shot, it's important to choose an object that people recognize, so that they can comprehend the scale. 

Find Obvious Contrast 

In today's hyperconnected world — where the most popular photos are the ones that knock you out with their beauty and intensity — scale is so important. Photographers should frame their shots in dramatic ways, so viewers are left awestruck that this place could actually exist in the world. To amplify scale, you need to find contrast whenever possible. Here are some of the most common elements for achieving scale:

  • People: This is probably the easiest way to show scale, since there's usually a person nearby that can serve as a reference point. While it's not the most original approach, including a person in your photo can be extremely effective, especially when shooting dramatic landscapes.   
  • Nature: If you want to be a bit more creative, try framing shots with a plant or animal in the scene. This is definitely harder than using a person for scale, but if you see wildlife on a backpacking trip, just start snapping away!
  • Man-made Objects: Besides living creatures, you can also convey scale with inanimate objects. Whether you include a cabin in a forest scene, or a string of telephone poles in a vast desert, these man-made objects provide context that you wouldn't have otherwise. When people see a tiny cabin in an endless forest, they can really admire the sense of scale on a visceral level. 
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