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On Landscape: A Sense Of Scale

Be versatile, and you can build perspective into your landscape images

On Landscape: A Sense Of Scale

One key compositional technique in landscape photography is the use of scale. By including foreground subjects such as rocks or trees or flowers in front of mountains, for example, the photographer can convey depth in the scene, giving a stronger sense of the locale and of “being there.” In many uses for photographs, such as editorial use, it’s important to clearly describe the subject. Objects of known size give us clues as to the scale and depth.

A sense of scale in an image can be affected in several ways. One way re-lates to how we arrange objects with-in the frame, such as the foreground/background example above. Another method of conveying scale is the choice of lens. If you use a telephoto lens to photograph a range of mountains, they look taller. Put on a wide-angle lens for the same scene, and the mountains shrink in scale.

On Landscape: A Sense Of ScaleIn photograph #1 shown here, a lone pine tree is used as a compositional element in the foreground to balance with Half Dome in the background. Its position on the edge of a cliff gives a sense of the precarious locale. Clouds fill the river canyon below, out of which Half Dome rises beyond. The tree and granite edge of the foreground cliff provide a sense of scale and depth to the photograph.The foreground elements are important to its success.

Contrasting large and small objects is still another technique to convey scale. An example of this might be placing a small sapling tree next to a full-sized giant sequoia as shown in image #2. Even without showing the whole larger tree, the massive difference in size is implied. When composing elements within the camera frame, keep in mind the idea of contrasting these elements so that the difference is clear without too many distractions.




On Landscape: A Sense Of ScaleWhen the description of the subject isn’t important, but rather creative interpretation is the primary goal, the need for scale is less important. Done skillfully, a lack of scale can create an intense sense of wonder and mystery. I prefer to make this type of image, and this is almost always my primary focus when I’m out in the field. However, like many pro nature photographers, I photograph a wide range of subjects. There’s a delicate balance between creating images with a distinctive style and being pragmatic enough to make more descriptive images that build up my stock library and provide a source of income. The bottom line is that it helps to be versatile!

Photograph #3 shown here is of a cliff face in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona. The image was purposefully composed without a clear reference to scale. Below the bottom edge of the frame is the ground. Had I included any foreground elements, these clues would take away the abstract aspect of the image where we wonder as to the size and subject matter. However, I did include a petroglyph in the lower left of the frame. While it’s probably not visible on the scale of this reproduction, if one is viewing an original photograph, the petroglyph is a subtle discovery that gives a small hint as to scale. I like the ambiguity of this composition, and it has long been a key image in my fine-art portfolio.

Remember to think about the use of scale in your landscape images on your next trip into the field. Experiment by including interesting foreground elements or contrasting large and small objects, as well as by removing content that suggests scale. Try all the ideas and variations that come to mind! The thrill of creating photographs, at least for me, is when a landscape, with all its aspects, such as light and graphic elements, becomes a work of art when translated through the photographer’s imagination.




William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.