Photography is a world of wonders. Whether you are trying to capture the majesty of mother nature or the cheerfulness of a group of playing children, there are rules and tricks of the trade in order to make every photo perfect. One of those tricks is adding a sense of scale in photography.

What is scale, and why does scale in photography matter? Scale refers to comparative size. The scale helps our minds understand the size of an object when shown next to something of a radically different size in the same picture. Photos need scale to achieve that three-dimensional look on a two-dimensional object.

Now the question is, how do you achieve that? Here’s what you need to know about scale in photography.

Understanding Scale in Photography

Have you ever seen something so extraordinary that you just had to snap a photo of it only to realize it is much harder than you first thought to convey in a two-dimensional photo of what your eyes and mind can see in three dimensions? Like, for example, if you take a picture of a marble on a white background, it may look like a marble, or it might look like a bowling ball.

Why Is it Important?

When you are trying to convey what your eyes see onto a piece of paper, you have to take into consideration the dimensions of the object you are capturing and find a way to show those dimensions. One way to do this is by providing a sense of scale.

A sense of scale is when you use elements people know to help them understand the size and distance of an object. Sometimes it can even be used to establish a sense of the importance of the subject you are capturing.

You’ve likely seen less sophisticated methods of this when someone sets a penny beside a small object to photograph it for sale online.

Why Is Scale Difficult in Photographs?

Sometimes, when we are trying to take the perfect picture, our minds can get in the way. It’s your own point of view and the subject of your photos that you need to consider. For example, you might want to take a picture of a landscape, so you shoo away any people that could ruin the shot. What a lot of photographers don’t see is that those people can give your photo a sense of scale and bring it to another level. This was surprisingly difficult for me to grasp at first. I'm sure some of you can relate.

If someone sees a photo of a colorful sunset against the ocean they think, “Wow, that’s nice.” If someone sees a photo of a colorful sunset as the backdrop of a picnic set up on a beach, they’ll be much more appreciative of the expansiveness of the sky and the ocean against the picnic area. A sense of scale may be difficult to picture in your own eyes, but once you use this technique on a camera, you will be able to see scale through new eyes.

The difficult part of scale photography is deciding what subject to use when you are trying to convey the size of something. Whether you want to make it look larger or smaller all depends on the subject you use. To take it further, the placement of your subject and the angle at which you photograph the subject against the scenery could have a major impact on the result of the photo.

Scale photography is hard because there is so much thought, planning, and technique put into one single shot. If you forget one small thing or you are off by even an inch, it could change the entire perspective of the image you are trying to portray. Any familiar object or subject will do to help give a sense of scale, but much more thought goes into scale photography than just deciding what to compare the scene too.

The Tools of Photography

To put it simply, the sense of scale you capture often changes with the type of camera lens you use. A few of these are:

  • standard lens: this lens shows the truest sense of scale because when you use zoom, it offers a clear and accurate interpretation of scale.
  • telephoto lens: the longer lens makes getting a sense of scale more difficult unless you are far away and have a reference point in the photo. Using this lens too close to a subject can make them seem larger than they are.
  • wide lens: this lens can distort the sense of scale if you are too close to the subject. The wider the lens, the more distorted it gets. The wide lens is good to use when you are reversing the scale of an image. An example of this is making a person look big enough to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Playing with Negative Space

Negative space is the area around the subject of a photo that looks empty. You can sometimes hear this referred to as white space or dead space, but it’s all the same. An example of negative space is something such as the sky that surrounds a lone tree, or the blurred forest as a background to a single flower.

Using a large portion of negative space helps your reference point stand out and catch the eyes. This technique ensures you don’t have too much going on in one photo. It helps keep your photos from looking cluttered or confusing as to what the subject point is. In order to keep this from happening, you will need to balance out the negative space and the positive space, creating a natural balance.

To better understand how to use negative space, you have to bring yourself to only see the gaps and emptiness between objects. You will see the composition, shapes, and sizes without getting distracted by everything else surrounding them.

When you take your photo, you want to be abundant with the amount of negative space you leave in. If you see something else you want to cram in the photo, resist the urge and take a separate picture after the one you’re working on.

Lines and Diminishing Perspective in Scale Photography

Parallel lines are a good technique to capture scale in your photo. The lines never meet at the end, depicting a sense of vastness. It’s the same idea as a long road leading to nowhere. To add a sense of scale to a photo with parallel lines, be sure to add a reference point at the end of the lines. This will give your photo a vanishing point and in turn, a sense of scale.

The same idea goes for a diminishing perspective of scale. The further something gets, the smaller it gets, and eventually, it disappears. As our minds make sense of the same objects getting smaller and smaller, it gives us a sense of distance in the picture.

Diminishing perspective can give a photo a sense of depth. For example, a line of the same type of trees on the side of a road. The trees diminish in size as they get further away from you, giving your photo a sense of scale.

Using Composition

Using composition to get a sense of scale can sometimes be difficult, or in some cases impossible without a reference point. A good example of this is a landscape photo taken with a wide lens, with a lot of skylines and very little ground. It shows a good sense of scale when comparing the sky to the landscape.

Layering your photos can also get you a good sense of scale. This is simply using multiple photos with an identical backdrop in order to gain a sense of depth. Once you have your photos, you simply combine them into one photo via Photoshop.

When using this technique, you’ll have to be very careful about subject positioning and lighting, because if you get them wrong in any of the photos, you will have to either change the theme of your photo or retake the wonky picture. Making sure your angles are correct and taking the photo at a lower angle can ensure your subjects appear to be in the same depth-of-field.

How Focal Length Affects Scale

Like I mentioned before, the different lenses you use could affect the scale. Each lens has a different effect. For example, a wide lens doesn’t only capture much more of the landscape, but it makes it look bigger than it is. It gives the photos a very expensive and professional feel.

On the other hand, a wide-angle lens makes the background of a reference point look smaller than it is. This helps your subject stand out in the photo without compromising anything else. This lens would be good for a photo with a subject standing in front of a large crowd.

The best lens for large landscape photos that are far away would be a telephoto lens. It can capture the full scale of the photo and give your subject a dramatic feel. Using this lens does have a drawback though. Because you are focusing on something so far away, you will lose the three-dimensional aspect of the photo, but you will have a sense of distance.

The Viewers Familiarity

Previous familiarity is a term used to explain one of the ways mankind processes information, especially when it comes to the size and scale of the photo you took. When we look at something, we use our previous familiarity with the subject to gauge the distance. This can be said for things we see in photos or in our day to day life. When we walk down the street, we judge how far away we are from the bus stop or the door to the store we are visiting.

Using our familiarity with objects or subjects is a good way to give our photos a sense of scale. We understand that a person has to stand at a certain height. So, when we stand them next to a massive sand dune and snap a picture of it, we can scale just how huge the sand dune is. Without that person standing there, it would’ve been impossible to capture a sense of scale.

This is the easiest way to gain a sense of scale in a photo. Using something everyone is familiar with, can help people gain a sense of size and distance in the photo. It takes a photo from two-dimension to three-dimension just like that. Keep in mind that when you are using a subject to show the size of something, you will need to stand at a distance to capture the full scale of the photo.

The Scale of Panoramic Photos

The panoramic technique is meant to cover the entire scale of a scene. The point of this technique is to capture a scene that doesn’t fit into a lens frame. In some cases, the panoramic technique is the only way to convey the scenery’s vastness without losing any composition.

One way to do this is by stitching multiple photos of the same scene together. The best results are usually long rectangular photos with a single viewpoint. You could use a standard lens without any filters and your camera set in the RAW setting. One important tip a lot of people forget about is turning off the autofocus. In doing so you will ensure your camera won’t autofocus on something new as you pan across a scene.

When taking the photos, working is a vertical format is the best way to go because you will be able to put more photos into the end result. Adding some extra negative space around the edges will help as well when you are putting the photos together. Speaking of added edges, when you take a photo of the foreground, you want to be sure you don’t capture anything close to you. This will cause you camera lens to shift, and it will show in the photos.

The technique in which you take the photos depends on your comfortability. You can take a panoramic photo by hand or by using a tripod. It is completely up to you. Just be sure that if you do it by hand, you keep the camera level. Any movement in the level of the camera will show in the photos and you won’t be able to fix it.

The Construction of a Panoramic Shot with Scale

When you take the series of photos you want, overlapping about half of the frame will allow your computer to detect where the photos go when you are stitching them together.

Now that you have all of your photos, you can head home and put them together. You want to be sure the White Balance is the same in all of the photos. This is an easy fix by just ensuring the numbers match up. Now it’s time to put the photos together.

You should have some sort of software, like Photoshop, to be able to do this. All you need to do is select all of the photos you want to include in the panoramic shot and then decide whether to set it as Spherical, Cylindrical, or Perspective. It should show you a preview of each. Once you make all of your decisions, you click merge and you have your new panoramic photo.

The last step is simply cleaning up the edges of the photo with your crop tool and you can save it to your computer. This is the best way to capture a scene that is too large to be captured in one photo. It takes practice and diligence to remember all of the tricks, but once you have it down it’s well worth the effort.

The Results from Scale Photography Pay Off

Scale photography isn’t for everyone, but it is a skill that can easily be learned and will positively impact your photography. Different techniques can show a sense of scale in any photo and can make them come out to look almost as impressive as what we see in real life. With a bit of practice, it will be second nature and you won’t even have to think of all the tricks to use in order to get a good sense of scale.

A sense of scale will give even the blandest of scenery a look of drama and the exaggeration it needs to bring it to life. By adding a few extra steps to taking a photo, you will gain an entirely new look on the world through the lens of your camera. This could be images of landscapes while you travel, a ladybug on a leaf in your backyard, or a little kid popping bubbles at the park. It will give you a new perspective on how you see the world.

Adding a sense of scale to your photography will not only improve your photos, but it will also give your audience something that they can relate to, and it can help you see the world in a new light. After some practice, you won’t even need a lens to see the potential scale of an image. You will be able to see it through your mind’s eye and recreate it through your camera for others to enjoy. It will give you a new appreciation for what you see on a daily basis.