Editing basics: Giving a sense of place using scale

I realize that with my first post on editing basics I might have in fact gone a little too advanced. There are a few things going on in that image that I totally glossed over without mention, the most noticeable one being the use of scale.

One of the things people find difficult when photographing the great outdoors is conveying the sense of place in their images. “Sense of place” can be a bit squishy, but the essence of it is: what does it actually feel like to be there?

For example, I think this image gives a clear sense of “cold”, even though it was not really that cold at all at the time (about freezing). However, pictures of Antarctica are supposed to read as “cold” – it helps make the scene seem real and is more transporting than an image that is less evocative.

Brr, cold!

Part of it has to do with all the brash ice that the ship has cut a path through, part of it has to do with the fact that all the ice has a definitive blue cast, which reads as “cold” (the same way a sunset of yellows and oranges reads as “warm”).

Other things that help give an image a sense of place is scale. Using people is a great way to do this, but its important to understand a few things: plopping a person in front of something does not in itself convey scale. Using our innate understanding of the basic “person size” does. So don’t worry about having to make your traveling companion get into all your pictures, use the people who are already there:

Image on the left: random people. On the right: people giving scale

Image on the left: random people. On the right: people giving scale

Making people small and the landscape (or the building) large makes it really easy for people to understand what it’s like to be there. By the same token, to show how small and intimate a scene is, the subject should take up a good portion of the image, with just a bit of scene around it to give context, like you see below:

Large cat in a small cemetery

Large cat in a small cemetery

Or like this — the addition of the house makes the volcano look massive and imposing. Without that house you simply have no way of really getting that.

Iceland. Eyjafjallajokull.

Tiny house, big volcano

When you want to convey the scope of something, that is the time to bring out the really wide angle lens. But be careful — a 10-36 mm super wide angle also has the effect of “pushing” everything away from the viewer, and the elements that you think are anchoring the scene may be rendered too small to function that way, like here:

Whoops, everything is waaaay over there

Whoops, everything is waaaay over there

Done correctly though, a wide angle lens can make a landscape seem larger and more grand than it appears to the naked eye:

Black sand that goes on forever

Black sand that goes on forever


By the same token, if you want to accentuate how tall something is, shoot it vertically but make sure that there is something in the frame to give that height come context. Shout-out to hikers who wear brightly colored rain jackets, it really helps make them pop:

Iceland. Skogafoss.

Tiny hikers, big waterfall

So that hopefully helps explain some of what was going on in that image… play around with it. I think sometimes I go a bit overboard with the “tiny people big landscape” theme — at least I did in Iceland. At the time however it seemed like the only way to convey the vast emptiness and open spaces of it.