How to Give Your Subject a Sense of Scale :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Give Your Subject a Sense of Scale

by David Peterson 0 comments

The trouble with photographs is the size we print them at. If you get your prints done at the local pharmacy or from online services like Shutterfly or Snapfish, the chances are pretty good that you order most of them at that old standard size of 4x6. And when you think about it, most of the things that you take photographs of are actually a whole lot bigger than that, with the exception of macro subjects. Even when your subject is an average-sized person, he or she dwarfs that 4x6 image stamped on a two dimensional surface. So what’s a photographer to do to give that tiny little image a real sense of scale?

[ Top image Almost Nothing by Flickr user rhapsodicirony]

The thing is, no matter what you photograph it’s always going to reproduce at pretty much the same size—whatever fits within the boundaries of that 4x6 print, or whatever size it is that you typically prefer to order from the printer. So your daughter will be 4x6, that huge cathedral you shot while on vacation in the UK will be 4x6, and the giraffe at the local zoo will be 4x6. The trick is to get your viewer to think not in terms of how big that photo is in real life, but how big the subject was in real life.

Previous familiarity

This is a term used to describe one of the ways that human beings process information about the size and scale of a scene, whether we are standing within it or viewing it in a photograph. Our eyes use previous familiarity to judge distance, which basically just means that we use what we know about the size of objects in order to judge the distance between them. For example, if we’re on a hiking trail and are wondering how far away that mountain range is, we can compare the size of one of our traveling companions to the size of the mountain, and use that information to get a pretty good idea about how distant the mountains are. Now, most of the time this happens sort of subconsciously and except for those of us who live and breathe wilderness exploration, we typically don’t get our answer in miles or kilometers. But for the most part, we can tell whether that mountain is a great distance away or within walking distance.

We can use this same general concept in our photographs to help our viewers understand the size and scale of a scene or an object within that scene. For example, when you’re photographing that cathedral in the UK, and you simply fill up the frame with nothing but cathedral, the average person isn’t going to know if that’s a huge cathedral, a relatively small cathedral or a model of a cathedral. But if you place one of your traveling companions in front of it, now you have a very good idea about how big it is, because you can compare what you know about the size of the average person to the size of the cathedral, and you’ll end up with some educated knowledge about the scale of the building.

This can work for really any scene where the subject(s) are objects that aren’t necessarily always the same size. A redwood forest, for example, is a place where the trees are so massive that you really can’t fathom it just based on someone’s verbal description. You’ve almost certainly visited other pine forests, and can picture the size of the average tree in your head, so it’s really hard to imagine trees that are many times larger than what you’ve experienced first hand.

But if you add the figure of a person to a photograph of those giant trees, then you are giving your viewer a frame of reference she can use when making a determination about the scale of the scene. This is similar to the “put something in the foreground” technique that landscape photographers use to give their photos a sense of three dimensions, but in this technique the goal is to dwarf the human subject so that the object he or she is standing next to looks enormous by comparison. To do this, you need to position the subject at somewhat of a distance from the camera, so that he or she appears smaller in the frame compared to the object in question. Compare these two images to see what I mean:

This is the same forest (Sequoia National Park), but in which photo do you get a real sense of how big these trees actually are? Until you see them in comparison to a human being, it’s really difficult to make that assessment.

You can use other objects too, not just humans—other animals are an obvious option, or you could use subjects that are less definite in size. Boulders, bushes, flowers, etc. are all objects that we have a pretty good understanding of, although there is more variation between the sizes of individuals than there typically is amongst humans and animals.

Negative space

A similar idea is to include a lot of in a scene. Have you ever seen that classic image of a lone tree standing out on the prairie, with nothing but big blue sky all around it? Perhaps nothing is more vast than the sky—we can’t see the end of it, after all, and it’s a very long way above us. If you include a lot of sky in an image you can make your subject appear diminutive, which will make the rest of the scene look vast. Do take care when you use the sky as your negative space, however, because if you don’t have a lot of rich color or texture there, it can actually make your scene look dull.


Another way you can add a sense of scale to your subject is with camera angle. If you stand at the base of a tall tree and shoot it from below, looking up towards the sky, you're going to capture a photograph of a tree that looks massive and powerful. You can use the same technique with buildings or even with other people—whenever you’d like to exaggerate the size of something. Any time you are standing below something looking up, it's going to look imposing, possibly even more imposing than it actually is in real life.

Remember that you will typically get some distortion when you do this—for example, those perfectly straight walls and that perfectly straight spire on that cathedral will look as if they are slanting towards the center of the frame. This can actually help add to that sense of a large, looming object, because what you're doing is creating a partial vanishing point. Vanishing points are something that all human beings subconsciously understand represent distance. When two parallel lines appear to converge as they approach the horizon, we instinctively understand that this means they are traveling a great distance. When this happens to the vertical lines of an object when we’re standing at the base of it looking towards the top, we understand the same thing about it.

Your lens

The lens you choose can also do a lot for how big your scene will ultimately appear. This is why most landscape photographers will choose a wide-angle lens. The wide-angle lens not only captures a broader field of view, it also exaggerates the distance between objects. So while two trees may look very close to one another when shot with a telephoto lens, when you shoot the same set of trees from the same vantage point with a wide angle lens, you will get an image that appears larger in scale than the first one does—the trees will appear to be further apart, which will make it seem as if there’s more distance overall in the scene. This can be a very powerful way to suggest a sense of scale in almost any image.

Another thing you can do to suggest scale is to actually cut an object off before it reaches the edge of the frame. If you do this with a very large building, for example, you're suggesting to your viewer that the building was so big that it could not be contained within a single frame. You can apply this same idea to any large subject—the ear and eye of an elephant may say more about its size than a photograph of the elephant as a whole. And the same technique can also make a forest look vast—simply point the camera at a row of trees and make sure they fill up the entire frame. By excluding the actual edge of the forest, you are giving your viewer a sense that those trees go on for along way, past the edge of the frame and possibly forever.


Photographers have to be kind of tricky when it comes to this stuff—we’re working with a two dimensional medium, so we have to rely on illusions and perspectives to help communicate to our viewers how big a scene or subject actually is. It’s easy once you know what the tricks are and how to effectively apply them, but make sure that you don’t neglect them. Whenever you are about to photograph something huge, ask yourself, “What do I need to do to communicate the size of this thing to my viewer?” Chances are one of these techniques is going to be a good fit.

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