Landscape Compositional Tool #3:

Scale Elements

Scale elements are items in a landscape photograph that show the scale of another item, usually showing how large something is. Scale elements should be items that someone viewing the photo will immediately know its size to infer the scale of another section of the photo. There are lots of things that can be used as a scale element, as long as it is easily recognizable to a viewer and it appropriately shows the scale of other elements in the photograph. This compositional tool is an important tool in your landscape photography toolbox!

People work really well as a scale element because it is really easy to give a sense of scale using a person. Everyone knows the size of an average person, so it provides an excellent item for comparison. In the photo below, my wife Ashley stands among the Redwoods in Northern California. She is an average sized person, but she is dwarfed by the enormous size of the trees all around her. By including a person, it allows the viewer to appreciate the size of other elements in the photograph.

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Besides people, other items can be used as scale elements, and with creativity, lots of things could work. In the photo below from Malta, the boat in the foreground is the main subject, but the wall in the background doesn’t look very big until you compare it with the size of the boats at the base of the wall near the tunnel opening. By including the boats, it allows the viewer to understand the immense size of the rock wall in the background.

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Looking at Morning Glory thermal pool in Yellowstone National Park below, without the trees or deck as part of this picture, it would be tough to determine the size of the pool. The deck and trees provide some context for the viewer to figure out just how big the Morning Glory pool really is.

May 5, 2021

The Siq in Petra, Jordan is a canyon that leads to a building carved into the rocks known as the Petra Treasury, shown below. Both the Siq and the Treasury are enormous rock walls, which is hard to show in a photograph. Incorporating the camel in the photo helps to show the immense scale of the rock walls of the canyon and the Treasury.

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The camel in the photo above looks tiny because of how large the rock wall faces rise above the ground. Using it as a scale element really adds interest to the photo, because it shows the enormous size of the rock walls.

As a photographer, it is easy to be on location and be amazed by the scale of the scene in front of you, but sometimes it is difficult to convey that scale to viewers. Since you were on location and able to experience the full scene, you have the scale and size of the location in your mind. Translating that to viewers through a two-dimensional photograph can be difficult. The picture below is from an ice cave in Iceland. The patterns in the ice are beautiful, but it is hard to judge the size of this cave. Including a scale element would really help the viewer gauge the size of this ice cave and add more interest to the photo.

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As a final example of using scale elements, the scene in the image below is Mammoth Mountain in California. If you look closely, you can see the ski lifts and buildings on top of the mountain that shows the impressive size of this mountain. It allows the viewer to appreciate the scale of the mountain and gives more interest to the photograph.

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Including scale elements as a compositional tool can show viewers the impressive size of a subject to add more interest to a photo. It allows viewers to put themselves in the scene and appreciate the photograph more than if the scale element was not included. To really show off the size of a large item, include a scale element of a known size to everyone. For more landscape photography compositional tools, check out this article!

How have you used scale elements in your landscape photos? Let me know in the comments below!

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