How to create a sense of scale with your photography compositions

How to create a sense of scale with your photography compositions

Hanoi railroad by Preben Nilsen

With a few simple tips and tricks you can enhance the vastness of scenery and emphasise the awesome scale of the world around us

Our own eyes are very adept at interpreting scale in the world around us, but when it comes to creating images, conveying that sense of scale can sometimes be more of a challenge. Thankfully there are simple techniques and pointers that can help… 

1 Include a person

When shooting outdoors it can be a challenge to get across the scale of the scene, especially with mountains and high vantage points. The viewer needs a point of reference, something they know to be of a certain size so that it can be compared with the rest of the scene. Including a person in the frame can give you this sense of scale. You’ll often see this trick used in travel photography, and it’s especially appealing if you intend to submit images to stock libraries. By framing up with a person in the image it gives the viewer more of a sense of being there in the flesh, rather than it just being another pretty vista.

Include a figure in your scene, both to give the viewer a sense of scale and a feeling of what it’s like to be there in the flesh. Photo by Killian Jornet - f/5 | ISO 200 | 1/100s

2 Use a wide angle lens

Wide angle lenses allow for a wider field of view, so they let you include more of the scene in the frame. As such they’re an essential piece of kit for any landscape photographer. The wide field of view also exaggerates the perspective, so objects closer to the lens appear larger and more distorted, whereas distant objects seem further away than they appear by the naked eye. You can use this exaggerated perspective to your advantage by framing to include foreground details that are very close to the lens, along with distant elements that draw the viewer’s eye through the scene.

Wide angle lenses let you exaggerate perspective, especially if you frame to include close up details like rocks along with distant scenery. Photo by Marcello Landolfi

3 Wait for the right light

The draw of golden hour isn’t just about soft warm light and vibrant sunsets, it’s also appealing because the low angle of the sun creates a play of light and shade across a scene that can’t be replicated at any other time of day. This mix of highlights and shadows creates a wonderful sense of depth and scale, as it highlights details like the rise and fall of hills, the textures of sand or the shape of a rock formation. The sense of depth helps the viewer to interpret the flat, 2D image as a palpable 3D space.

When the sun is low in the sky objects and scenery are bathed in a combination of light and shade that emphasise the depth, textures and the form of the space. Photo by Wesley Kristopher - f/14 | ISO 100 | 1/10s

4 Use leading lines

Leading lines are natural or man-made formations that run through a composition, like a road, a wall, a river or any other object that forms a discernible line. As well as being a great way to draw the viewer’s eye through the foreground and on towards distant elements, they’re also very effective at creating a sense of scale. Take, for example, a road. If it starts off as a wide road in the foreground then winds off into the distance, this gives us a reference point that helps to highlight the depth and scale of the rest of the scene.

Framing to include leading lines like roads or tracks enhances the sense of scale as they can give the viewer a reference point for other elements in the scene. Photo by Preben Nilsen - f/8 | ISO 100 | 1/25s

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5 Room to breathe

It can be tempting to frame interesting subjects and landmarks so that they fill the frame. But sometimes it can be just as effective to give them room to breathe in your composition. By showing the subject’s surroundings, you may be able to convey a stronger sense of place and a more evocative atmosphere. It’s especially effective if the subject is surrounded by negative space, as this can create a powerful sense of isolation or solitude.

Include negative space around your subject to evoke the atmosphere of vast landscapes. Photo by Lloyd Austin - f/11 | ISO 100 | 175s

6 Go low

We’re used to seeing the world around us at eye level, so you can often create a more unusual sense of scale and perspective by choosing a very low or high camera height. Placing your camera at ground level also serves to bring the floor into your composition, which can add a feeling of depth to the scene that isn’t as apparent at eye level.

A low angle can be more unusual than eye level and gives you a dynamic perspective, especially when coupled with a wide angle lens. Photo by Sven Hartmann - f/8 | ISO 250 | 1/60s

7 Shoot for a panorama

Sometimes it’s impossible to get across the epic scale of a scene in a single frame. By shooting for a panorama, not only can you capture more of the scene, you can also create a vastly more detailed image with 4, 5 times or more resolution. It’s best to shoot panoramas vertically and overlap frames by about 30%. You can stitch panos with ease in many popular photo editors. In Lightroom or Camera Raw, simply highlight the set of images, right-click and Merge to Panorama.

Shoot for a panorama to encompass vast scenes and epic vistas. Photo by Murrindie

8 Play with scale

One of the great things about scale in photography is how, once you have a grasp of focal length, angle of view and perspective, you can get playful with it. One fun technique to try out is forced perspective. With careful framing and positioning of objects in the frame, you can manipulate the rules of scale so that small objects appear larger than life, or vice-versa.

You can play with scale by composing forced perspective scenes. Here the toy car is placed on a platform and positioned to match the perspective of the road beyond.