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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Scale in Your Landscapes: Why It Is Important

If you have already read my book Photography and Affect: A New Theory of Vision, you might remember the part where I talk about the "language" that connects visual cues and affective elements - such as thoughts, feelings, states of mind. I had talked about the way our thoughts and emotions can be "translated" into visual aspects (and hence encoded as a photograph), with the intended viewer later decoding these to form, once again, meaning. To name only three examples: the way you frame your image (e.g. with your horizon tilted or straight), the way you adjust contrast (e.g. high or low), or the way you treat color (e.g. saturated reds and dull greens, or vice-versa), all convey a different message. Learning how to manipulate this language, will allow you to convey your message with better control.

Today we will talk about landscape photography and scale. By scale, we mean visual references that allow the viewer to properly understand how big (or small) the objects of the picture really are. You might be wondering in which way these are related to the paragraph just above. The answer is simple:

In landscape photography, scale allows you to manipulate viewer expectations.

It will be far easier to understand with a photo example. Take a look at the following image:

The vastness of the landscape cannot be properly acknowledged without the presence of the minuscule human figure standing on the ridge. Take a look what happens if I Photoshop it out of the image:

It becomes absolutely impossible to know exactly how large this mountain range really is, or how tall the mountain.
It could be a small hill, or it could be a sublime mountain.
Or...It could be just a pile of sand in the sandbox of the local playground.

Yep, the human figure was actually added with the help of Photoshop, and reduced in size. The reason I deceived you like that was not out of spite, but to show you how easy it can be to manipulate an image with the help of scale.

Generally speaking, we (subconsciously) rely on several factors to estimate scale:
- the presence of humans (or other recognizable animals)
- trees
- buildings
- known landmarks
- the moon (although this depends a bit on other factors, such as focal length used, etc.)

Examine the following photo (no Photoshop tricks this time) and try to think, what kind of emotions does the presence of humans convey?

Try to imagine the photo without humans. There just doesn't seem to inspire as much grandeur and sublimity, does it? The reason is obvious: there is no way to properly visualize exactly how large this geyser truly is.

As a conclusion, I would like to offer a warning/clarification: As with any other affective element in your photography, scale is a tool. You might choose to implement it, or you might choose to deliberately withhold it. Simply know what it is that its implementation (or not) offers your photograph.

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