The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
9. Everything Is Relative
A Sense of Scale
Everything is relative, even size – what one person considers large, another may consider small, and vice versa, depending on the reference figure. As viewers of a photograph, our own background knowledge helps us to evaluate the size of the elements present in a picture. It can be nearly impossible to detect the actual size of an object if a viewer’s subconscious can’t recall any information to help him or her determine the size of an object and the photographer doesn’t supply any point of reference.
It’s possible to employ this effect deliberately. For example, clues about size are often left out of abstract photos where shapes, colors, proportions, and composition are of primary concern. The photo from the Tunisian Sahara on page 80 is an example of this – it appeals mostly because of its graphic elements, and information about the relative sizes of the objects is irrelevant to the impact of the picture.
That’s the exception rather than the rule, though. It’s much more common for a photographer to be on the lookout for something that will convey information about the relative proportions of an image. For example, a photographer might emphasize the vastness of a landscape by including a person who appears tiny within it. This kind of information about proportions supplements and often even constitutes the message of a photo: Look how imposing the glacier’s escarpment on the previous spread looks next to the (relatively) tiny rubber dinghy! Without the raft and the people in it this photo would lose most of its power because there would be no point of comparison to comprehend the massiveness of the ice cliff.
Wind-combed sand dunes at the Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia. It’s not easy to determine the height of these sand formations or the distance between them. | Nikon D70 • 75 mm • 1/200 s • f/6.3 • ISO 200
The hiker in the Venezuelan Andes makes a significant contribution to this photo, developing the feeling of getting lost in the green of the jungle. He serves as a reference for size, a splotch of color, and an eye catcher all at once. | Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 1/125 s • f/5.6 • ISO 1000
Furthermore, the details of this photo convey additional information about its origin (somewhere with such mighty glaciers; in this case, the Antarctic Peninsula), and it inspires associations with coldness, loneliness, wanderlust, respect, and fear. Without the boat and the people, none of this would come about.
For these reasons, it’s a good idea to incorporate clues about the (relative) size of your subjects whenever you feel you should do so to provide additional information. It’s usually not all that difficult to do, since many objects can establish a point of reference as long as viewers have a clear understanding of their approximate size. Photographers very often use people or cars to indicate the size of their main subject; but animals (if the viewer is familiar with their size), paths or roads, buildings or parts of buildings, footprints, and even your finger can also do the trick.
Here the photographer had to serve as a frame of reference. This reed frog in the Okavango Delta in Botswana is hardly larger than my thumbnail. I took this photo during a tour in a dugout canoe. Leica D-LUX 5 • 90 mm • 1/125 s • f/3.3 • ISO 80
Top left: A picture of a waterfall. It’s almost impossible to tell the size of the cascades. Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/160 s • f/6,3 • ISO 200
Bottom left: A storytelling picture of the same waterfall shows that Salto Sapo in Venezuela is so large that people can actually walk behind it. | Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/125 s • f/5.6 • ISO 200
Comparing sizes by playing with perspective: Eastern Greenland is a paradise for geologists and photographers alike. | Nikon D700 • 48 mm • 1/400 s • f/10 • ISO 200