Add objects to your photographs for scale

by Nick Kelsh

posted Wednesday, March 11, 2015 at 1:25 PM EDT

You don’t have to go crazy trying to put something for scale in every picture you shoot. The lizard in this incredible photo by Leah Marie was probably just as well left alone.

Some photographs need an object in the picture to give it scale. The size of your subject may be obvious to you when you’re there taking the picture, but may be confusing to your viewer. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself if you need to include an object that will help end the confusion.

Photographs of the Grand Canyon just don’t do justice to its size; you have to be there to really get it. One of those incredible extreme close-ups of a fly’s head tells us a lot about a fly but it doesn’t tell us how really small a fly is; personal experience with insects tells us that but the photograph doesn’t.

Sir Tyrone Guthrie’s face is thirty feet tall, but you’d never know it without the woman in the picture for scale. It’s obvious now, but when you’re there in front of that monster photograph, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and forget that you’re viewer is going to need something else in the photograph to tell them just how big it is.

Let’s face it, if you really want to shoot a photograph that shows how tall the Washington Monument is you’re probably going to have to do something like park your car next to it for scale and stand back so you can see a big tall pointy thing next to a little tiny car. (On second thought, that’s a very bad idea. The National Mall Police will be all over you for that.)

Scale, or lack of it, is why Hollywood can build a five-foot long long model of the Titanic and you assume it’s five-hundred feet; after all, you KNOW how long a ship is. Take away something that adds scale to a picture and you can fool people or confuse them. Add something for scale and you may really impress them.

If I had been smart enough to photograph these three-foot tall Japanese Bonsai trees with human hands trimming them, I would have had a dramatic story telling picture.

There’s a whole world between canyons and insect anatomy that may need some help if you want to help people enjoy—and understand—your pictures. That gigantic pumpkin you bought for Halloween is going to need something else in the picture if you want people to know you got your thirty dollars worth.

This picture tells the story, but not very dramatically. Now that we see the trees next to a man and a table they almost start to look like a bouquet—what fun is that? This picture fails to show just how much they look like REAL TREES.

A toy truck needs someone holding it if we’re going to see it’s three feet long. That little tiny diamond your soon-to-be son-in-law gave your daughter could probably use a dime in the picture next to it when you photograph it for the annulment proceedings, if the judge is really going to appreciate it.

Kidding! I’m sure it’s a lovely diamond.