Photography In The National Parks: Scale, Perspective And Connection
Many – if not most – landscape photographers HATE anything in their images other than Mother Nature’s landscape. Wildlife photographers feel the same way. I too, admit to being a little single-minded regarding landscapes, though not all of the time.
You see, we photographers tend to eschew the inclusion of cars, buildings, and especially people in our images and will go to great lengths to erase (“clone out”) those bothersome items within an otherwise pristine composition. That’s too bad, because sometimes the utilization of something familiar in one’s photo is a great technique for giving the viewer an idea of the sense of scale within a scene. A sense of scale also helps make an impact and builds a connection between viewer and image.
A Sense of Scale
I’ve been reading a number of online blog articles pertaining to adding this sense of scale to an image, and they invariably say the same thing: sometimes a landscape – no matter how stunning – looks a little “sterile” because we gaze at the photo but don’t really comprehend the vastness, depth, immensity (or smallness) of the scene. Why do we not get this? Because we have no reference point. Scale provides us with a familiar reference point whereby our minds can then grasp the totality of the scene’s dimensions.
So, what can we use to give that sense of scale and reference? Cars, people and buildings are great, but they are not the only things a photographer can utilize for scale. You can use anything, really, as long as it’s familiar (key word here: “familiar”): a boat, a coin, a lens cap, even parking lot lines give a sense of scale to a scene.
Parking lot lines??
Sure – you have a pretty good idea about the size of a motorcycle, car, or SUV that can fit between the lines, so you can then compare this estimated quantity against the size of the local wildlife that might be inhabiting the space between said parking lines.
While I am at it, let me write about perspective for a bit.
Perspective refers to the relationship of objects to each other as well as to the whole composition in general. If we were to stand alongside a road while watching a car pass by, that car would become smaller and smaller the further away it gets from us, thus changing our perspective from the full-sized vehicle passing right by us to the little blip on the road a mile away.
Those leading-line images of roads heading off into the distance toward some amazing rock formation or mountain range are another good example of perspective. If we are standing in the middle of an empty road, the painted lines on either side of the road are parallel to us at that particular spot. Further in the distance, those painted lines appear to merge into a single point.
Now, if our sense of perspective changes like that with our own unaided sight, then think of how much more our perspective alters when viewing a scene through a camera to which either a wide-angle or telephoto lens is attached.
Wide-angle lenses exaggerate our perspective of the things we see through the viewfinder. We generally use a wide-angle lens for broad landscapes because it exaggerates the distance of background entities (like a mountain range) to look farther away than they really are, which in turn allows us to include as much of a panoramic scene as possible into the composition. Wide-angle lenses also exaggerate nearby foreground objects by altering the perspective of that foreground body in relation to other items around and behind it. Portrait photographers use this to good effect when they want to make their human subject look larger-than-life against the backdrop.
Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, alter our perspective by compressing a scene to make distant background objects appear closer to the zoomed-in subject than they actually are. Think about the images you have seen of tiny-looking people standing against a frame-filling waterfall, or of mountains looming over the actual subject of the photo. Those background objects are really quite far away, but thanks to the compression factor of the telephoto lens, they don’t look so distant. (FYI, believe it or not, telephoto lenses also make great portrait lenses because of this compression factor).
In reality, both wide-angle and telephoto lenses don’t change the distance between objects or the distance between our eyes and the object; they simply change our perspective. Like scale, a change in perspective has a way of grabbing a viewer’s attention and drawing their focus into the scene.
Now, if you really want to scramble your sense of perspective while having some fun in the process, you can capture a scene much like the humorous images of someone standing with their arms outstretched to “hold” a statue or a distant tree or posing in front of one of the arches in Arches National Park in such a way that it looks like the person is “shouldering” the arch.
This kind of composition is more fun if you have someone else holding the camera and giving you directions on correct body placement. I have yet to successfully accomplish this feat because I travel solo (unless I’ve joined an organized photo tour) and it gets a little complicated using a remote shutter release and going back and forth between camera and pose numerous times trying to get just the right comp.
Creating A Connection
Ok, so where is all of this leading regarding your photography in the parks?
Well, scale and perspective (among other things like lighting and composition) create a connection enabling us to feel something about an image (desire, awe, wonder, humor, compassion, disgust). The end result of photography (in my opinion) is all about connection and emotions. Think about your reactions as you look at the following photo taken in the distance of a group of people standing at the Mather Point view area in Grand Canyon National Park.
These people are tiny against the frame-filling grandiosity of the canyon. If you were to look at this without the people, your sense of scale and perspective would definitely be different.
Of course you would think the photo just as beautiful, but that impact might not be as strong and you might not feel as much - if any - visceral connection to the photo because there is no reference point (aka the people). Then again, you may be looking at this people-less image, thanking me for removing the offending items.
Humor me, though, because I’m trying to make a point.
The next time you go into a park to take a few photographs and connect with nature, keep in mind scale and perspective. Include something for scale or capture the scene from a different perspective (look up, look down, look sideways, get down on your belly and shoot from ground level).
Try using a different lens than you would normally use for a particular scene just to change the perspective. Your audience will connect to your composition and you will re-connect with that particularly awesome scene in the park that you captured.