Elements of a Photograph: Size

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There are seven basic elements of photographic art: line, shape, form, texture, color, size, and depth. As a photographic artist, your knowledge and awareness of these different elements can be vital to the success of your composition and help convey the meaning of your photograph.

Size, the most elusive of these, is the topic of this sixth part of our Elements of a Photograph series.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Tugboats and 8 x 8' containers give a sense of scale or size to this large container ship.
Tugboats and 8 x 8' containers give a sense of scale or size to this large container ship.

Definition:

The Merriam-Webster definition of “size” that we, as photographic artists, are concerned about is:

1 a : physical magnitude, extent, or bulk : relative or proportionate dimensions

Many are familiar with the size of most lighthouses. That helps give scale to the crashing waves here.
Many are familiar with the size of most lighthouses. That helps give scale to the crashing waves here.

Characteristics of Size

In the world of two-dimensional art such as drawing and painting, “space” is an art element. In photography, the space is already rendered before the camera, so we look at how both size and depth are reproduced, created, and recognized in the photograph.

Size in a photograph is relative and can be an illusion.

When a familiar object appears in the frame of a photograph (car, basketball, streetlamp, etc.) we immediately get a feel for the scope of the entire scene. Without a familiar object in the image, we struggle to determine the scale shown in the photograph.

Of course, there are optical illusions—some that are unique to two-dimensional renderings of three-dimensional scenes—and some illusions that are enhanced by rendering them in two dimensions.

Human forms in this image give a sense of the size of the aquarium.
Human forms in this image give a sense of the size of the aquarium.

Types of Size

Large, medium, or small. (NOT short, tall, grande, and venti. Please.)

The camera, lens, and print can render large objects small, or small objects large. Even objects familiar to our eyes can be rendered relatively large in a photograph, while things we know to be enormous are rendered small. Thanks to the Apollo astronauts, we can fit our entire planet onto a small photographic print. We can also print a photograph the size of a highway billboard or a single grain of sand. We can even use a 1:1 macro lens to reproduce objects at “life-size.”

In the real world, the eye and brain automatically adjust the retinal image in what is known as “size constancy.”

For example, a stop sign atop at 6' pole looks like a stop sign atop a 6' pole regardless of how far down the road you are. We are familiar with the common stop sign (and there are general standards for road signs that create this consistency), so our brain assigns a size constancy to that familiar object.

Fighter jets and an anchor might give an impression of the size of the aircraft carrier, but it is the more familiar human that really indicates relative size.
Fighter jets and an anchor might give an impression of the size of the aircraft carrier, but it is the more familiar human that really indicates relative size.

Many of us, regardless of our photographic experience, have stood in awe, camera in hand, before a scenic vista of a spectacular mountain range, and have then been disappointed when seeing the diminutive print of the photograph we took. The mountains looked so much larger to the naked eye! Size constancy.

On a side note, it is amazing to think of how size constancy does not exist in the eyes of a young child, because everything the child sees for the first time is new—there are no familiar objects. How fascinating and confusing things must be to new eyes!

Are these masts on small or large sailboats? Large, based on the size of the sailor hoisted aloft.
Are these masts on small or large sailboats? Large, based on the size of the sailor hoisted aloft.

Size in Photographs

We often take size for granted in a photograph, since sometimes we are just rendering a scene before our eyes. With a casual snapshot, size might not be something one even considers when composing the image. Pay attention to size because it can help you create unique images.

The size of common objects in the photograph gives the scene a sense of scale. But a single object in space might not accomplish this since there is no means for comparison. There are times when another object, maybe sitting atop our subject, serves to confirm the scale in the image—eliminating the possibility of confusion.

Getting close to an object (especially with a wide-angle lens) can emphasize size.
Getting close to an object (especially with a wide-angle lens) can emphasize size.

If you want to emphasize the size of an object in the photograph in relation to its surroundings, you should get closer to that object. When a three-dimensional scene is rendered in two dimensions, as your view extends out toward the horizon (visible or virtual), objects closer to the horizon are farther away than those near the top, bottom, or sides of the image.

Overlap is another way to render a scene virtually in three dimensions, and overlap can also give hints to size. When one object is in front of another, and it is smaller than the object behind it, we generally know the relative sizes of the two objects in question, as long as those two objects are close to each other in three-dimensional space.

Again, scale is provided by the animal and human element here.
Again, scale is provided by the animal and human element here.

Of course, if you hold your hand up in front of the camera before a distant cityscape, we know that the hand is not larger than a group of buildings because we get a sense of its proximity to the camera in relation to what it is overlapping. If the buildings overlap the hand, we know the buildings are likely miniature in scale.

The final element of photographic art we will discuss is depth.

And, once again, the human element provides scale.
And, once again, the human element provides scale.

Your thoughts on this article are welcome in the Comments section, below!

About the Elements of a Photograph Series

There are seven basic elements to photographic art:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Texture
  5. Color
  6. Size
  7. Depth

It's worth noting that many articles and websites covering this subject list the basic elements of art as: line, shape, form, texture, color, space, and value. My list of seven includes size and depth in place of space and value. I base my list not just on graduate studies of photography and years of creating images, but on the names of basic elements featured in the personally influential Kodak book, The Art of Seeing.

With paintings and drawings, these elements are added to the blank canvas. In photography, they are presented to us in the world before our lens. Regardless of the elements of art that you learn, as I said above, it is your knowledge and awareness of these elements that can become a valuable tool in your compositional tool kit as well as help you deliver a clear meaning to your work. This awareness will generally be subconscious, but, at times, when making a photograph, these elements might come to the forefront of your artistic eye. In such moments, you can create your composition with these factors in mind.

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