Sometimes we take pictures to document something unusual or noteworthy. That’s a perfectly wonderful reason to photograph. There can be a trap lurking there, though. If you’re trying to capture something that is not readily recognized by the photograph viewer later, people can have trouble trying to figure out just how big the thing is.
It’s a brain thing – if we don’t recognize it, we can’t assign a scale to it without help, and that makes it almost useless in creating understanding. The solution is to provide an item in the photo that helps the viewer assign a size and connect it to other familiar things in their own brain. There’s actually a fair amount of overlap between photography and psychology.
So, some specifics: if you’re taking a picture of your new wallpaper, or of a cool rock formation on the side of the road, or of any item that is generally unfamiliar to most people, include something familiar as well. It can be another person, a pencil, a coin, or any familiar object whose size is appropriate for the actual object you’re trying to capture.
The photograph here shows the problem. My son took the original, on the left, in a cavern in Montana. It’s clearly some type of rock formation and looks like it would be cool to see in person. But how big is it really?
Through the magic of Photoshop, I placed a quarter on top of the rocks for the middle image and a 15-inch ruler in the right-hand image. It gives an entirely different feel to the rocks, but either one provides some familiarity and scale that helps my brain interpret what I’m seeing.
Now it doesn’t have to be so in-your-face as I’ve shown here. Usually there’s something nearby that belongs in the scene better than a gigantic quarter. You could use a friend’s hand, or your cell phone, or a flash drive, or an apple – really anything at all will do, and the less of a force-fit into the context of the picture, the less distracting it will be.