Passport
Little Bigs

The woman and her baby at sunset--my wife and daughter, by the way--is a classic stock image: a symbolic picture that can fit any number of story lines or advertising messages. But it's also a very human image. The sunset's beautiful, but the real warmth comes from the two tiny figures in the distance. I took this with my Nikon F4 and a 20mm f/2.8D AF Nikkor lens, and used double 85B filters to accent the warm tones.
Photos © 2001, Jack Hollingsworths, All Rights Reserved

I first heard the phrase 10 years ago, and I don't remember exactly who said it, but he called them "the big littles," and he meant people positioned to appear small in the midst of sweeping landscapes. You know, the opposite of what we've always been told--that people in a scene should be identifiable; they should be the subjects, they should be€well, big. I put my own two cents in and have come to call them "little bigs," but the idea is the same.

So, why would we want to turn things around?

The red landscape surrounding the woman on the beach is red because I shot with color infrared film, which I'll use from time to time to make a landscape even more prominent than it is in real life. And, yes, I deliberately composed with the horizon off-kilter to add movement to the frame and because I think diagonals are more emotional than straight lines. I used my Nikon F4 and a 28mm f/2.8D AF Nikkor fitted with a Yellow No. 15 filter and a circular polarizer. With infrared, you never know what you'll get, so if a picture looks good to me I'll bracket three frames on either side of the reading--meaning I sometimes get only five shots per 36-exposure roll.

There are some practical reasons to put a little person into a big scene: to add scale; to add contrast; to add the human element to a landscape photograph by giving the viewer a person with whom he can identify. From a commercial point of view, a photograph with a small person in an epic landscape is what I call "stock friendly." If you look at traditional commercial stock pictures, you'll see tons of little bigs simply because the layout is so well suited to dropping in headlines, type, and product shots. It's an Art Director's dream, perfect for a two-page spread in a magazine.

If advertising layouts aren't a consideration for you, why would you consider little bigs for your travel pictures? If anything, people taking travel pictures are admonished to make the people in their photographs if not prominent then at least recognizable. And you should take your share of those kinds of pictures--that is, if you have any interest in returning with photos that place you and your traveling companions at photogenic locales.

The legs on the beach are relatively small in comparison to the beach and the sweep of the sky, but the important thing about this little big is simply the fun factor. I was doing a lifestyle shoot in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and one of my models, just clowning around, added an unexpected element to the scene. Thinking about it now, the photograph might have been even more effective if I'd backed off and shot from a greater distance so that people looking at the picture might ask, "What are those things sticking up there? Why, they're€legs!" I used my Nikon F4 and an 80-200mm f/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor with an 85B filter. The image's grainy look is due to the speed of the film--Agfa's now discontinued ISO 1000 chrome film.

There are some practical reasons to put a little person into a big scene: to add scale; to add contrast; to add the human element to a landscape photograph by giving the viewer a person with whom he can identify. From a commercial point of view, a photograph with a small person in an epic landscape is what I call "stock friendly." If you look at traditional commercial stock pictures, you'll see tons of little bigs simply because the layout is so well suited to dropping in headlines, type, and product shots. It's an Art Director's dream, perfect for a two-page spread in a magazine.

If advertising layouts aren't a consideration for you, why would you consider little bigs for your travel pictures? If anything, people taking travel pictures are admonished to make the people in their photographs if not prominent then at least recognizable. And you should take your share of those kinds of pictures--that is, if you have any interest in returning with photos that place you and your traveling companions at photogenic locales.

But let's turn that around every now and then by giving the setting prominence and making the person the secondary element. Why? First, to say that context is important to the photograph. And to add drama and variety.

Perhaps the best example of turning the tables is my deliberate twist on the usual portrayal of Michelangelo's David. The statue is, if not huge, then certainly hugely important and hugely well-known, but I made it small in relation to the surroundings. I did it for two reasons. First, everyone gets right up close with a 35-70mm zoom, turns the camera vertically and fills the frame. I wanted something different. Second, I looked around at the vaulted ceiling and incredible setting and thought, this place is spectacular! Look at the wonderful setting they've made for this great work of art. I decided to make the setting the subject. To me at that moment, the context of the statue was as important as the statue itself. An added bonus is that this photo sells very well. This image was made on 200 speed Agfa Scala. I used a 16mm f/2.8D AF Fisheye Nikkor on my F4 and took a spot meter reading off the statue.

Emphasis & Empathy
There's also a psychological element at work here. Travel photographs that are little bigs reflect how important the location was to you, the photographer, and how you felt about it at the moment you took the picture or at the moment you first saw the place. These pictures say, "Wow, this is an overwhelming place! Take a look at this!" There are times when you're shooting when you're feeling exactly that emotion, times when you're feeling like a small part of something that's huge. I know I've felt that way many times, and I often try to make a picture that communicates that emotion.

Generally it's best to think about composing little bigs using normal to wide angle lenses, simply because to get the landscape to be as prominent as possible you want a lot of it in the frame. But it's also possible to take these images with telephoto lenses. Just be sure that you keep your distance; don't let the long focal length force you to make the person dominant.

The biggest bonus is that little bigs stretch your ideas and change the way you look at things. They shake things up and they call attention to the photograph. I've always thought of them that way: they'll get other people's attention, sure, but first they get your attention because you have to think in a different way about the picture you're taking. And anything that encourages a little new thinking is pretty big.

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