I was recently at Yosemite National Park, and every time (been there many times) I am in awe of El Capitan's sheer size; however, when I take a picture of the mountain it always looks so unimpressive. Can you please explain to me why is that the case? And how to correct this effect?

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  • Probably always, always a photo is less impressive than the real thing... – Rafael Mar 11 '17 at 17:37

Artistically, it's probably worth looking at Adams when discussing El Capitan (and perhaps in many other discussions regarding the art of photography).

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In general, Adams put an extraordinary amount of effort into designing his photograph and to convey El Capitan's scale in the example photo. It dominates, but does not fill, the vista. The river and trees of the valley force the perspective at the human scale. The bluffs beyond force the perspective at the geologic scale.http://www.afterimagegallery.com/adamsportf3elcapitan.jpg

Technically, the ability of his camera to shift the lens allows placing the center of the geometric perspective in lower portion of the frame. This emphasizes the height. Finally, vertical framing allows the hard edges of the image to reinforce the verticality of the subject.


If you want something to look impressive, don't make it a little thing in the middle of a big picture. Frame to make it dominate the picture:

This is your picture with much of the distracting fluff cropped out. It let's El Capitan stand out and appear much bigger than in your original.

Also keep things out of the picture that compete for dominance. That big tree in front seriously detracts from El Capitan looking big, because it is so big in the picture itself. The trees closer to the base of the rock are actually good since they give a sense of scale without getting in the way. However, the tree in front does get in the way.

So the answer is good framing and overall composition.


You have chosen an angle dominated by foreground objects. Choose one where the mountains dominate. Like this one.

enter image description here


Normally, the landscape pictures we make are 2 dimensional replicas of 3 dimensional scenes (exceptions noted). Because they are just 2 dimensional images, we must somehow create an illusion of depth. In the art world, this is called “perspective”. To achieve we must place the camera where it will capture a view that conveys a feeling of depth. This is not easy. We depend on the location and size of shadows to convey an illusion of depth. We include foreground objects of known size so that viewers can visualize the true scale of the background. The casual snap shooter often gets it right; however, often this is just dumb luck. Skilled photography is an acquired talent that comes from studying. This image was taken by the self-timer on a point-and- shoot. enter image description here Alan & Maxine Marcus

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    Distortion due to focal length choice. Short (wide-angle), yields smallish images. Telephoto yields enlarged images of objects. A wide-angle displays foreground objects larger than normal. A telephoto compresses foreground and background objects. Distortion yields incorrect impressions of the actual separation.For landscape we use wide-angle and telephoto. Sometimes its best if we use a “normal” focal length. This is a lens focal length about equal to the diagonal measure of format. For the full frame that’s about 50mm. For the compact digital that’s about 30mm. Check your camera manual. – Alan Marcus Mar 11 '17 at 22:15

First, thank you for reading and answering my question. Perhaps “unimpressive” was the wrong word choice. I am not looking to beautify my picture. I am only curious as to why do mountains such as the El Capitan look so epic, and grand in size, that in the very moment you cannot believe something that big could exist in the first place. Even with the foreground dominating our view in person, we still get the sense of its grandeur, but all that changes once you take a picture of it. I chose the picture I posted because it represents an ordinary view of the mountain with no cropping, framing, composing, or implementing any photography technics… it is what most of us witness and get blown away by it in person, and yet not in a picture.

After some reflection, I came to the conclusion that it ultimately boils down to scale and perspective, but with a caveat. Even though the foreground helps to give a sense of size, it does not have as much of an impact as objects that are at the same distance as the subject of our photograph. These objects often go unnoticed in a picture because they are undetectable, they just look like dark patches and dots:

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However, in person we clearly detect these smaller objects from a far distance and get a sense of true scale:

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In the following picture the orange colored trees are more detectable and give us a sense of true scale:

enter image description here

Ultimately, I think what we visually register as size is the comparison of these smaller objects that are at the same distance as the subject of our view, which often go unnoticed in a picture.


The other answers are spot on, but I would suggest that the simple answer to your question is that you used a wide angle lens and aimed the camera up to include a lot of sky, a combination which distorts perspective. Keep the camera more parallel with the subject and try a larger focal length (including less of the rest of the mountains and more of just the face of El Capitan).

  • I was to add just that: pointing up (or down) is probably not the best option. I presume it is because when we look at the picture we assume by default that we are looking forward. (off course we can do lots of nice photos looking up or down, but that is beyond the point here) – Rolazaro Azeveires Dec 15 '17 at 22:49

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