The tea spoons of Geography (lens cap for scale)

A few days ago I tweeted a picture of my dog, Gus, posing for scale in front of some rocks and I said: “To enliven field reports, occasionally use something other than a lens cap for scale. A dog, for example.” Some of the comments I got in reply started me thinking about all the different things that I’ve used as scale in my Geography photos over the years.

lens cap for scale

Ice pedestal, Cotopaxi, Ecuador. Lens cap for scale.

In the early years of my career the lens cap was the firm favourite. When I was being trained up as a PhD student in the 1980s the lens cap was treated as almost a standard unit of size, and it would have seemed unprofessional not to have included at least one lens cap in any photograph of a rock face or sediment section. I have a photograph from a field trip in Illinois in the 1980s where about 30 seasoned professionals from some of the most prominent geological institutions in the northern hemisphere are pushing back their baseball caps and buckling down to get some pretty decent photographs of a single lens cap that one of them had placed just so in the front of a nice pile of sand. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s I suppose I must have taken perhaps a thousand photographs of lens caps, from the Arctic Circle to the Equator, lending professional gravity as well as that all-important sense of (approximate) scale to pebbles, ice crystals and all manner of other small phenomena that might otherwise have been mistaken for mountain chains seen from space or distant views of swampland under low cloud. The lens cap made all the difference, and my photographs of lens caps have been published in some of the most prestigious geographical, geomorphological and glaciological journals on the planet.

Tafoni weathering, Almeria. Car key for scale.

For me, though, the lens cap was a little too generic. I appreciate my lens caps, and they have all done good work for me, but I have never really become strongly attached to any one of them. The photos in which they appear, while adequately scaled and facilitating the classic caption “lens cap for scale”, left me feeling disappointingly unattached, rather like the photos in which a hire-car key or a coin is used for scale. I wanted something more personal, and for the particular features that I tended to be photographing a lens cap was often a little small, anyway, so I graduated to something both bigger and more personal: my ice axe. Ice axes are even more variable in size than lens caps, so my captions now started to read “70cm ice axe for scale”. The reference to a specific size made me feel more scientific, and the ice axe, being one of those personal and mission-critical pieces of kit to which you can become really quite attached, made the photos feel much more my own. I don’t keep old lens caps, but I always know where my ice axe is, even though I don’t use it so much any more.

Of course, had I wanted to go the way of the scientist there was always the option of using an actual scale bar, ruler or tape for scale. Most of my colleagues nowadays have been sucked down this dark path. I did try it for a while, but it never felt quite right and I reverted for the most part to the use of personal items of field equipment. Rucksack for scale. Box of oatcakes for scale. 14cm tea spoon for scale.

Box of oatcakes for scale

Box of oatcakes for scale, Greenland.

The box of oatcakes was a personal favourite, and featured in some high-profile papers. I also very much liked the “seagull for scale” on the front cover of my “Glacier Science and Environmental Change” book, but the most enduring, other than the ice axe (and more appropriate for the smaller scale occasions) has been the tea spoon.

Around 2009 I had a series of surreal conversations with the artist Miriam Burke about how our artistic and scientific practices overlapped, and Miriam became interested in my repeated, almost pathological use of a tea spoon for scale in photographs of glaciological phenomena. We spent many hours poring over black and white prints of one particular tea spoon, with tiny sections of the Greenland ice sheet in the background. I explained that the tea spoon was convenient because it was always about my person in the field (I have never found a better single implement that can be used both to eat your breakfast, stir your coffee and excavate debris from ice), but that it did lack that specific “scientific” element of precise, numbered graduation. Miriam’s solution was to create for me a bespoke tea spoon, its handle engraved with a scale in cm and mm.

Measuring Spoon by Miriam Burke. Photographs from Greenland (including tea spoon for scale) in background.

Measuring Spoon by Miriam Burke. Photographs from Greenland (including tea spoon for scale) in background.

It was beautiful, and held pride of place in a public art-science gallery exhibition that Miriam organised for us. We toyed with the idea of also engraving the bowl of the spoon to serve as a measure for small volumes, but I assured her that, for my type of science, a “tea spoon full” was a perfectly sufficient level of detail for the measurement of volume. I have the engraved “artist’s tea spoon for a scientist” beside me now. For scale.

When I posted the photo of rocks with my dog for scale, somebody asked, quite reasonably, “but how big is the dog?” I replied that he was about the size of a bag of rocks.

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