deception by stealth A rewiew of wind farm visUalisations by alan macdonald

This paper was updated on the 29th July 2019.

Photomontages are the only means by which an informed judgment on the predicted impact of wind turbines can be made. For over two decades, the photomontages submitted in windfarm planning applications have been a contentious issue and the subject of widespread complaints regarding misleading visualisations.

Since 2006, visualisations throughout the UK which claimed to be ‘fair to all’ have been based on Guidance produced by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) which is endorsed by the Landscape Institute and the Landscape Institute Scotland.

Extensive field tests and comparisons between the original visualisations and the built reality undertaken by myself and Gordon Mooney of The Highland Council (THC) revealed that the ‘viewing distance methodology’ used by SNH to justify the misleading presentation format was seriously flawed and simply being used as a vehicle to diminish the predicted visual impact.

Empirical testing of windfarm visualisations conforming to the 2006 SNH Guidance revealed that SNH’s viewing methodology was both scientifically and technically flawed.

This 'subtle but powerful' under-representation was first identified by Professor Benson in his University of Newcastle Report 2002 who observed that a single frame image, printed full page, gave the best representation of reality. The Report, commissioned by SNH, was to form the foundation for SNH’s visualisation Guidance.


how the deception worked...and still works.....
Each image on the page was made by ‘stitching’ photographs together to form a panorama. No clear 'health warning' was given to explain that UNLESS EACH PANORAMA was viewed at a much closer distance so that the single frame photo in the middle was viewed with peripheral vision on either side, a subtle but powerful under-representation occured. This was also observed by Professor Benson in 2002. Because the overall A3 page is naturally viewed from a greater distance, more of our peripheral vision is now within our clear central vision making the landscape appear further away. It was in fact a clever visual deception justified by a complex pseudo-science which had no technical or scientific credibility.

Regrettably, Professor Benson died in 2004 before the next part of the study could be completed and the University of Newcastle withdrew from the project. When SNH finally published the guidance two years later in 2006, his observation that a single frame image gave the best representation of reality was ignored.

Instead, SNH maintained the status quo by simply enlarging the panoramas to A1 width (equivalent to two A3 sheets placed side by side) claiming that this had been agreed with Professor Benson before his death, although they could not produce any written or recorded evidence to verify this.

In SNH’s 2006 Guidance, Professor Benson’s observation that a single frame image gave the best representation of reality was ignored. Instead, in their 2014 Guidance, SNH simply enlarged and extended the panoramas to A1 width which were totally impractical to use on site and potentially misleading when viewed on a computer screen. Single frame images were now included, but demoted to a ‘viewpoint pack’ for selected viewpoints and did not form part of the LVIA.
where it first went wrong.....

When SNH released its updated guidance in 2014, councils were already developing their own ePlanning portals to make planning information more widely accessible to other professionals, decision makers and the general public.

SNH and the Scottish Government were fully aware of this development which was revolutionising the planning system, yet they seriously failed to recognise its potential or develop visualisation standards specifically for digital viewing which could be integrated with councils ePlanning systems.

By this time, SNH were mainly into damage control because the ‘viewing distance’ which was used to justify their misleading visualisations had been scientifically discredited and the University of Stirling Study, commissioned by The Highland Council, revealed that SNH’s recommended 50mm lens under-represented reality, just as Professor Benson originally observed in 2002.

Although SNH finally announced in 2014 that ‘the viewing distance is dead’, the same distances are still appearing on windfarm visualisations, but are now referred to as ‘principal distances’. They serve no purpose whatsoever because they under-represent the perceived vertical scale of the turbines by around a third. It is simply not what we see, so why is it there?

In my opinion, it is only there to give some retro-credibly to SNH’s now discredited ‘viewing distance methodology’ and to protect the people responsible for promoting the deception along with landscape practitioners who knowingly took advantage of this methodology to obtain planning permission for their clients.

Two of the leading exponents of this pseudo-science at the time for example also appeared as ‘expert witnesses’ for developers at public inquiries. Both consultants were members of the Landscape Institute Technical Committee who advise the parent body, the Landscape Institute, on visualisations matters.

The implications are considerable, particularly in view of the fact that SNH themselves recommended in 2001 that a single frame image with a focal length of ‘up to 80mm’ gave the best impression of reality, yet they spent the next 18 years resisting the use of single frames in LVIA assessment.

In his 2002 Report, Professor Benson noted that valuable research was being ignored and concluded that ‘the increasing development pressure from windfarms require that VIA is approached in a comprehensive, explicit and systematic way and that the inherent complexity, controversy and uncertainty are addressed’.

Nothing has changed.

Because Professor Benson’s recommendations were ignored, many years have been wasted.

As a result of on-going complaints about misleading visualisations, in 2009The Highland Council (THC) developed their own Visualisation Standards based on the standard A3 format with further updates in 2010, 2013, and 2016 which SNH claimed was compatible with their own 2014 and 2017 guidance.

However, because they have taken important aspects of the THC standards out of the context for which they were originally designed, problems still exist and the public continues to be misled. More detailed reading on this matter can be found in my review paper which is listed in ‘publications’ at the end of this presentation.

Because environmental statements containing the large A1 wide visualisations can cost £1000 or more, most members of the public download the images free of charge from their council’s ePlanning portal on their own computer. However, most people are also unaware of the fact that their perception of visual impact would be very different if they compared the A1 wide paper prints directly with the same image on their computer screen.

Nowhere in the 2006 Guidance or the 2014 Guidance did it stipulate any clear ‘health warning’ to explain that if a panorama was viewed on a computer screen, it could potentially be misleading.

It is the same deception again, but now in a digital format.

Although SNH may now claim that a ‘health warning’ was included in their updated 2017 Guidance instructing the viewer to enlarge the panorama to full screen height, it is insignificant in size and written in lower case lettering.

Such a health warning is a pointless exercise in view of the SNH commissioned report No. 936 ‘Research on the use of wind farm visualisations by the public and decision-makers: Phase 2 - 2014 Guidance’. In a 2016 survey which formed part of the study, local residents were asked if they referred to the viewing instructions on visualisations produced in accordance with SNH’s 2014 Guidance: 70% of them either saw the instructions but did not use them (24%) or did not see the instructions at all (46%). See figure 7 on page 14 of the Report.

70% of the public could still be deceived by the visualisations.
Review of SNH Guidance 2017

Compared to the 2014 Guidance, the latest guidance published by SNH in 2017 is a seriously retrograde step because the two most important visualisation formats have again been omitted or not considered.

The single frame images which give a realistic impression of scale and distance are still not required for LVIA assessment, and the work on the development of a single frame panoramic viewer, has been cancelled.

The viewer was going to be similar to the one originally developed for The Highland Council (THC) which was keenly supported by the Scottish Government’s representative on the SNH Steering Group, decision makers and the general public. It’s widespread support was also featured in an arcticle in the Press and Journal on the 1st May 2017.

The panoramic viewer is explained in more detail on page 17 of the THC Standards which can be downloaded from ‘Publications’ at the end of this presentation.

Regrettably, The Highland Council did not continue to maintain the software for their viewer in anticipation of the release of SNH’s viewer in 2014 which, after a further delay of three years, never materialised. As a result, no adequate panoramic viewing system presently exists.

The following reason was given by SNH for withdrawing the viewer: ‘The requirement to provide images for use in a digital viewer has been removed as a fully integrated viewing system in e planning is not currently financially viable’.

The public are again deprived of reliable images they can understand.

I cannot accept SNH’s reason for this. Although I am now retired, my former company Architech developed the original single frame panoramic viewer for The Highland Council. The reason given by SNH is nonsense and in my opinion designed to deprive the public, planners and decision makers of the most useful and realistic visual tool to date.

Our viewer went through several modifications as graphics software developed, but we finally produced a module which could be used by Council ePlanning technicians after 30 minutes training. Simple, straightforward and easy to use.

The way ahead......

There is no need for any viewing instructions if the graphics are correctly designed in the first place: we naturally view photographs at a comfortable distance depending on their size because it is the way we have learned to interpret images from early childhood. Professor Benson in his University of Newcastle Report 2002 also recognised this and recommended that what is natural for the viewer should dictate any technical detail and not ‘vice versa’.

Yet again, this important recommendation remained ignored by SNH, and the windfarm industry instead, became obsessed with the now discredited ‘viewing distance’ which conveniently directed attention away from the main issue; the misleading visualisations.

Most built windfarms used these visualisation techniques in their planning applications.

With the emphasis now on developing offshore windfarms, future pressure from climate change lobbyists may lead to windfarms again appearing in our landscapes where 150-metre turbines will become the norm.

The most likely route will be to extend existing clusters of windfarms making the visualisations even more important for informative cumulative viewing.

The Scottish Islands in particular, where the landscapes are often devoid of trees, will also experience a rather intriguing visual phenomenon when approached from the sea: the further the distance from the windfarm, the bigger the turbines appear.

It is important that proper visualisation standards are produced as soon as possible.

The author

Alan Macdonald is a qualified architect (retired) and a professional photographer with 27 years international experience in photomontage work for planning applications.

He has also campaigned for better visualisation standards for many years and is the author of ‘Windfarm Visualisation – Perspective or Perception’ which was the result of 20 years research and now regarded as the authorative book on the subject.


The following fully illustrated book is available from Whittles Publishing:

My following papers can be downloaded from the internet:

The following visualisation standards can be downloaded from The Highland Council website:

The following article was published in the Press and Journal on the 1st May 2017:


Copyright ©️ 2019 Alan Macdonald

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