The fact that objects in the world appear in different ways depending on the scale of observation has important implications if one aims at describing them. It shows that the notion of scale is of utmost importance when processing unknown measurement data by automatic methods. In their seminal works, Witkin (1983) and Koenderink (1984) proposed to approach this problem by representing image structures at different scales in a so-called scale-space representation. Traditional scale-space theory building on this work, however, does not address the problem of how to select local appropriate scales for further analysis. This article proposes a systematic methodology for dealing with this problem. A framework is presented for generating hypotheses about interesting scale levels in image data, based on a general principle stating that local extrema over scales of different combinations of γ-normalized derivatives are likely candidates to correspond to interesting structures. Specifically, it is shown how this idea can be used as a major mechanism in algorithms for automatic scale selection, which adapt the local scales of processing to the local image structure. Support for the proposed approach is given in terms of a general theoretical investigation of the behaviour of the scale selection method under rescalings of the input pattern and by integration with different types of early visual modules, including experiments on real-world and synthetic data. Support is also given by a detailed analysis of how different types of feature detectors perform when integrated with a scale selection mechanism and then applied to characteristic model patterns. Specifically, it is described in detail how the proposed methodology applies to the problems of blob detection, junction detection, edge detection, ridge detection and local frequency estimation. In many computer vision applications, the poor performance of the low-level vision modules constitutes a major bottleneck. It is argued that the inclusion of mechanisms for automatic scale selection is essential if we are to construct vision systems to automatically analyse complex unknown environments.