To Zoom Or Not To Zoom

One of the first things I was told in photography basics was to not use zoom. The reasoning behind this was to get a beginner photographer to walk around more with their camera, to get in closer to their subject, and to find different, interesting angles for a shot.

But there’s more to a telephoto (zoom) lens vs a wide angle (not-so-zoom) lens than just “lazy” zooming vs walking closer to your subject.

Doing one or the other can change the photo’s perspective dramatically. It can make the difference between a fantastic shot, and a rather dull, nothing special shot. Sometimes, for impact, you do actually want to zoom all the way in, rather than walk closer. Sometimes, you don’t. It all depends on what you want to emphasise and show in the photo.

Zoom VS Wide Angle

Field of view

The below images were shot one after the other using a DSLR and the same 24-105 mm lens. I took one shot (left image) zoomed in all the way at 105 mm, and then walked forward and – trying to keep the same elements in the frame – I took another shot (right image) without zooming in at 24 mm.

It’s quite incredible how very different the images look. You would be forgiven for thinking they were not of the same things at all!

Note how much closer together the trees look in the zoomed in shot, compared to how far apart they look in the wide angle (not zoomed in) shot. Particularly that skinny tree on the right side of the path!

You can also see that the wide angle (not zoomed in) lets you see so much more of the surrounding elements (cars and houses) whereas zooming in gives you a narrower field of view such that you can easily block out all the cars and houses as if they weren’t there at all.

Depth of field

Zooming in also affects the depth of field, making it rather more pronounced.

Both images below were focused in the same place and shot with an aperture of 4.0, which should cause objects in the distance to be more blurry. Yet you can see how much more out of focus the background, and even the back half of the fence is in the zoomed in shot (left image) than in the wide angle shot (right image).

These differences are why zoom lenses (or telephoto lenses) have a wide use among portrait photographers, and even landscape photographers, rather than just being used for subjects like wildlife or sports, where a person can’t easily get physically close to their subject.

Portraits

For portraits, you often want to emphasise the person and have them really stand out from the background, so having a blurrier background is important. Yes, you can do this with a wide angle lens and a lower aperture number, but sometimes there’s distracting stuff in the background that a wide angle would see but that the narrower field of view of a telephoto lens would not. Alternatively, you might actually want to incorporate more background elements in your shot with a wide angle lens to help tell the person’s story.

You do need to be careful not to go too extreme in either direction, however, because you also get different kinds of perspective distortion with telephoto (left image) as opposed to wide angle (right image) which can be rather unflattering on people!

Landscapes

For landscapes, zooming in with a telephoto lens allows distant objects to appear larger in the frame. If you’ve ever tried to take a photo of a really huge moon, or a beautiful sweeping view of distant mountains, only to be disappointed that the moon and mountains have turned out pitifully small in your photo, this is a prime example of when you’d want to use a telephoto lens. Of course, the narrow field of view also means you might not be able to capture as much of the landscape as you really want, but this can be resolved easily by shooting multiple images to create a panorama. Sometimes getting in close can make for a more interesting photo. In the example below the same tree has a stronger effect when taken closer up using a wide angle (18mm) setting.

Summary

Whether you zoom in or shoot wide, both have different effects on your final image, and both have a time and a place no matter what you’re shooting. Ultimately, the best way to figure it out is to play around with it for yourself and see what you like best about each in your own shoots. It can take a bit of getting used to, but the differences between a telephoto shot vs a wide angle shot is definitely something worth exploring.

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