Tuesday Photography Tip – Zoom Setting

Everyone understands what is meant by “zooming in”. The more we “zoom in” the closer things appear. As photographers we need to better understand the implications of zooming in or out so we can make the right choice.

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While photographing this equestrian event I zoomed in to “fill the frame“. I could have stood closer to the action – at my own peril of course. I chose to zoom in using my lens at 200 mm focal length.

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In the photo above I zoomed out to achieve a wide field of view (FOV) to capture the entire scene. I was standing right behind the sofa so I zoomed out using a 24 mm focal length. Is it clear why short focal lengths (less than 50 mm) are referred to as wide FOV lenses while long focal lengths (say greater than 100 mm) are called narrow FOV?

Rebecca and I have several lenses that cover a focal length range of 17 mm to 200 mm. We will use the 17 mm when we capture an expansive landscape scene as shown in the fall colors photo below.

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Using a wide FOV setting can lead to distortions as shown in the photo of downtown San Diego. The buildings appear much smaller than they really are in relationship to the tree in the foreground. A wide angle (short) lens pushes background items further away making them appear smaller than they are. (They also create leaning towers which, in reality, aren’t leaning at all.) A narrow FOV (long) lens brings background items closer as shown in the photo below.

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For the Statue of Liberty photo we were on the Staten Island Ferry a long distance from the monument. Using the 200 mm lens allowed us to bring the Statue closer to us.

So how does this affect family portraits? Which should you use – a wide angle, short lens or a long lens. There is no “right” answer but here are some things to consider.

Look again at the San Diego skyline photo. We said the buildings in the background look smaller than they are. We could have just as easily said the tree is unnaturally large because it is in the foreground. In your mind, replace the tree with your spouse. Get right up next to them and take their photo with a short lens. You will end up with a “larger than life” nose and an unhappy spouse. It’s all about perspective (more on that in a moment).

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So let’s take some portraits. Let’s choose a 50 mm lens which is deemed the “standard” focal length because it mimics what we see with our own eyes. You can see that Destiny looks fine – no bulbous nose – in these photos.

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We used a 50 mm zoom in the wedding party photo. It was the right level of zoom to capture the group. There are no odd distortions – the group looks natural because we used a standard portrait focal length and we were a good distance from the subjects – there are no bulging noses or expansive foreheads.

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A 50 mm focal length is at one end of the prime portrait focal length range. That range generally extends to 135 mm. Once again, there are no hard and fast rules on this but you won’t go wrong staying in that range. The photos above were taken at 70 mm.

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If we go a bit longer – say 100 mm – we get a very pleasing shaping of the face as shown in this head shot. Lenses between 100 and 135 mm are terrific for head shots – it puts the camera at the perfect distance from the subject. The perspective, which is determined solely by camera to subject distance, is very pleasing.

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Do we ever go longer than 135 mm for portraits? Yes we do – with great results as shown above. Both photos were taken at 200 mm. Notice how the long lens resulted in limited depth of focus. The young lady in the parade is in perfect focus the background is not. In the engagement photo we have bracketed the couple with a blurred foreground and out of focus background. This “advanced” technique – selective focus – was discussed in this earlier Tuesday Photo Tip.

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To summarize, use zoom to put the camera at the correct distance for a pleasing perspective – one key to good portraiture. Go wide when you need to photograph a large wedding party – go narrow when you want to fill the frame without getting trampled.

Feel free to comment or show off some of your own compositions that illustrate this tip. In the meantime, stay tuned because more Tuesday Photo Tips are right around the corner. Better yet – be updated automatically by “friending” our Facebook site.

PS – This is one of dozens of photo tips in our continuing Tuesday Photo Tips series of posts. There  are other resource articles on our site you may enjoy covering basic and more advanced photography topics. There are also tips covering topics such as preparing for family or infant/child portrait sessions. If you would like a topic covered just jot it down in a comment or send us a note.


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