Go to any beautiful overlook and the chances are that you will find a herd of photographers gathered there, most of which have some sort of zoom lens. They stand there, lenses mounted to their tripods, zooming in and zooming out, hopefully getting gorgeous photos of the scene laid out before them.
But what many novice and even intermediate photographers don’t realize is that the key to maximizing the benefits of a zoom lens is in moving yourself around as well. Rather than just picking one spot and zooming in and out, moving your body around and changing the distance between you and your subject will help you maximize the effectiveness of your lens.
Let’s explore just what this means.
Why Not Just Zoom?
To begin, zoom lenses are excellent tools for photographers and this is not a knock on using them. In fact, there will be times that you are incapable, for whatever reason, of getting closer to your subject, so a zoom lens is a critical part of your nature photography kit.
Having said that, the problem with just relying only on your zoom to compose your shots is that all you’re doing is cropping the image: Zoom out for a wider view; zoom in for a tighter shot. The same thing can be accomplished in post-processing with just a few movements and clicks of a mouse. Just crop an image with a wide view of the scene and you will get the exact same image as if you zoomed in.
But there is so much more you can do just by moving around!
Why Moving and Changing Focal Length Are Important
By changing the distance between your lens and the subject, and combining that with the effects of using a wide-angle or telephoto focal length, you can give your images much more drama.
Remember that a wide-angle focal length increases the depth of field while simultaneously making the background appear smaller. Assume you have a nice background, perhaps some mountains, set behind some foreground interest, like a barn. If you use a wide-angle focal length while standing close to the barn, what results? A background in which the mountains look distant, as seen above.
However, if you zoom in on a scene, the qualities of the longer focal length are evident: the depth of field decreases, the perspective of the shot is compressed, and the mountains that looked further away appear much larger and closer, as seen above.
The advantages of the different focal lengths aside, the benefit of combining focal length and changing your distance to the subject is this: it can change the background of the shot while keeping the subject the same size.
For example, if you find that the background just isn’t working from a close position and a short focal length, back up, use a longer focal length to compress the scene, and you will be able to keep the subject the same size in the frame. Therefore, the barn in the wide-angle image above would retain its size and visual impact if you stepped back and zoomed in. The difference is that the background, when zoomed in, would be compressed and appear much larger in the frame, as seen below.
This would not be possible if you simply zoomed in or out from the same position. Instead, by moving back and increasing the focal length, you change the visual relationship between the barn and the background to make a more compelling shot, but are able to do so without making the barn lose its significance in the shot.
Using this technique opens many more avenues for a dramatic shot. You can change how the foreground and background, foreground and subject, and subject and background all visually interact with one another, simply by taking a few steps forward or backward, and manipulating your focal length at the same time. You can’t get the same effects by simply standing pat and zooming in and out, so the next time you’re out in nature, be sure to use movement and focal length to your advantage.