I get this question a lot. And you know what, it makes a lot of sense. I think people are pressured into purchasing a higher priced digital SLR (that most of them don’t need) because they’re under the impression that you need to have a really expensive zoom lens to take a nice looking portrait or landscape. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in this article, you’ll learn why.
First of all, let’s ask ourselves a fairly simple and straightforward question. What, exactly, would we like to get out of a nice portrait of a friend or a beautiful landscape? Most of us would probably say we want a lot of detail, and that’s totally true. In fact, that’s why we think we need to zoom in. We figure that by zooming in we somehow improve upon detail.
Now that’s true to a certain extent, but that isn’t the real reason why you should or should not zoom in. Details can’t be found in your zoom lens. The image sensor is responsible for them. The better the sensor, the better the detail, no matter how much more you’re zoomed in. For most people, a six megapixel sensor is enough to get all the detail you need. You can zoom in or out all day long, and it simply won’t matter when it comes to image quality.
So what does matter?
Photography is art, and art is about choices. You need to ask yourself the following:
- What do you want to keep in the photo?
- What do you want to reject?
- What draws attention to your subject?
- What takes attention away?
By zooming in or out, you are making a creative choice. You are deciding what to include and what to exclude.
Will you see more detail in your kid’s face if you zoom in? Yes you will, but only because you’ve decided not to include everything else in the scene. It’s no different with a camera than it is in everyday life. If I really want to investigate something, I walk right up to it and get a closer look. Zooming in only helps if you are making the right creative choice. You need to include what truly matters in a scene.
Here’s a pretty basic rule. Zoom in as much as you need to zoom in to get everything that’s important into the scene. If you’re talking a picture of your Nephew Tim, just include Tim in the portrait. This leads to another creative choice. How much of Tim do you want to include in the photo? Is his face the only important thing, or is he standing at the ready with a tennis racket in hand? Pick what’s important and zoom to fit it into the scene.
The same goes with landscape shots. What do you want to include, and what do you want to exclude? If there’s a really interesting tree in the foreground, but nothing else catches your eye, zoom in enough to get the tree while excluding everything else. Landscape photos only make sense when you give them some kind of context. Don’t just photograph some random hillside. Include a landmark or a person in the foreground, something to set the scene and tell a story. The photographer in the example image to the right did a great job of picking what’s important and what isn’t. In this photograph, the image is only zoomed in enough to fit the mountains and trees into the frame.
Zooming and the rule of thirds
As you’ll learn, there are a lot of “right” ways to make a creative choice in photography. For every subject, there are multiple ways of fitting it into the scene and producing a visually pleasing image. One handy way to find them is to use the rule of thirds.
I know I've talked about the rule of thirds before, but briefly: Imagine dividing your image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. You should have about nine different sections. According to the rule of thirds, the most visually pleasing arrangements happen when you place your subject where any of the horizontal and vertical thirds meet. That could be in the top left, top right, bottom left, or bottom right thirds of the image.
Now, when you’re zooming in or out and deciding what to include or exclude, you simply need to add an extra bit of thinking into it all. Ask yourself if you can keep what you want to keep while remembering to place your subject in some space where those thirds meet. When you have one subject, it’s easy. But as you add more and more subjects, it starts to get more complicated.
The above photo takes advantage of this principle. Notice how the right tree is pretty close to the right third, and the left tree is fairly close to the left third. The photographer only zoomed in enough to get both photos into the frame while keeping the rule of thirds in mind.
Sometimes it’s better to abandon the prospect of capturing two or three subjects in order to really focus on the one that’s the most important. If you just can’t get the two subjects to work with the rule of thirds, it’s a good indicator that you might want to give up and try something that will turn out more visually appealing. As tempting as some types of shots might be, you need to know when to focus on something else.
Other ways to make a creative choice
There are other ways to choose what you want to put in and what you want to keep out of your shots. One of them is the aperture. When you pick a wider aperture (one with a lower f-number), the background appears more out-of-focus. Similarly, when you pick a more closed off aperture (higher f-number), more of the scene appears in-focus. Just by choosing the aperture, you can decide if you want to emphasize the background or draw attention away from it.
This can be especially useful when taking portraits of people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve photographed people in front of a distracting background because I had no other choice. By simply opening the aperture, you can blur out the background and draw attention to your subject’s face. That’s a creative decision worth making over and over again. For example, the background on the image to the right would be very distracting had it not been placed out of focus with a wide aperture. Also note the great use of the rule of thirds placing the boy on the left third of the image.
And remember, you are your best zoom lens
Your portraits aren’t going to turn out much better when you buy that fancy zoom lens. If you don’t have a good zoom lens, and you want better portraits, why not walk up closer to your subject? That’s all zooming does anyway, and assuming there is no obstacle between you and your subject, it ought to work just fine.
If you are a point-and-shoot user, you’ll still need to zoom in as far as your camera allows. That’s not because you need to, it’s because it flatters the face a lot more. The more you zoom out, the more distorted faces will become. By zooming in as much as your camera allows, you’re removing lens distortions that can make faces look a little strange.
So, with that said, get on out there and make the right creative choices. Decide what’s important and what isn’t. Zoom in, walk, climb, or swim to your subject to get everything in the frame that matters. Don’t spend your money on a new lens. Spend it on a new pair of shoes.
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