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How to use a zoom lens: When, what, and what not to do

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How to use a zoom lens: When, what, and what not to do

Zoom lenses are wonderful things! Learning how to use a zoom lens can be one of the most productive, and pleasurable, things you’ll do in a while! Whether you’ve got a compact camera or a DSLR, these tips will apply to you.

Before we get to the really interesting stuff you should know that DSLR and compact cameras differ slightly in how their zoom lenses are described. In either case the lens specification will be written somewhere on the lens itself.

A DSLR camera lens can be changed for other lenses that fit your make of camera. These lenses are referred to as interchangeable lenses. Each lens is named according to the range it covers, say a ‘75 – 300mm lens’. One 75 – 300mm lens does the same thing as the next, with some variation in quality.

A compact camera has, for example, a ‘5x optical zoom’. But not all 5x zoom cameras are equal. One may give you a range of 6.3 – 31.5mm while another gives you 20 – 100mm. If you have a compact camera make sure that you check where the zoom range starts, as this will dictate, to some extent, what you can use it for. An estate agent, who needs photos of rooms in houses for sale, will find good use for a 5 – 60mm 12x optical zoom (it can take ‘wider’ wide angles). A wildlife enthusiast will get more use from a 30 – 360mm 12x optical zoom (that can zoom in further).

For more information on what those mm numbers mean on your lens, check my article on What Does The MM Mean On A Lens.

What Your Zoom Does

Whatever camera you have, whether you zoom by rotating the barrel of your DSLR lens or press a button to adjust it on your compact camera, your zoom lens will allow you to ‘zoom’ in on what you see through the lens, bringing it ‘closer’ to you. Of course you haven’t moved, and neither has the object you’re photographing, but the lens allows you to photograph it as if you had move closer to it (that’s not exactly right, but is a very close analogy). Your lens, in effect, magnifies the scene; the longer the lens (larger mm number), the greater the magnification you will get.

When To Use A Zoom Lens

It’s probably easier to say when you shouldn’t use a zoom lens! These wonderful lenses can be used :

  • when you’re travelling and can’t take a lot of equipment with you, whether because you’re flying or hiking or because you just don’t want to haul too much kit around. One zoom lens can take the place of two or three single focal length, or prime, lenses! Easier to pack, lighter to carry!
  • when you can’t get close enough because your subject will eat you or run away. Similarly, for sports photography, zoom in for those amazing action shots!
  • when you want to photograph relatively unnoticed. Sometimes the only way to get those wonderfully candid shots is to take them without anyone being aware of what you’re doing. Stand quietly out of the way and use you zoom lens!
  • when you’re photographing in a crowd, zoom out to include more people, zoom in to isolate a small group or even a single face
  • to alter perspective. The more you zoom in, the more the perspective is compressed and altered. Objects will look closer together than they really are.
  • when you want to take flattering portrait photographs. Portrait photographers have traditionally zoomed in to make use of the slightly altered perspective which ‘compresses’ the features of the face and makes the nose appear less significant! Try it and you’ll see how well this works.
  • when you want to ‘lose’ the background and have a soft blur of colour as the backdrop to your subject.
  • for creative photography, abstracts and special effects.

Don’t be restricted by this, or any other list – if you can photograph it, use your zoom and see what happens!

What to do

To use a zoom lens to best effect you need to consider three major issues – aperture, focal length and camera shake.

Aperture

The aperture is the opening in the lens that allows light onto the image sensor. It’ll appear on your camera as a number somewhere between 1.4 (very wide) and 32 (very narrow), although it’s referred to in writing as f1.4 or f32.

Aperture priority gives you control over how much or how little of your picture is sharply in focus. Use a wider aperture to have less of the scene in focus (photo on the left). Use a narrower aperture to have more of the scene in focus (photo on the right).


Low F-number


High F-number

To focus attention on your subject use a wider aperture (f5.6, f4, f2.8) to maximize the background blur, leaving your subject sharply in focus. Humans tend to concentrate on what is sharp and clear. This means that you have the ability to direct your viewers’ attention to where you want in the photo! To control the aperture you want to use, select Aperture Priority mode, if your camera offers it. If you don’t have Aperture Priority mode then you can use Landscape mode if you want a narrow aperture, and Portrait mode for a wider aperture.

Focal length

We’ve already touched on how your lens works and what it does. It’s time to see what you can do by altering the length of your lens! Try standing in a garden and see how many different pictures you can take. The whole garden? The bird bath? A single flower? Test the versatility of your zoom by challenging yourself to find ten different pictures without moving your feet.

Try photographing a flower from a few paces away using the short end of your zoom. Then step back a few paces and re-photograph the flower using a longer focal length and zooming in a little. You’ll find that you’re able to reduce the area in focus and enhance the blur. In fact, the more you zoom in (greater focal length) the better this effect becomes.

Camera shake

It’s easy to forget that, as you zoom in (for greater magnifications), you are magnifying the subject AND the effect that camera shake has on the image. To avoid this you should use a tripod. In fact use anything that will stabilize you and/or your camera – lean on a branch or the window of the car (turn the engine off!), put your camera on a table, whatever helps.

What not to do with a zoom lens

  • Never abuse your ability to take close up pictures by invading anyone’s privacy. This is rude, probably unlawful and will definitely cause offense. Very few people are happy to be the subject of a stranger’s attention and especially if that stranger is armed with a camera and zoom lens.
  • On a lighter note! Don’t fill the frame with your subject, which (or who) will look squashed and crowded. A bit of space in a photograph can contribute as much to the composition as the subject! You can always use a little artful cropping to correct the error of too much space if you need to.

Photographers are very lucky people. We have an amazing array of equipment to use to create our own incredible pictures! And one of the most versatile and useful in that array is our zoom lens. Don’t waste any more time; Explore your zoom and what it can do, learn how to use it, master it and then you can really have some fun.

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (5)

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  1. Eddy Nijeboer says:

    Hi David
    Thank for your input and articles am enjoying it very much.
    A guide which I utilise to prevent blurred images or camera shake is to ensure that my:
    Shutter speed is at least equal or faster then my set Focal Length.
    Maybe you could expand on this a little.
    Thank you
    Eddy

  2. Joan says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your tips, they have been a great help to me but I wish you would help me on this one.
    We go to a Reserve – Kruger National Park – I have a Nikor 80-400 VR lens, I am not happy with it. I have a Nikon D7000. The lens I like to use is a 70-200 VR, but the length is not enough. Can I use a 1.7 converter with this lens and what would the downside be? Many thanks.
    Joan.

  3. kishan says:

    Hi David, it is wonderful to read yr articles and tips for photography. Pl suggest me some books for basics and taking great photos… with manual setting.
    The photo class in auto vs manual setting is visible, how can I improve my skills in manual mode?
    Regards

    kishan

  4. Kathy Eastwood says:

    I often use a zoom lens, usually a 28-135 mm as an overall lens. I noticed that many time if I zoom in to 135, I tend to get either soft or down right blur on the subject I’m photographing. I sometimes get better results if I use manual focus, but actually never thought of using aperture priority (I use a Canon 50D) I’ve also started to use back-button focusing.

    Thanks for the tips here. I’ll try to get remember to use Aperture priority the next time I want to zoom in.

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