One of the most helpful tips that an old pro photographer once gave me was to use my zoom lens as a compositional aid rather than a way to get close to my subject.
He told me this just after I bought my first 70-200mm lens. I proudly showed it to him and told him that ‘now I’ll be able to get right in close to the brides and grooms I was preparing to photograph in a friend’s wedding’.
He paused for a moment and smiled before replying – ‘sure…. you can use it for that, but don’t let your zoom lens make your lazy. You still need to use your feet!’
I sensed he wanted to say more but was worried about offending me (he was such a nice guy) so I encouraged him to tell me what he was thinking.
He said – let me show you what I mean and proceeded to take my camera (and zoom lens) and take two images of me.
The first he shot from around 4 meters away and the second he shot from 10 or so meters away. For the first shot he used a shorter focal length and the second shot he used a longer one.
He returned to me with my camera and we looked at the two shots. They were both head and shoulders portraits – I, as the subject, was pretty much exactly the same size in both shots – however the difference in the shots was quite remarkable and it was all in the background of the image.
The first shot was taken with a short focal length (around 70mm) and from a relatively close distance and the background looked quite far away and small. There was a lot of background in the shot – it really put me as the subject into context of my environment (a park with other people around – quite a busy background).
The second shot was taken with a long focal length (around 200mm) and from further away. While I as the subject was around the same size as in the first shot the background was much more amplified. In fact you could see just a portion of what was in frame in the first shot. He’d lined up the second shot so that the part of the background was quite plain and uncluttered (no people).
The first shot was composed so that anyone viewing the shot would see me in my context (a good environmental image) but the second one isolated me from my background – the focus was squarely and fairly on me and me alone.
You can see this principle illustrated really nicely in the images above. While the model takes up much the same amount of space in each of the shots – the five different focal lengths product quite different compositions. None are particularly ‘bad’ photos – but each produces very different results.
Do you experiment with different focal lengths to produce different compositions and perspectives in your shots?