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One of the most common uses for zoom lenses is, as their name suggests, to zoom in on objects that are far away. These lenses are fantastic for getting close-up views of nature, architecture, wildlife, or anything else that might be little more than a speck to the naked human eye.
Some cameras like the Nikon Coolpix P900 let you get a close-up view of objects a few miles away. While this flexibility might seem like a rather tempting proposition for getting close to objects without physically moving yourself, there is another often-overlooked benefit of zoom lenses when taking portraits or other types of pictures with one clear subject in front of a vast spread of scenery – background compression. Understanding how this works, and how you can manipulate it, can transform your approach to portrait photography and give your pictures the type of visual boost that you might have always wanted, but never knew how to achieve.
The basic idea with background compression is that you can take photos of something relatively close to you, such as a high school senior as shown in the image above, and bring elements of the background closer as well. This gives a more constrained feeling to the overall composition, and helps focus the viewer on your subject while not only bringing the background in, but often blurring it at the same time.
As an illustration of how this works, here are several photos of my dad taken at different focal lengths. Notice how he is framed similarly in each shot, but the background changes dramatically as I adjust the zoom on my camera lens.
I used an 18-270mm zoom lens to take these shots, and this first one (above) at 18mm shows my dad along with a massive background: utility poles, houses, trees, mailboxes, and all sorts of other elements make up the picture in addition to the subject. Take note of the car several hundred yards behind him, as indicated by the red arrow, and notice what happens as I change focal lengths, but keep my dad similarly framed.
Here you can already see several differences from the original image. The scene is now slightly claustrophobic with many of the elements along the perimeter of the original photo disappearing altogether. Mailboxes and utility poles have been brought closer, and notice how the same stationary automobile far in the distance has appeared to creep forward, and is now much larger. The background, in essence, is getting squeezed together or compressed.
At 154mm the vehicle in the background seems significantly closer, and various other elements such as trees and utility poles are now filling almost the entire frame. As I zoom in, while keeping my dad consistently framed in the shot, even the distance between the individual utility poles seems to be shortened, which further enhances the overall feeling of compression. It’s not just that things appear closer, but that the distances between all the elements of the frame look much smaller as well. This can be a powerful, and extraordinarily useful way to compose a picture, and you don’t even need a fancy camera or lens to do it. Most pocket cameras have optical zooms that can be used to accomplish the same effect.
In this final shot, the background elements virtually dominate the frame and almost overpower my subject. The vehicle just over his shoulder is about a quarter of a mile (0.4 km) away, though it appears as if it’s a mere stone’s throw behind him.
Background compression can be a good or bad thing, depending on the type of picture you are taking. The key takeaway here is to know what it is, and how to utilize it to get the type of composition you are going for. The longer your focal length, the more you will be able to add this sense of compression to your background. But, it also helps if you have a great deal of distance between your subject and the elements behind it. If my dad were standing a few feet away from something, like a tree or a brick wall, there would be virtually no compression at all, even with a very long focal length.
If the final example in the above series seems a bit extreme, here’s another set of images that show how background compression can be used effectively to enhance the overall composition, rather than overpower your subject.
This is a perfectly serviceable portrait, although I purposely left a bit too much space on the right-hand side in order to illustrate the compression concept. Shot at 35mm, with a wide aperture of f/2.8, the background is nice and blurry, the focus is clearly on the smiling woman, and the background is not too distracting or bothersome. However, re-taking the same picture with a longer focal length, leads to a much more pleasing picture all around.
The same compression shown in the first series of pictures is clearly evident here, though it is used to a much better overall effect. Even though the tree and cars create a background that is somewhat busy, shooting with a wide aperture blurred things out enough, that the focus is still clearly on the woman, while the background serves to add a bit of context to help put the overall composition in perspective.
One final note about compression: it doesn’t just work for foreground elements too as you can see in the following pictures.
I purposely shot this with a much smaller aperture in order to minimize the degree of background bokeh, lest compression be confused with blur. Notice how this woman is sitting squarely in the middle of the bench with plenty of room to her right, and about 50 yards (46 meters) between her, and the trees and cars in the background. Most of the picture is in focu,s which is a direct result of the small aperture.
Here the foreground and background have both been brought nearer to the subject. The trees and cars behind her are much closer, while the bench appears to take up almost no room on the woman’s right side. It might as well be little more than a chair in this picture, and yet, this is merely an illusion created by using a longer focal length while keeping my subject framed appropriately. Most of the picture remains in focus due to the small aperture, and you can clearly see that background compression is not always synonymous with background blur.
As one final example, here is the same woman, on the same bench, shot wide open at f/1.8 with my 85mm lens.
The overall compositional elements remain the same in this final image as the two above, except that I moved myself physically closer to the subject, while shooting at a very wide aperture of f/1.8. The background is severely compressed, and quite blurry, which leads to a rather pleasing portrait.
Background compression can be a bit tricky to understand, but if you play around with different focal lengths you should get the hang of it quickly. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out how to use it to your advantage to create the type of shot you want–especially when doing portraits.
Have you tried using this technique in your own photography? What other tips do you have to share about creative uses for background and foreground compression? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and feel free to share any example images you have as well.
This week on dPS we’re featuring a series of articles about composition. Many different elements and ways to compose images for more impact. Check out the ones we’ve done so far: