How to Use Your Zoom Lens as a Compositional Aid

How to Use Your Zoom Lens as a Compositional Aid


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.

Image by Jay Williams

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?

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Brett Rosen April 24, 2011 03:57 pm

    I tried pulling the EXIF data from the photo but DPS saved them as PNG files and are not beyond my knowledge. I wish DPS would keep them as full jpg

  • Efrain December 3, 2010 03:32 am

    @Carl Hahn:

    I think you kinda missed the point of the article, Carl. What the article shows is how different fields of view, which are given by different focal lengths, can make or break a picture when you don't have a choice for a background.

    I personally think it is a great article in that it shows a different way to accomplish things when you are restricted at certain aspects like where you can or can not stand in a museum, a very narrow street or alley, a portrait at the tip of the Eiffel Tower, the sits you got in a stadium, etc.

  • Carl Hahn November 29, 2010 03:35 am

    Zooms are great, but most of them do not have fast lenses. Example f 4.5 - 5.6. A faster lens is more expensive, put does a better job in some cases. IThe picture ou took had way too much depth of field. The background was all clutter which distracted from the subject. A lens opening ot f 2.0 or 2.8 would have made a much better picture. Myself, I ma going back to a prime lens, 50mm f1.4. Mmost people would never look at a lens like this because they consider it old fashioned and useless. Not so. A f 1.4 lens lets in 8 times more light thant a f 5.6 or 4 full stops. If you look at new lenses that have been recently announced, Canon has a f 1.0 which adds another stop, and Nikon has a f 1.4. For what they do, there prices are reasonable. A prime lens will alwlys be sharper that any zoom lens. I hate to burst your bubble, but ask any professional photographer and he will confirm wht I just wrote.

  • NIKONNISTA November 17, 2010 08:16 pm

    thanks so much for this info ,well for me I do use my feet and zoom and do a lot of experimenting.

  • chattphotos November 17, 2010 08:56 am

    So I was doing it right

    Pentax K-7 is my camera of choice, I dare to be different on a budget and to shoot just as good as the pros with a similar Canon or Nikon.

    Anyways, I love love love my 50-200mm lens, I use it as a compositional aid all the time when shooting models, weddings, people, parties, and pets. The DOF/blur makes the subjects stand out vividly without a need for softening in photoshop.

    With the right stitching software, you can also use a zoom lens to make super high-res photos, think like medium format size. If one has a 14MP camera, and you shoot 4 photos in the fashion top-left, top right, bottom left, bottom right, with a 20% overlap you can get a ~28MP image. It gets bigger with each added image in a 2x3 or 3x3 format.

  • Todd November 15, 2010 12:57 pm

    I love the discussion taking place here in regards to aperture, focal length, and depth of field. For those talking about prime lens depth of field versus focal length depth of field just imagine how good life would be with a long range prime! My 85mm f/1.8 turns the background into butter. Real, live, edible butter. Nom.

  • Anonymous November 15, 2010 03:40 am

    @Wildan A telephoto zoom lens magnifies everything so it makes the subject look more powerful and brings the background closer so the background is blown up too. it's kinda confusing.

  • Doug McKay November 13, 2010 03:55 am

    This was a very good!
    Excuse me while I expose my age a bit here: When 35mm cameras were becoming popular the driving force of the product development was portability. In effect it provided for an explosion in the amount of photograph being done and the numbers of people taking pictures.

    What we call prime lens today were all that was available in the beginning and the selection was limited. There was sort of an unwritten rule the photograph images should be true. While the subject was up to the integrity of the photographer the accuracy of recording the image was up the lens designer/manufacture. This rule is the reason we have lens with the focal lengths we do. The 50mm lens on a 35mm camera is very close to what you see with your eyes in respect to size, proportion and depth of field, well provided you have good eye sight. In order for a 35mm format to be exactly as per a human eye it would be 48. Something mm.

    When longer focal lengths were for 35mm cameras were brought into the market, so did heavy instruction booklets on how to use them. Remember the “photo must be true rule”. While much of the writing extolled the benefits of getting close up without being close up and the possibility to capture images never before possible- Deeper into the instruction was another story. If you got past the first half of the booklet you found you self dropped into tables of fine print, abbreviations of words you did not know and scientific forms of numbers you most likely never saw in school. After sometime of leaning slowly what all of this meant, you found that it translated to the curse of long focal length- distance compression.

    Ah, you might say so why is that not good. In those days the rule and honor was a photo was a true representation. In a Nikon book that I got along with a photo journalist camera kit (Viet Nam War time) actually has a paragraph about the integrity of photographic images taken for reasons other than art or entertainment. It suggested (strongly) that any photo submitted for publication state in the description it was taken with a (xxx) telephoto lens and the image size & proportion is not actual size.

    I would suppose many of us have been using telephoto and zoom lens to help in composing of our photographs. It is very good to see it explained here. Particularly since many of use start using the new camera as soon as we figure out from the instructions the basics of turning it on and after that sort of don’t look at the manual until we have a problem.

    Thank You

  • D R HOOPER November 12, 2010 10:35 pm

    Although I really like the idea behind this article and it is very well written, I think that the choice of images could have been better. With that 200mm the photographer should have realized that there was a large RED light or banner or something coming out of the subject's left ear/side of head and moved a bit so that something like that didn't happen. I thought that it was going to be an article about how you can use this type of lens to "SEE" those types of errors and make the necessary movements to fix them before shooting......guess not, eh?

  • George E. Norkus November 12, 2010 01:57 pm

    This article enlightens many people as to a couple uses of a zoom. The same thing can happen when you use your feet while using a prime. That's called Photography!

    The new generation of shooters have to learn somewhere. For them, this article very good! For the old timers, (myself included), it's a good refresher.

  • Mahesh November 12, 2010 11:34 am

    Great tips..zoom really makes a lot of difference

  • Pennybryn November 12, 2010 10:58 am

    This is wonderful advice - especially with the explanatory pictures - Thanks heaps!!

  • Antonio November 12, 2010 09:52 am

    I would never have known that! I am going out shooting tomorrow and will try it out myself. Thank You!

  • eeeallan November 12, 2010 06:50 am

    I have a question, can't you use large aperture at a lower focal length so that they look the same?

  • Oswaldo November 12, 2010 05:18 am

    Great articule!!!, thanx guys. A+

  • John November 12, 2010 03:53 am

    I can't help but notice the subtle change in subject's pose: as the distance increases, she turns into the shot and seems to relax and smile more as well--it may be purely coincidental but perhaps not (the psychology involving the time and repetition, familiarity and distance, are undoubtedly complex)--in any event I think it also adds appeal to the longer shots.

  • Carrie November 12, 2010 03:52 am

    One of my favourite articles every on here! Well done! Thanks!

  • Michelle W November 12, 2010 03:50 am

    I tend to follow this advice almost to a fault (as it can't be used all the time but it is my favorite way of shooting a portrait if I can get away with it). The separation a zoom lens or even a telephoto lens can give between the subject and the background is unparalleled. Its also helpful with making a subject look less distorted than a wide angle or even a 50mm equivalent. Thanks for another great article! :)

  • Elena November 12, 2010 03:15 am

    You know, as a matter of fact I do use the zoom as a compositional tool. I also use it to get that compressed effect with a high f-stop or to get a blurred background with a low f-stop. There's a lot that can be done. I have a Nikon D80 with a Tamron zoom lens, 18-200mm, that lens is a godsend. Love all these tips, I'm a huge fan.

  • Sam Britton November 12, 2010 02:31 am

    Darren. Was the model in the same position in all of these shots? I'm presuming she was. I personally love the impact of the 135mm and 200mm concepts. To me they deliver more impact for a total composition. Thanks for this tip. SB

  • Mo November 12, 2010 02:30 am

    The headline for this article didn't draw me in. To be honest I skipped over it several times but after finally reading it I'm very grateful that I did. I found the topic very interesting and the multiple pictures really helped illustrate.

  • Geri-Jean November 12, 2010 02:26 am

    Thank you SO much !!!

  • Geri-Jean November 12, 2010 02:26 am

    Thank you SO much !!!

  • Suraj November 12, 2010 02:07 am

    Very good and nice article! Thank You !

  • Phalgun November 10, 2010 05:34 pm

    Interesting Article. But I don't know if you guys noticed the features on the face varying directly with the variation in the focal length. This is the biggest lesson as well. Many people look funny because of the barrel distortion in a wide angle lens. This is the first thing I show my clients when they ask why we use the 85mm or the 135mm lens for portraits.

    You can see more portraits at

  • sillyxone November 10, 2010 07:03 am

    @wildan: when you zoom in on a telephoto lens, the distance, and thus, DOF is compressed. So although the aperture is a little smaller, the DOF is compressed way more (for long focal length).

    You can play around with the DOF calculator to have a clearer idea:

  • Jesse Kaufman November 10, 2010 04:01 am

    "Do you experiment with different focal lengths to produce different compositions and perspectives in your shots?"

    I will now! ;) ... i've done some in the past (mostly to get the bokeh I wanted), but i didn't realize the true power until comparing the pix at the beginning of this article ... very, very helpful! :)

  • Paul November 10, 2010 02:54 am


    OK, good, got your attention... ;-)

    The 200mm look is super, it's what I'm after with my 5D Mark II, but you haven't told us if you shot that on a full frame or crop sensor body (crop sensor would obviously mean that it's really 320mm). I'm pretty sure you shoot full frame, but if you could confirm that it'd be much appreciated. Thanks!

  • Chris November 10, 2010 02:26 am

    Great article. Short and sweet and gets the point across. Pictures are a thousand words and speak for themselves almost in this case.

    More articles like this please.

  • bryan November 10, 2010 01:37 am

    great advice this is always illustrated best with picture examples

  • Brian Perkins November 9, 2010 09:54 pm

    Nice write up! Thanks!
    I like the "reverse" thinking approach to using a zoom lens - Not , I need to zoom in so my depth will get squashed, but I want my depth squashed so I will zoom in and then compose. It is interesting that this does seem to be the approach that people take more often with primes; using them for their depth characteristics, etc..

  • dandellion November 9, 2010 07:06 pm

    Beside that... with tele lens one can use low DoF and blur the background into nice colors with no details.

  • Edu Pérez November 9, 2010 05:23 pm


    Yes, on some zooms (but not on all of them), the maximum aperture is reduced on the longer focal lenghts; but the focal length has an influence on the DOF, too.

  • Ruth November 9, 2010 04:28 pm

    Excellent visual representation when in the photography books they said the zoom flattens a picture. This shows that the background comes in and crowds the subject in unexpected ways. I have used zooms in getting close to people that don't want me in their face. This explains the background issues that sometimes causes problem. Great article.

  • Fiona November 9, 2010 03:15 pm

    I have always tended to like the photos I take with my zoom from far away zoomed up close. Now I understand why. I could see the difference but not pin point what it was. Thanks!

  • Luis Garcia November 9, 2010 01:07 pm

    I remember this set of images from the EF Lens book (yes, I read through it). It's a great illustration of how your focal length affects your composition. Like Mike T, I tend to favor the extremes. I like using a wide (10-22 or 17-40) on one camera and a tele (70-200) on another.

  • DM|ZE November 9, 2010 11:49 am

    This was a great article with superb examples. Thank you for such a quick and clear focus.

  • scotthl November 9, 2010 08:30 am

    Really nice example photos, I had this pointed out to me a little while ago though it was described as

    "use your feet to decide how much of the subject you see and use your zoom to decide how much of the background you see"

    I'm still trying to make it a habit to think about this (and all the other things I'm learning) when I'm taking pictures :)

  • SteveB November 9, 2010 08:19 am

    Great article Darren. Quick, clean, simple, direct. The pics really drove the point home. Thanks.

  • Deney November 9, 2010 06:41 am

    Thank you for this reminder!

    I've been stuck switching between my 28mm and 50mm lately.

  • Matt Needham November 9, 2010 06:38 am

    Notice that the model's head and face change shape as perspective changes. Use feet (camera placement) to control perspective. Use focal length to crop in camera.

  • St Louis Wedding Photographer November 9, 2010 05:47 am

    Definitely true about the background. The other thing that may be a little more subtle is that the more you zoom, the more a person looks skinny. That's one of the reasons why certain lenses are said to be better for portraiture.

    One other thing that really plays in here is whether your camera is a cropped sensor or full frame sensor. A cropped sensor changes the effective focal length of any lens to further out.

  • Barbara November 9, 2010 05:34 am

    Nicely written and illustrated. I will keep this in mind when shooting with the zoom next time.

  • Scott November 9, 2010 05:13 am

    Very interesting article, I've never considered the effect of a zoom lense in this way but I definitely will in the future. This is "news we can use". Well written with exemplary photographs included.

    I may have done this, by accident, once....

  • Mike T November 9, 2010 04:46 am

    Good article -and to answer your question, Yes I totally do shoot various focal lengths with my zoom. For me, I usually like to work at the "extremes" of my lens focal length.

    To use you photo examples above, My two favorite shots are the 16mm and the 200mm. However I can't decide which of those two images I like better - both in my opinion are equally good.

  • Leo Mangubat November 9, 2010 04:37 am

    Very short and very simple explanation yet very clear. This didn't took too much space to write but took a lot of space in my brain! This is great! Keep on posting! Thanks a lot!

  • The_one November 9, 2010 03:31 am

    Thx! Great tips! Will help a lot in different situations.

  • Chris November 9, 2010 03:23 am

    This is the most eye-opening post and clear I've read in a while on DPS. Thank you!

  • Girish Kamath November 9, 2010 03:19 am

    Wow... thx for this insight. I never realised how different images would look. I normally tend to always zoom in at 200mm or take wide shots at 18 mm using my 18-200mm lens. I am certainly going to practise this tip to make my photos more interesting.

    thx once again for this great tip.

  • TrentReznor November 9, 2010 03:19 am

    Nothing new here but the example pics are a nice illustration. Quite interesting how far away the buildings seem at 16 mm. Looks like 200 feet or more. On the 200 mm shot they seem to be right behind the model.

    Like the 200 mm the best. Blurry background's always a nice touch in a portrait shot.

  • Matthew November 9, 2010 03:13 am

    This is definitely true. You want to use both your lenses zoom and your "foot zoom" as options during your creative process. There's obviously places you can't foot zoom (off the side of a cliff, into water, get too close to a wild animal) but thinking about bot can certainly give you a better shot.

  • Celesta November 9, 2010 03:02 am

    The further the camera is away from the focal point, the larger are the circles of confusion in the background. In other words, you can zoom on the subject of your focal point from different distances to make it the same relative size on the photo, but the appearance of the background will vary significantly, allowing for different artistic results.
    Great illustrations to the point.

  • dok November 9, 2010 02:55 am

    Surely, for me, one of the most useful post i've read on dps. The examples provided are worth 10,000 words! Thanks

  • Nina November 9, 2010 02:41 am

    I love your tips. I make a habit of trying different techniques all the time. But sometimes we get 'stuck' and forget things we know. Your tips often help me get back to the art of creating. Thank you.

  • Paul November 9, 2010 02:32 am

    Hi, the 200mm shot looks great to me, the pulled-in background makes it. Was that 200mm on a full-frame or crop sensor?

  • sillyxone November 9, 2010 01:49 am

    also keep in mind the amount of light available too, as it limits the speed => aperture => zoom. Great article nonetheless, beginners like me tend to focus more on the subject and forget about the background when composing. Thanks.

  • DVS November 9, 2010 01:13 am

    Great tip! Seems like such common sense, but still needed someone to spell it out and articulate it with concert examples. Well done. -DVS

  • Allison Jane November 9, 2010 12:50 am

    I've been doing this for a little while now. I discovered it accidentally in all honesty. I was just trying to put alot of space between the client and myself, to help them relax a bit more. I became a fan of this trick ever since.

  • Audrey November 9, 2010 12:49 am

    I find this article VERY intersting and I haven't experimented with focal length! I usually tamper with aperture to blurr the background...

    Would it be possible to explore the subject more deeply? I'd appreciate it a lot!

    Thanks! =)

  • Timo November 9, 2010 12:38 am

    This is well written indeed!

    I must admit that I am a "prime lens guy", since normally I know in advance what I want to shoot and what to expect. Sometimes I carry a second body with a prime lens of another focal length with me, so I can switch without changing lenses. This gives me the advantage of better image quality and larger aperture than possible with normal zoom lenses.

    However, there are still many situations in which I don't know for sure what I can expect and for these cases I use a zoom lens as well. As I am used to the fact that my legs are my zoom, I use the zoom for composing aspects (i.e. field of vision).
    But I see a great "danger" that zoom lenses make you lazy indeed (especially beginners) - so perhaps it is a good way to start out with prime lenses and then go zoom later if need arises.

    Again - this is a great article that will be quite useful for many readers!

  • Bob November 9, 2010 12:24 am

    Very informative example photos and a well written post. Keep up posts like this one!

  • Wildan November 9, 2010 12:17 am

    excuse me, i'm a bit confused.. isn't the aperture in a zoom lens will become smaller when the greater focal length is used? the smaller apeture means the wider depth-of-field, right? so how could the background become blurrer? isn't it supposed to be clearer? or it's not the DOF that we're talking about here? please explain it, thank you sir.