Resist the urge to zoom: The Practicing Photographer

Published by | Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Resist zooming and explore fixed lenses.

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The zoom lens was patented in 1902, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that zoom lenses became increasingly popular on the 35 mm cameras of that era. The zooms of the ’70s were expensive and often lacked the sharpness and contrast of fixed focal length, or prime, lenses.

Today, thanks to advancements in optical design, zoom lenses are common and often inexpensive. Indeed, the “kit lens” that comes with a typical digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera includes a zoom. And the images from a high-quality zoom can stack up against photos taken with a prime lens any day.

It’s all a beautiful story, except for one thing. As Ben Long discusses in this week’s installment of The Practicing Photographer, a zoom lens can make you lazy. Rather than moving closer or farther away from your subject to frame the shot—you can just twist your lens barrel and zoom in or out.

One problem with simply zooming is that your shots won’t look the same as if you actually moved closer or farther away. That’s because a zoom lens’s wide-angle and telephoto settings optically distort the image. Those distortions aren’t bad—indeed, you can employ them as creative tools—but they’re distortions nonetheless. A photo taken with a zoom in its telephoto setting isn’t going to look the same as a photo taken with, say, a 50 mm prime lens you positioned closer to your subject. (To learn why, watch Ben’s Foundations of Photography: Lenses course.)

As Ben points out, the other advantage of shooting with a prime lens is that the fixed focal length forces you to really work your shot—often leading to shots you might not find if you simply stand still and zoom in or out.

So Ben’s challenge this week is to restrict yourself to a fixed focal length for a certain period of time. Don’t zoom. Either use a prime lens if you own one, or put your zoom lens at a specific setting and leave it there, maybe taping its zoom ring into place with a piece of gaffer’s tape.

There’s a common phrase in the photography world: “zoom with your feet.” Try it, and you may find yourself getting shots you would have otherwise missed.

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2 Responses to “Resist the urge to zoom: The Practicing Photographer

  1. AlsoTracy says:

    Most of my photography is of animals. “Zooming with your feet” is a real problem because it affects their behavior in some way.

  2. PaulB says:

    I’ve been doing that for the past few weeks. I did a road trip and an event just using a 50mm f1.8 on a cropped sensor. It’s fun to play with the wide open lens. It was my intension to start with just to see what I would be able to do. I did sort of lose a shot where I was on a fishing pier and wanted a sunset. The foreground had left and right elements I wanted, but there was a navigation aid tower in the middle. I also wanted the tower but I couldn’t get wide enough and on a pier without cutting off the top of the tower and I couldn’t back up. I ended up shooting three shots. I shot a left and right landscape and the portait center. I also shot a landscape up the middle then used photoshop the clipped tower out of the frame to get what I wanted.

    In the end the Photoshop trick worked but the money shot was the portrait. Ben’s point comes home in the end. We like to think in patterns that we are familiar with. Being good means you seek alternatives when things don’t go your way and learning to break old habits just lets you learn new things. It’s all too easy to go for the thing you know well. I have used the time to get better using the 50mm and I also have a 35mm f1.8 as well. I mostly shoot walking around stuff as well as people and I learned a lot and got better using a lens I thought I knew well enough since it is included in the zoom I have.

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