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.