One of the most basic decisions when taking a shot is how close to stand to the model.
If you’re using a prime (fixed-length) lens, the decision is straightforward — stand at the distance required to get the framing you want. If you want to zoom in, walk closer; if you want to zoom out, walk away.
If you’re using a zoom lens, the decision is more complicated. If you want to zoom in, you can either zoom in with the lens, or you can keep the lens as-is and walk closer. Likewise, if you want to zoom out, you can either walk further away, or zoom out with the lens.
You may be asking, “Does it really matter how I zoom in and out?”. The answer is yes, it matters a lot, and that is the subject of this post.
To illustrate why it matters, I took the two photos below. In both, the model was standing in the same spot, and both were shot with the same camera, lens, and settings. Neither photo has been retouched. The only difference in how these two were taken is that the one on top was shot on the wide-angle end of a zoom lens (24mm), and the one on the bottom was shot on the zoomed-in (telephoto) end of the same lens (105mm).
In both photos, I wanted Caroline, the model, to fill the shot. To accomplish this, when I was shooting on the wide-angle end, I was standing very close to the model, and when I was shooting on the telephoto end, I was standing far away. In other words, in the top one, I zoomed in closer with my feet, while in the bottom one, I zoomed in closer with the lens.
As these photos show, it matters very much whether you zoom in with your lens or your feet. There are quite a few differences between the two photos. Among them are:
- The wide-angle shot is more distorted, with straight lines looking slightly curved
- The wide-angle shot makes it seem as if the model is standing further away from the bushes. The photo also makes the distance between the bushes and the window seem greater.
- The telephoto shot makes the model’s face and body seem flatter.
The most noticeable difference, though, is that the wide-angle photo shows a lot more background. For example, the wide-angle shot shows the whole door, while the telephoto shot shows just the corner.
So why the differences?
The picture below is a simplified diagram of how these two photos were taken. In the photo on top and the diagram on the left, the photographer is close to the model, the lens is zoomed out, and so the camera is pulling in light from a very wide angle. (Hence, the term “wide-angle shot”.) In the shot on the bottom and the diagram on the right, the photographer is further away, the lens is zoomed in more, and so the camera is pulling in light from a much narrower angle.
The angle of light that a lens pulls in is called the field-of-view or angle-of-view. The wide-angle shot above was shot at 24mm, which has a field-of-view of about 84 degrees. The zoomed-in shot above was shot at 105mm, which has a field-of-view of about 23 degrees. The narrower the field-of-view, the smaller the section of background that’s included in the photo.
So which way of zooming is best? The answer, like most things in photography, is: It depends. If I’m shooting at a scenic location and want to pick up a lot of background, I shoot at a wide angle:
Note how much of the background on either side of the cosplayer is in the photo because of the extreme wide field-of-view.
On the other hand, if I want to pick up only a narrow sliver of background, I shoot with a narrow field-of-view:
Note that only the background directly behind the cosplayers is in the photo because of the relatively narrow field-of-view. The crowds and neighboring stores have been excluded from the shot.
If you’re shooting with a prime, of course, you don’t have the option of zooming in or out while shooting, so you may not think this post applies to you. It does, though, because at the start of the shoot you picked the lens to shoot with, and in doing so, you’ve decided the field-of-view for the photos from your shoot. You may have chosen a 50mm prime and gotten a medium-wide field of view, or a 200mm prime for a fairly narrow field-of view.
A zoom is more convenient because you can change the field-of-view between each shot. However, since most zoom lenses don’t go from very wide to very narrow, you still need to decide the range of field-of-views for your shoot by choosing which lens to use.
For example, if you own both a 24-105mm and a 70-200mm lens, which one do you take on a shoot? You need to decide the field-of-view you’re going to want for the shots (wide angle or telephoto), and choose appropriately.
As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, one of the keys to a successful shoot is to visualize ahead of time what kinds of shots you’re going to do, and bring the gear appropriate for those shots. Don’t bring a 300mm prime to a shoot and expect to be able to do landscape shots; likewise, don’t bring a 16-35 wide-angle for hallway cosplay shooting and wonder why you’re picking up so much of the crowd.
Unless you’re already very familiar with wide vs. telephoto shots, I highly recommend experimenting until you can visualize the field-of-view. At your next few shoots, if you’re shooting with a zoom, take some photos of the model in the same spot at both the wide-angle and telephoto ends of your lens (like my two shots above), and examine them to see the differences. Try to visualize the difference in the field-of-view angle between the two shots. Which one worked best for that shot, and why?
Mastering field-of-view can be tricky for many people, but once you do, you will have one more skill in your toolbox for making photos look the way you want them.