“Zooming in” seems like one of the simplest things our cameras can do. Whether you own a pocket-sized point-and-shoot or a top of the line DSLR with a zoom lens, getting “closer” can be as easy as the push of a button or the twist of the lens. But zooming isn’t the same thing as keeping the same focal length and actually moving yourself closer to the subject to get the composition you want. The focal length of the lens has a huge impact on the overall composition of the photo.
Here is a photo taken in my front yard (holy weeds, Batman!). I positioned myself so the middle focus point in my viewfinder was right over one dandelion and the left-most focus point was over the dandelion on the left. Basically, I wanted to try to keep the dandelions in the same spot for each subsequent photo, so I needed some reference points.
As you can see, using this long focal length and the fact that I was relatively close to the subject means everything in the background is completely blurred. That darker blue stripe along the top of the photo is actually the front door of my house. In this photo, the dandelions are definitely the subject, and are separated visually from the background.
For the next photo, I zoomed in to 135mm and moved a little closer to the subject to try to frame it the same way. The dandelions look pretty much the same and are still separated from the background, but notice that the blue stripe along the top of the photo has gotten a little smaller.
At 100mm, you can see a bit more definition in that blue stripe, but it also appears to have moved back. Even though the distance between the dandelions and my front door is obviously constant, the door looks slightly farther away.
At 72mm, you can finally make out a bit of the background. It’s still blurred enough so it isn’t distracting, but you can see the shrubs on either side of the door and a bit of the garage.
50mm is where the visual distance between the dandelions and the front of my house really opens up. Notice that now we can see the entire shrub on the left and more of the garage. Also notice how many more of the surrounding dandelion stems are in the frame when compared to the earlier shots.
At 35mm, the house in the background completely distracts from the subject. You can see the front of my car, the entire window on the left, and a yellow dandelion has crept into the bottom of the frame. At this point, I am as close as I can get to the dandelion while still being able to focus.
17mm is pretty wide angle, and this shot really shows that. The dandelions are slightly smaller in the frame in this shot simply because I couldn’t get any closer than I was in the 35mm shot, but I think the difference is still apparent enough that I’ll be forgiven for the slight inconsistency! Even though the subject is still similarly sized and placed in the frame, you can now see the entire scene: my house, my car, the tree I was lying under, and the other dandelions at the base of the ones that acted as my subjects. Also notice how far away the house looks. The wider angle not only shows us a lot more of the background, but it also gives the appearance of the house being farther away. It’s not, of course, but the illusion is definitely convincing.
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a little animated gif to show the effect…
One place you have probably seen this, perhaps without realizing what you were seeing, is in movies and television shows. The “dolly zoom”, as it is called, changes the focal length of the lens they are using while, at the same time, moving the camera towards or away from the subject. This gives the visual effect of moving the subject towards or away from the background. It’s used to great effect in Hitchcock’s films, as well as in Spielberg’s Jaws, but now is used so often that it’s easy to ignore.
As you can see, focal length makes a big difference in composition. Using a telephoto lens will help to isolate the subject from the background, which can be great if you don’t want anything to distract from the subject. But this also emphasizes the distance between the viewer and the subject. Even though the subject has been brought visually “closer” by the lens, the viewer can get the sense that they are separate from the scene.
A wide angle lens, on the other hand, can draw the viewer in and make them feel like they are part of the scene. William Eggleston’s photo of a tricycle (1970) uses this to great effect. By getting as close as possible to the subject with a wide-angle lens, the subject looms over the viewer, drawing them into the photo.
Whether you have a pocket camera or a DSLR, spend this week playing with focal length. Try an experiment like the one I did, or take a walk around the neighbourhood and see if you can emulate Eggleston’s Tricycle photo. I’d love to see how you have used focal length to achieve an artistic effect in your photos!