Do you remember clear back to the post that started all this: 10 Cool Features of Your Digital Camera You Should Learn and Use? In it I declared that the “Zoom” feature was first on the list because it’s the one feature that almost everybody who had picked up a digital camera had used. Then in Zoom, Zoom, Zoom – Part I I said I had gone through numerous cameras each time getting more and more zoom. What I didn’t tell you is that I very rarely use the maximum zoom.
(Note: Zoom – Part I was all about the difference between optical (lens) and digital (electronic magic). In case you didn’t notice, I don’t use digital zoom. So unless I specifically mention it, anything I say about zoom in this or future posts refers strictly to optical zoom.)
There are a few things you ought to know about how zooming in and out might affect the image more than just how much of it fills the frame.
Altering Reality With Your Zoom
Not far from where I live used to be a favorite place for hunting ducks, and on the opening day of the season the hunters would be lined up along the banks of the lake so it made an easy photo to just shoot down the line of a dozen or so hunters. In that evening’s paper was a photograph that looked like all the hunters were standing shoulder to shoulder. You’d think that as the shells ejected from their guns they would hit the guy next to them. Actually there were several yards between each one, so how did they do that?
The fact is that the more the telephoto the more it compacts the images in the lens. If you had to read that three times and are still not sure what it meant, let me illustrate.
Check out these photos of traffic coming down the interstate. In the first photo it looks like traffic is fairly heavy. Look how close the cars and trucks appear to be to each other.
That photo is taken at a very powerful zoom, approximately 18 times more telephoto than the second photo where you can see the same cars and trucks and in reality they are quite spread out and there is plenty of room. The effect is so dramatic that you may have a hard time believing that I didn’t do some trickery. Well I didn’t and I’ll prove it. If you look real close you’ll see several things. Go to the first photo again and look at the white lane marker lines. See how short and close together they look, also look how compacted the trucks look. Now, look at the lane marker lines and the truck trailers in the second photo. You know they are actually the same length but the long telephoto lens has just compressed them in photo 1.
Does this mean you should not use a long telephoto? It certainly doesn’t. After all, you might be like the newspaper photographer and want to intentionally alter reality to make your point. Depending on the point you’re trying to make you could use one photo to say how bad traffic is getting on I-15 even in the middle of the day, or you could zoom out to the wide angle and point out how the new lanes have made everything so much better. The important thing is that you are aware of this effect when you are choosing your perspective.
Wide Angle to Telephoto
In order to meet consumer demands camera manufacturers are making their zoom lenses go from wide angle to telephoto. What that means to you is that what is considered a person’s normal eye view is somewhere in between the two extremes (usually closer to the wide angle end). When you are zoomed all the way out on today’s lenses you are “seeing” wider than normal and of course zooming in to telephoto is like picking up a pair of binoculars. I talked about the effects of zooming in above, now a quick note about wide angle. When you are at full wide angle chances are very great that at some point the photo will begin to distort. The corners of the photo will turn toward each other. Even the most expensive lenses will do it at some point. Some lenses, called fish eye lenses, will make as square object into a complete circle.
Look at these exciting compositions of a genuine brick wall. For these photos I used the most basic camera we had in the house. It’s the same one I used for the optical/digital zoom samples in Zoom – Part I. I went out looking for some straight lines and found them right on the side of my house. The first photo is with the lens just slightly zoomed in. You’ll see that all the bricks and mortar are in a nice straight line.
In photo #2 the house appears to be slightly pregnant. You may see it better if you move back a little. This is great because next time a photo makes you look fat you can just say that they must have taken it at full wide angle with a cheaper lens. The truth is this will probably never have much effect on your pictures, but be aware that the effect may there.
A couple more points you should be aware of as you enjoy your zoom capabilities.
- If you’re using more than about a 3x to 4x zoom, especially in less than bright sunlight, you should probably use a tripod or find some other good way to steady your camera. Think about it. If it’s enlarging the image by 4x it is also magnifying any movement by 4x and even at 1/125th of a second or less, you could get motion blur and ruin your great picture.
- Speaking of less than bright sunlight, the more you zoom in the less light your lens can take in. So if you are in a low light situation and your lens has to be wide open the more you zoom in the longer the exposure has to be and the more likely you’ll get motion blur. Then it is doubly important to have something like a tripod to steady your camera.
Your assignment for this lesson in zoom is to go out with your own camera and do what I did.
- Find something that is evenly spaced coming towards you, even a row of fence posts would do, and then photograph it at full telephoto and full wide angle and examine the photos.
- Find some straight lines, like the bricks on a building, and photograph them in full wide angle and then zoomed in just a little bit and see what your lens does to the full wide angle one. Every lens is different and you may get no effect or you may be worse than mine.
- Get out there and take some pictures and have fun.