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Photo Tips > More from Your Zoom

You can do more with focal length.

If you haven't already, go Focal Length to learn about focal length.

We use our zooms to frame our subject.

We see a scene like the one below, and we zoom in if need be.

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Original

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Zoomed In

Better composition with zooms.

Great!

But, we can use the many focal lengths on our zooms to, apparently,:

• Bulge and flatten subjects,

• Push backgrounds away and pull them closer.

Bulge or Flatten the Subject

Compare the two versions of the birch tree scene below.

The photographs look the same, but they're not.

On the Left

On the left, I was very close.

The focal length was wide angle: 18mm.

Note how the tree in the middle appears to recede.

The tree in the lower-right corner appears to protrude.

The subject bulges.

That's wide-angle vision.

On the Right

On the right, I was far away.

The focal length was telephoto: 70mm.

Note how the two trees appear closer to each other.

The scene appears to be flattened.

That's telephoto vision.

Subject Bulges

Subject is Flattened

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18mm - Wide Angle

Photographer is close.

Result: The subject bulges.

70mm - Telephoto

Photographer is far away.

Result: The subject is flattened.

 

Enlarge Both Photographs

Push Backgrounds Away or Pull Them Closer

Study the backgrounds below.

On the Left

Note the log laying on the hillside in the background.

It appears to be far away.

Again:

• The focal length was wide angle: 18mm.

• That's wide-angle vision.

On the Right

The same log appears to be closer.

Again:

• The focal length was telephoto: 70mm.

• That's telephoto vision.

Background Pushed Away

Background Pulled Closer

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18mm - Wide Angle

Photographer is close.

Result: The background is pushed away.

70mm - Telephoto

Photographer is far away.

Result: The background is pulled in.

 

Enlarge Both Photographs

Another Example

Below, there's a trail marker stuck in a shrub.

The trail marker doesn't change, but the background does.

Background Pushed Away

Background Pulled Closer

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18mm - Wide Angle

Photographer is close.

Result: The background is pushed away.

70mm - Telephoto

Photographer is far away.

Result: The background is pulled in.

 

Enlarge Both Photographs

Note the distant house on the photograph on the right.

It's visible.

That's telephoto vision.

The same house is distant in the photograph on the left.

That's wide-angle vision.

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Example

Let's say you're photographing a toddler for an article on obesity in children.

With your knowledge of focal length, you now have choice.

Check one.

Emphasize the obesity by using a wide-angle focal length.

Make the child look as he or she does in real life by using a medium focal length.

Make the child look less obese by using a telephoto focal length.

Experiment with focal length!

Realistic Focal Lengths

If you're doing a portrait, you need to use the focal length that makes the person look as he or she does in real life.

If you have a digital SLR with an APS-C sensor, the most common sensor, set your zoom to between 55mm and 70mm.

The above focal lengths are appropriate for still lifes, as well.

Dolly Zoom

Cinematographers use the above concepts.

Above, when I did the telephoto photograph, I was far away from the subject.

Then, I walked closer to do the wide-angle photograph.

I could have done the equivalent with a video camera.

Mounted on a dolly on a track in the snow, I would have:

Zoomed the lens from telephoto to wide angle as I moved the camera closer.

The composition would remain the same in the viewfinder.

However, the background would change dramatically, just like it did in the above photographs.

This clip from La Haine is an example of dolly zoom.

The two characters stay about the same size.

As the camera person went from wide-angle to telephoto, the camera was dollied backwards.

Moving the camera back keep the two men framed about the same way during the shot.

Background Pushed Away

Background Pulled Closer

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Wide Angle

Camera is close.

Result: The background is pushed away.

Telephoto

Camera is far away.

Result: The background is pulled in.

 

La Haine - Cameratrick

Here's a visualization of what happens to the perspective when you move the camera.

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Alfred Hitchcock used a dolly zoom in Vertigo.

Go to The "Vertigo shot" and the oneiric narrative.

Fine Point

You may have noticed that apparent was used above.

Your zoom lens isn't expanding and compressing space.

The actual agent of change is where the camera is located in relation to the subject.

When you move closer to the subject:

• The shape of the subject becomes more important.

• The background recedes.

When you move further away from the subject:

• The shape of the subject flattens.

• The background and subject become closer.

Look down a street.

The parked cars on your block look far apart and three dimensional.

The distant cars look compressed and flat.

You photograph the distant cars by zooming in on them.

The photograph makes it look like zooming in created the effect.

But the effect was due to the camera being far away from the cars.

More About Focal Length

Robert Surtees

In an interview, David Fear asked Mike Nichols about Robert Surtees, the innovative cinematographer.

And [Robert] Surtees was a truly great guy to have in your corner if you wanted to do something different.

I remember when we were shooting the scene of Katharine [Ross] visiting Dustin in Berkeley.

I asked Robert before we got to the set, "We're in this small room, but is there a way to shoot this with a long lens?"

And without hesitation, he replied, "Let's remove the walls."

"We can do it that way."

Mike Nichols

Go to Mike Nichols on The Graduate by David Fear.

The long lens, a telephoto lens, appears to compress space.

The two characters in the scene, already close in a room, were made to appear even closer with the use of the telephoto lens.

Walter Murch

Below, film editor Walter Murch discusses the importance of matching a focal length with an actor's face.

The choice of lens is crucial.

There's a chemistry between each actor and a certain lens.

That's a reason for shooting makeup and costume tests with the principal actors before you start the actual production.

One of the things we're doing is studying the chemistry between the angle of the lens and the planarity of the actor's face.

Certain actors will look most themselves if they're photographed with a certain lens at a certain distance.

It has something to do with the translation of a three- dimensional object-the human face-into a two-dimensional photograph.

We've all known people who look better in person than they do in photographs, and vice versa: people who look ordinary in real life and intriguing in photographs.

This is the same kind of thing.

A telephoto lens tends to flatten out its subject, and a wide-angle lens does the opposite: it will curve out a flat subject.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje, Page 197, Knopf, 2002

Summary

Focal length is three tools:

1) Framing

2) Volume manipulation

3) Background manipulation

Use all three for better photographs.