Posted by: kerryl29 | October 15, 2019

The Zoom Crutch

When I first started photographing, zoom lenses were widely regarded as optical junk and for years I relied on a limited set of fixed focal length lenses.  But the optics of zoom lenses have improved tremendously over the years.  They still don’t match the quality of fixed focal length lenses (it’s obviously easier to craft a lens for a single focal length than a range of lengths), but they’ve come so far that it’s perfectly reasonable to consider whether the flexibility of a zoom is worth the (in many cases) relatively small image quality trade-off.  I myself decided, quite some time ago, that the trade-off was, in fact worth it, and today the only fixed focal length lens I own is of the macro variety.

Mono Lake at Sunrise, Mono County, California

But while the aforementioned versatility that a zoom lens provides is great, zooms are not without a potential downside (separate from any IQ limitations).

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who doesn’t regard himself as a “serious” photographer but is trying to improve his compositional skills, using his smartphone as his camera.  At some point, the discussion turned to the subject of what the smartphone camera could and couldn’t do and I mentioned that, while he didn’t have the ability to swap lenses, he did have a zoom capability.  I cautioned, however, against the tendency to rely on the camera’s zoom function to find the image and he admitted that, in fact, he often does spend a lot of time zooming in and out, while remaining physically fixed in place, to discover the “best” shot.

Moonset, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

I think just about everyone goes through a phase like the one described above.  (I didn’t, but I’m all but certain that’s only because I didn’t have any zoom lenses for years.)  Almost literally ever photographer I’ve talked to about this subject admits to running into this foible.

Wood Pattern black & white, Red Canyon, Dixie National Forest, Utah

In fact, simply zooming in and out, in and of itself, isn’t really all that problematic.  But there’s an associated problem:  zooming like this, almost invariably, takes the place of actually looking over a scene with the naked eye and–this is probably even more important–routinely eliminates physical movement on the part of the photographer.  Both of these actions are, in my view, tremendously important to the process of image-making.

Easton Road Birches, Grafton County, New Hampshire

It is my firm and stated belief that photography is principally about seeing.  I think it’s critically important to explore a scene organically–that is, at first, with your own eyes.  Identify the center of interest unaided.  Establish the proximate focal length, select the lens of choice accordingly, and then put your eye to the viewfinder.  At this point, the zooming begins, but it’s a fine tuning exercise.  Maybe you want to photograph at 27 mm, perhaps 26 or 28.  But, it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), that you shouldn’t be zooming between, say, 28 and 200 mm trying to “find the shot.”  The shot should be “found” before the zooming begins.

Driftwood Epic, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

And if the photographer is fixated on the zoom process to “find the shot,” he/she has effectively become locked into the spot occupied when the zooming begins.  That’s far too limited an approach.  Finding the image with the naked eye, as suggested in the above paragraph, has an implied second component:  move!  Physically move your body to find the most interesting manner in which to photograph the scene that caught your eye in the first place.  You can’t (or won’t) do that if you’re constantly zooming in and out.

Middle Falls, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

This is not a post written in opposition to zoom lenses.  As I noted at the outset, I almost exclusively use zooms myself.  But it is a recommendation not to allow your zoom lens to be an inhibitor to the creative process that makes photography such a compelling endeavor in the first place.

The zoom function of a lens is a tool; use it as such.  Don’t allow it to be an impediment to your vision.

1883 Barn, Tompkins County, New York


Responses

  1. Brilliant and Very Helpful Post! I suffered from being to lazy to move my myself physically (to the ruination of many a photo) throughout the years.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      No question about it, the willingness to change positions and investigate different perspectives is a key part of the creative photographic process.

  2. All you stated are true. We should train ourselves to compose the shot first before taking the photograph. The benefits of the zoom lens though is still undeniable. I actually set the focal distance first before composing the shot and only adjust the zoom if i have no other choice.

    • Thanks for weighing in.

      It sounds as though you may be a bit more hard core on the subject of zooming than I am. 🙂 I don’t set the focal length prior to composing; I make a rough–not exact–judgment on focal length when surveying the scene with the naked eye. When I’m ready to formally compose, I set up the tripod, put the camera on the head, and then zoom to whatever focal length effectively matches that naked eye view. Then I will fine tune that composition, sometimes by moving the tripod (and/or the head), sometimes by tweaking the focal length, and sometimes both.

      • This conversation addresses some questions that came to my mind as i read the post. I’m not sure I’m as conscious of the process as you both have described it. I know I do consider the scene with my eyes first, then with the viewfinder, then mount the camera on the tripod with an idea of whether I need to be more at the wide angle end of the zoom range or more at the tele end. But sometimes once I have the camera mounted, I will take shots at a variety of focal lengths if it seems appropriate to do so. This occurs more often when using a zoom lens with a relatively small range (like 24-105mm) than when using say the 100-400mm zoom.

        • I want to clarify one thing, and then substantively comment on something you wrote.

          I don’t have a preconceived in-field process that I follow. In other words, I haven’t decided, before the fact, that that is the way to compose (and ultimately capture) images. The process evolved naturally and I’m just relating what I almost always do. I’m not really conscious of it it in real time either; it’s just something that unfolds, more or less invariably.

          Here’s the part I wanted to directly address: “But sometimes once I have the camera mounted, I will take shots at a variety of focal lengths if it seems appropriate to do so.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. But after thinking about it, I concluded that I virtually never do this, at least not with a wide angle or normal focal length lens, and not without moving my location, at least subtly. I have, on rare occasions, done this with a telephoto lens if I’m picking out small slices of a vast landscape.

          For instance, during our trek up to (and beyond) Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range of Alaska last year (https://lightscapesphotography.wordpress.com/2018/10/09/alaska-atigun-pass-snowfall/), some of the abstracts that I produced were made from the same spot using the same lens at different focal lengths…though I believe I always adjusted the tripod head on each shot…so none of them are the same perspective with a different field of view (i.e. different focal length). Upon further reflection I don’t think I really ever do that.

  3. Thanks for this, I will be more mindful of searching my composition before using the zoom to find a composition. I know that presently I work from both perspectives. When I had the cataracts, I relied heavily on the zoom lens just to find the subject and it was debateable whether anything was in focus or not. Sure happy not to be doing that anymore. It will do me good to be putting my body into high, low positions and closer, further stances to check out my environment for various perspectives. Always appreciate your knowlege and wisdom on the topic of photography- it is evident that you put it into practice. Those clouds in the first image are everyone’s dream and those autumn colours are brilliant!

    • Thanks, Jane.

      Cataracts are, clearly, a huge inhibition to carrying out photography, or anything visual, really. I took a peek at some of the entries on your blog and judging by your bird photos, your vision issues have been addressed. Great work!

  4. This is amazing

    • Thanks very much!

  5. Great post. Seeing definitely helps make the composition better. I only carry one prime lens with me most of the time, a 50mm 1.8. It’s pretty difficult to take photos of the giant oak trees in this area without using a zoom lens. They can be very tall and wide.

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      Have you considered adding another prime (a 24/1.8, for instance)? That would go a long way to solving your problem.

      You can go the prime route, rather than using zooms, to open up some possibilities. One additional wide angle prime, even a fast one, is small and light and you could stick in your pocket.

      • I have on on my “to get” list. I still pop on the kit 18-55mm occasionally. It works well in good light.

  6. very nice!

  7. Hi Kerry, this is truly one of the best posts you have written. Following along with the above text…Someone once told me that some of the best zoom lenses available are the ones attached to your ankles.

    • Thanks, David.

      Re zoom lenses and ankles…good advice! I should have made the point explicitly in the post: zooming only changes your field of view, it doesn’t change your perspective. The only way to do that is to MOVE!

  8. Majestic!

    Regards Thom

    • Thanks very much!

  9. Beautiful Pics, I particularly like your Easton Road Birches, and Middle Falls.

  10. Love my zoom lenses. Two zoom lenses mounted on two camera bodies on a long walk or hike and I’m ready for just about anything that might inspire me.

    • Agreed. There’s a lot of versatility incumbent in using zooms.


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