Sunday, January 3, 2021

12 Days of DSLR Day 9: Zooming vs. Cropping - watch the background and move your feet

This one is a bit of a mash-up between two previous posts: Zooming vs. Cropping: Perspective in Photography and Remember the Background and Move Your Feet! Yesterday's composition basics will do you no good if you aren't willing to move around and experiment with where and how you are standing to get the best shot.

Welcome to the 12 Days of DSLR! We’re revisiting and updating 12 of our most popular posts to give you the jumpstart on making the most of your DSLR camera. This series is aimed at first-time DSLR owners as well as those who want a little more guidance for how the make the most out of shooting with a DSLR.

Day 9: Zooming vs. Cropping - watch the background and move your feet

One overlooked aspect of composition is the difference between zooming and cropping when getting to the final composition. Zooming, of course, is changing the length of your lens to create the final composition (whether on a point-and-shoot, DSLR, or any camera in-between). Zooming happens in the field, while you are taking a photograph. Cropping, on the other hand, is changing the photograph itself, after it has been taken, by selecting a smaller section of the original photograph to make the final image. Zooming happens with your lens or with your feet; cropping happens on your computer.

The distinction matters for several reasons. One is that cropping decreases the amount of pixels in your final image, which can impact how well you can blow up and display or print the final image. The second is that how you choose your zoom (based on where you stand) impacts the perspective of the final photograph, while cropping does not. Wide angle lenses (or wide focal lengths) tend to expand and distort perspective, while zoom lenses (and narrower focal lengths) tend to compress a scene and make objects seem relatively closer together. These different focal lengths can greatly change the perspective of your scene.

These images below of my "portrait session" with my old car serve as a good visual. I decided to take a series of shots at different zoom lengths to see which one offered the best perspective. To accomplish this, I had to zoom with my lens as well as my feet. For the first image, at 18 mm (the widest focal length for the lens I was using), I was standing very close to the car, slightly in the road itself. For the 35 mm shot, I had to back up to just across the road. This gave me the same compositional placement as the first shot (with the car the same approximate size within the frame). Then I repeated the process of backing up and taking another picture at 50, 100, 150, 200, and 270 mm (the maximum zoom amount for the lens I was using).

Zooming Vs. Cropping: perspective in photography | Boost Your Photography
Impact of changing focal length (and backing up) on perspective.

This collage shows six of those images, each shot at the same ISO (100) and aperture (f/16). The top row of shots was shot at a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, and the bottom row of shots was shot at 1/60th of a second (to make the darker tree backdrop a little lighter). The differences between each of the shots are purely a result of the changing perspective from each of the different focal lengths.

Comparison of 18 mm and 35 mm focal lengths on perspective

The differences are quite apparent when comparing the widest shot, 18 mm, with the next widest shot, 35 mm. The 35 mm length is considered to be most similar to the view and perspective that is captured by our eyes, and this photograph matches how the car 'naturally' looked to me at the time. The wider 18 mm view creates distortion in closer objects, which exaggerates the lines of the front of the car in particular. This view of cars is often used to make them seem large, grand, or imposing, as the car seems to dominate over the wide views in the background.

This distortion of objects at wide focal lengths can create problems when photographing portraits. While a distorted look is common in photographs of cars, a wide angle and up-close photograph of a person is far less flattering and tends to over-emphasize features, making noses look large or faces look wide. This is why lens in the 85-120 mm lengths are often referred to as 'portrait' lenses: these focal lengths give a perspective of the human face that is considered more flattering. (See more about Portrait Photography Basics.)

But back to the discussion of cropping. While I can crop an image I took from farther away to make it look like I was standing closer to that object or using a longer zoom, cropping cannot replicate the changes in perspective from actually standing closer to that object. Only zooming in or out for the shot and moving your feet changes the perspective.

Comparison of 35 mm and 270 mm focal lengths on perspective

Standing in one location (such as where I took the 270 mm shot) and changing the zoom on your lens will make photographs that are different. It will not, however, make photographs that have any differences in perspective. The relative locations and impact of the foreground and the background will remain the same. If you want to change the perspective, if you want to emphasize one object over another or influence their relationships to each other, you will need to change your zoom and move your feet. Read on for more on how moving your feet can impact your photography.

Watch the Background and Move Your Feet

As a photographer, your mind is always on your subject – whether that is a person, a physical object, an idea, or an inspiration. But if you are wondering why many of your images look and feel more like snapshots than photographs, it may be because you are focusing too much on your subject and not enough on everything else in your viewfinder.

The background of the image is often overlooked by beginning and casual photographers. Everyone has, at times, fallen prey to the allure of the subject and neglected to notice some background detail that will, upon discovery, ruin what might have been a wonderful image. This category includes the classic ‘pole growing out of someone’s head’ shot where the subject accidentally aligns with some background object, as well as many other ‘not quite right’ shots.

Many times, however, the background and its distractions are so integral to the image that it may be beyond the reach of post-processing to remedy (or certainly beyond the length of time I’d be willing to commit to try). The best and simplest solution is to remember the background when you are shooting and, if you come across a distracting background, use your feet.

These two photographs of lilacs were taken of the same bush within moments of each other, but the backgrounds give each image a very different feel. In the top image, the background is very busy, with several sharp diagonals and a stone path leading the eye out of the image and away from the flowers. In the bottom image, the background is more consistent and more blurred, with a hint of other lilac bunches and trees beyond. The colors blend well together and it makes for a more harmonious image overall.  

Two major things played a role in the differences in the background. The first was that I moved my feet. Changing the perspective of an image requires you to move physically, whether that means moving your feet, standing up or getting down, or trying a different angle or viewpoint with the camera. In this case, I looked around longer and, instead of pointing my camera at the lilac with the stone path behind it (top image), I turned and got lower, so that the lilac bunch was silhouetted against the more distant branches and trees (bottom image). 

This led to the second major difference in the background – the out-of-focus background achieved in the second image. The depth of field of an image (the depth of the focal plane or area in sharp focus) varies based on a number of factors, including aperture, focal length, and distance. The further away something is from the focal plane, the more blurred or out-of-focus it will be. So, because the trees behind the lilac bush (bottom image) were fifty feet away, they appear nicely blurred, while the stone path (top image) was only five feet away and appears more angular and distracting. (Click here to read about Depth of Field: its more than just aperture.)

So, the next time you prepare to take a photograph, stop for a moment, ignore your subject, and consider the background. If you find something distracting, try moving your feet or adjusting your aperture to get more blur. You may find that a small change in perspective can make a big change in your final image.

Stay tuned for the rest of the 12 Days of DSLR! 

Want to learn more? Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.
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