Last week, we talked about the importance of not neglecting your other senses in your photography. This week, we’re going to take up something else that’s too often neglected by photographers: feet.
If you’re shooting with a compact, odds are better than even it has a zoom lens. If you’re shooting with an SLR, it probably came with an 18-55 or some other species of zoom. In fact, unless your camera’s either a rangefinder, or comes with a fixed lens, nearly everything comes with, and nearly all of us shoot with, zoom lenses.
Zooms can be a godsend, especially when they enable us to do things we couldn’t otherwise have done. The ability to go from wide-angle to short telephoto (and, with some all-in-ones like the 18-200 and 28-300 zooms, go from wide angle to long zoom, all with the same lens) saves us time and missed shots. There’s also a cost factor involved. The average 300mm prime lens retails for $1350-$4900 bucks, while a zoom that starts at 55mm or 70mm and goes to 300mm will only set you back between four and six hundred. Big difference.*
Zoom lenses also enable you, as a photographer, to cover more ground without necessarily having to move your feet. You can go from shooting a landscape, or the entirety of a train station (see Example 1) to picking out a detail in that scene without changing lenses or wearing out your shoes. This is not, as it turns out, necessarily a good thing.
Lots of things look interesting from a distance. The problem is, once we’ve gotten the photo, sometimes it doesn’t seem as intriguing as it did before we pressed the shutter. Sometimes the reasons for this are technical (the exposure’s off, it looks like there’s a branch sticking out of someone’s head), but other times it’s because when you have the chance to really see your subject, it turns out it’s not all that much to look at, as in Example 2. The opposite can also be true; things that look ordinary through a viewfinder at 200mm may also reveal shapes, textures, and details you might otherwise have missed had you not bothered to rub elbows with them. Looked at one way, those small details can be context for a larger image; they might also, however, turn out to be interesting subjects in their own right.
If you want to start putting this in practice, there’s a very simple way to do it. Pick a focal length, and for a predetermined length of time, only shoot in that focal length. You want more of the scene in the frame? Take a step or two back. If, on the other hand, you want to emphasize a detail, walk toward it. As you do so, you may find yourself coming up against certain obstacles. Maybe you can’t step back as far as you’d like, your subject is significantly above you (as it is in Example 3) or maybe getting as close as you’d like means you’re casting a shadow on your subject.
Whatever the case, get creative. Re-frame the shot, either by changing your angle, or physically walking around the subject. As you do so, it isn’t uncommon to see other shots present themselves, or you may decide that the shot wasn’t as interesting as it seemed now that you’re seeing your subject up close.
Understandably, this isn’t always practical. Sometimes a couple of steps in one direction or another means the difference between going over the edge of a cliff or not. In those instances, zoom all you’d like. Otherwise, try resorting to your feet instead of your zoom from time to time. It can make an enormous difference in the composition and overall appearance of your shots.
*There’s a much smaller price difference when it comes to short, fast primes (24-50mm). You should also be aware that a prime lens affords other advantages, beyond cost, that zooms typically do not. We’ll be taking those up another time.