Focal Length is not just a Zoom Change!

July 14, 2010

Landscape, Learning, Photo Tips

Not all that long ago in photography, everyone shot with single focal length lenses and not zooms. Zooms have not been around all that long in photography, plus at first, they really were awful in quality. Today, none of that is true anymore. Zooms have outstanding quality and they have become ubiquitous in photography. Every photographer will use them to change composition — find a good location with a good view on the landscape, set up camera and tripod, then zoom in or out until the composition looks good.

But focal length can do a whole lot more. I do a class at on getting impact from your photography and one of the lessons is about the use of focal length for impact. This is the hardest lesson for most students to understand because they are mostly used to zooming for composition and not using focal length for its effects on perspective and space, let alone impact. Focal length changes perspective as you change both your focal length and your camera position in relation to the subject.

Knowing how to change the look of a scene with focal length can help when the light is not cooperating. I was at Cape Cod last year for a couple of days before going up to Maine to visit my sister and her family and my parents. For any of you who know that area from last summer, it was a summer of endless rain!

But there was no way I was not going to photograph in that spectacular location. Cape Cod is a stunning place, even in the rain. But I am also uninterested in taking gray day snapshots just to show I was there. So I started playing with perspective and space by changing focal length (I was not out in the worst of the rain, though) and my camera position. That usually means getting in close with wide-angle lenses and backing up with telephotos. Getting in close with a wide-angle can also help with less blah sky in the composition, too. The shot of ferns at the top of this entry does exactly that.

Look at the photos here and notice how the scenes change in feel due to the use of different focal lengths. No, these are not all the “same” rose bushes in the wild rose shots — it is pretty rare for me to simply move and change focal lengths on the exact scene and shoot both wide and tele. I am looking for the interesting scene as portrayed by my distance and focal length, not simply changing the look of a single scene. But you can see how perspective and space relationships change. The close shots with the roses up close were shot wide and have a deeper perspective and feeling of depth. The shot of the rose bush and dune without any sky was shot with a telephoto and has a flatter perspective and a shallower feeling of depth.

A good way to learn how to work with focal length beyond composition is to do this exercise — go out with a camera and a zoom lens. Start taking a photo of a subject up close with your widest focal length. Then set the camera to its longest, most telephoto setting and back up until you can photograph that subject again. Then keep doing this by shooting a wide shot up close, then a telephoto shot from a distance. You will start to see the changes in perspective (how the background looks compared to the subject), space (what feelings of depth appear) and even depth of field (you won’t always see this, but sometimes you do and it is a consequence of this exercise). The forest scene was shot with a telephoto to flatten perspective to better emphasize the relationship of the dark tree with the bushes in the light (even on a cloudy day, it is possible to find contrast in the landscape, and the telephoto helped show that).

I will be leading a workshop in Cape Cod this September after Labor Day and all the crowds have gone. We will have a great time shooting the amazing range of landscapes there. You can see more at the Great American Photography Workshops website, Also, check out my new blog,

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This post was written by:

- who has written 27 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Rob Sheppard is the author/photographer of over 30 books, the editor-at-large for Outdoor Photographer magazine, and a nationally known presenter and workshop leader. His specialities are nature photography and helping photographers with digital technologies from getting the most from small sensors to Lightroom to Photoshop. Check out Rob’s websites at and

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One Response to “Focal Length is not just a Zoom Change!”

  1. Scott Beadenkopf Says:

    Thanks, Rob! This answered a question for me.
    When I was in Albuquerque recently, I spent an afternoon shooting around the Sandia Tramway. At the lower end I took what I thought would be a great shot of the tram descending. I shot at f18 so that both the tram and cactus would be in focus. I was right about the focus, but the resulting image is very flat. The delicate little cactus looks like a huge tree because of the lack of a sense of depth. Maybe an f8 exposure focused on the cactus would have provided the sense of depth without obliterating the tram. (I was shooting with a DX camera and a 35mm f1.8 lens).


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