I guess you will have a zoom lens in your camera bag. It is a very handy tool that allows you to zoom in, and to zoom out. But you can also use it to manipulate the size of the background compared to your subject. Let me explain.
We all love our zoom lenses. There are a lot of sorts, like a 8-15mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-300mm, 200-600mm, and many more. It allows you to have every focal length available with just a few lenses. One could buy a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm, and a 70-200mm, and have every focal length between 16mm and 200mm available in just three lenses.
If you use only fixed focal lenses you would need something like a 17mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135mm, 200mm, and still missing all the focal lengths in between. Imagine what kind of camera bag you would need when carrying all those nice fixed focal lenses with you. One could argue if we really need all those focal lengths, but I don’t want to burn my fingers on that discussion. Fact is, zoom lenses are very versatile.
Most of the times, we use our zoom lenses to zoom in. We like to have our subject large in the frame without the need to get closer. Sometimes we can’t get any closer, because the subject will run or fly away. Sometimes we just can’t get any closer because there is a physical barrier. Sometimes we just are too lazy.
For landscapes we often like to zoom out. It allows us to get even more of that beautiful landscape in the picture. For best practice we will try to have something in the foreground, a subject close by to give a feeling of depth. It gives the viewer a subject to look at and at the same time the photo won't look so empty.
Zooming in and zooming out is something we all do. It is the obvious way to use a zoom lens. But we can also use the focal length to manipulate the background. We all have seen the examples of a girl who is photographed with different focal lengths. To prevent the girl from getting any larger in the frame, the photographer is increasing the distance to that girl.
With these kind of series we always focus on the subject, showing how more pleasing a person will become when longer focal lengths are being used. We don’t really see what is happening with the background. We take the background for granted, it is just there.
Let's change the subject from a person to a landscape, and try to do the same thing. I have chosen a subject and photographed it with different focal lengths while trying to keep the subject the same size in the frame. For that, I needed to increase the distance to the subject with every longer focal length. Although the size of the subject does not change, the background is. With a longer focal length, the background becomes larger compared to the subject. It gives the suggestion that the distance between the subject and the background is decreasing, hence the popular statement: “tele-lenses compress distances.”
This effect is responsible for the nice background we see with long lens portrait photography. But we can also use this technique to manipulate the background in our photo. If the sky is boring, you might not want it to appear into the frame. A longer focal length can prevent that, while keeping the subject the same size in the frame. But you can also prevent having unwanted elements in the frame. Look at the before/after example below. The before photo is shot with a wide angle lens, close to the ferns. For the after photo I increased the focal length, and the distance to the ferns. By doing so, I excluded many white patches of sky.
Although wide-angle lenses make great compositions possible, you need to be careful for the deformation of subjects close by. This may not be visible in the average landscape photo, but it will become very clear when you have animals or persons as a subject. I have added two examples of this deformation. It might also be interesting to check what is happening with the elements in the background.
Changing focal length will change the size of the background relative to the subject. Just look at the sun in the previous before-after example with the dog. But also the Volkswagen van behind the wedding couple. Increasing focal length will increase the size of elements in the background, while the subject is almost the same size. Don't forget, I changed the distance to my subject while zooming in.
This is a very powerful tool that is often forgotten, especially with landscape photography. When using an ultra-wide-angle lens, not only a lot of background will appear in the frame, it will also be very small in size. If you shoot nice clouds during sunrise or sunset, with a beautiful subject in the foreground, you may end up with a ridiculous small sun, together with a boring part of the sky. The beautiful clouds will be small and insignificant, and the sun may be only a little speck. By changing focal length, you can change all this, and a larger distance to the subject will keep it the same size in the frame.
You can do this also with fixed focal lenses, but it will take a lot of lens changes and it has less flexibility. In this case a zoom lens will provide a lot of flexibility. It gives a very quick way to manipulate the background in the composition. This technique is possible with a lot of different type of photography. You can use it with portraits, weddings, sports, and of course landscape photography. And you can combine it with a creative depth of field.
Have you ever used this technique to manipulate your background? Or do you have another creative way of using focal lengths to get the result you want. Please let me know in the comment.