Is Telling People To 'Zoom With Your Feet' Bad Advice?

As a photography and video educator, I’ve advised people to “zoom with their feet” more times than I can count. On its surface, it makes sense. But photographer Matt Granger gives us a few reasons why that’s not necessarily the best advice in his latest YouTube video.

Famed Magnum photographer Robert Capa is often quoted as saying, “If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.” While that is sometimes true, the saying fails to take into account that in Capa’s day in the early 20th century, most lenses that he would have been using were probably prime lenses, and probably in the range of 50mm rather than some of the more exotic telephotos you see today, such as a 200mm or 400mm prime. It’s not uncommon to see a kit lens these days that runs the gamut from wide-angle to mild telephoto, such as a Canon RF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens. So what’s a better way to go? Zoom with your feet (i.e. shoot at a wider focal length and move closer to your subject) or rack the lens to its longest focal length and achieve the same effect that way? The answer? If you’re Matt Granger, it’s probably best to zoom, for the look it gives the background. For the folks I teach using their phones or shooting video, I would say it’s a solid “it depends.”

What do I mean by that? Granger points out a good many things that apply to photographers shooting still photos with telephoto lenses. Facial features experience less distortion, and you get a lot more control over subject-background separation by going with a longer zoom.

But the reason I caution cell phone users to take that with a grain of salt is easy. While many smartphones these days have multiple lenses, the zoom lenses are 1) not very good and 2) not terribly “zoomy” on the focal length. It’s a small difference at best, but one with a noticeable hit in quality sometimes, as the best lenses on phone cameras are still usually the primary ones. Likewise, if you don’t have a telephoto lens on your phone, any zoom you are doing just enlarges pixels, creating a blocky, mushy mess of an image than if you had just walked a bit closer. Accepting that there are limits to what you can do with a smartphone is part of the creative process of using that tool.

For video shooters, my advice of “zooming with your feet” applies mostly to those who aren’t using tripods or some other sort of video stabilization. If you’re hand-holding in video, the more you zoom, the more every subtle shake of your hands is magnified. I’d rather have steady footage and less subject-background separation than shaky footage with creamy bokeh.

But that said, Granger has a point. Perhaps it’s time to retire the “zoom with your feet” advice and replace it with “use the right lens for each situation.”

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29 Comments
Jordan Steele's picture

Zoom with your feet is entirely dependent on the image you want. Since perspective / compression, etc, is entirely based on the position of the photographer in relation to the subject and the background, zooming with your feet vs. using a longer lens from your current position results in two dramatically different photos due to the perspective change. So, if you don't have that quite longer lens, and you still want that more distant perspective, it may make sense to crop a little from your current position, rather than to step forward and change the perspective.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Nah, I prefer "zoom with your feet". Not everyone shoots with zoom lenses or a bag full of lenses.

"Use the right lens for each situation.” That's a given. But, if you're shooting with primes, for the most part, you are still going to move with your feet to frame.

If anything, "frame with your feet" would probably be a better alternative.

Kim ALdis's picture

You can’t zoom with your feet, it’s an impossibility.

Tom Reichner's picture

Hmmmmm .....

Based on the definition of "zoom", I would disagree.

zoom /zo͞om/

verb

move or travel very quickly

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

nvm :)

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Maybe for you mere mortals. :P

Kim ALdis's picture

Moving the camera back and forth is a dolly. A zoom is a change in focal length. They’re two entirely different things. If you think you can change focal length by walking then fine but I suspect you can’t.

Mike Shwarts's picture

Nit picking. We all know what what "zooming" with your feet means.

Kim ALdis's picture

Indeed; it means you don't understand camera movements. Tell a DP to zoom with his feet and he'll laugh you off the set.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Yeah, it'll be quite impossible for a DP to zoom with their feet with one of these babies.

https://i.imgur.com/EmhpNWF.jpg
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Psssst..."zoom with your feef" is usually in reference to stills photography, not cinema.

Mike Shwarts's picture

I think you are approaching this from a vidoe-centric point of view. The guy who made the video is a photographer, not a cinematographer. There is no dolly movement in still photography.

Kim ALdis's picture

I don’t think so, I’ve been doing this for a long tim and a dolly has always been a dolly, stills or otjerwise. “Zoom with your feet” is idiotic because it’s not, nor ever has been a zoom. It’s misleading and it’s amateur.

Peter House's picture

Depends if they have legs

stuartcarver's picture

Stood on the edge of a cliff it’s maybe not the greatest idea.

Tom Reichner's picture

To me, the command "zoom with your feet" is generally used to tell people to get closer to the subject instead of using a long focal length from a greater distance.

But, as others have explained, the decision about what distance/position to shoot from, and what focal length to use, varies from one shot to another. Getting closer to the subject and using a relatively short focal length may yield the best results for one image, but produce horrible results for another.

We are not always just shooting an image with just a subject and a background. There are times when there is a primary subject and a secondary subject. There are other times when the image we envision in our mind's eye has a primary subject and multiple supporting elements, as well as a background that we want to render in a specific way. Sometimes we want the background blurred out, so that all emphasis is placed upon the subject. Then there are other times, such as in environmental portraiture, when the background is just as important as the subject itself, and must be rendered accordingly.

To just give the blanket advice, "zoom with your feet" is shallow advice, and fails to encompass all of the different things that the artist may be trying to capture in the images they are taking.

I have always hated that saying because it is so shallow, and entirely fails to address the artist's personal vision for the images they are creating. It ASSUMES that the artist wants an image in which there is one primary subject and no secondary subjects and no supporting elements in the composition. And we should never assume that we know what another photographer wants his/her images to look like.

Almost every question in photography can be correctly and intelligently answered with the response, "it depends". And this zooming with one's feet is no exception to that rule.

Rex Larsen's picture

Generally I try to use the longest focal length that will work for my shots. I may start with a 24mm but If I can get a strong picture with a 28mm or 35mm I'll switch.
It takes dicipline to use a wide angle zoom. An easy mistake is to shoot too wide rather than physically backing up and setting your zoom to a longer focal length. New photographers are often entertained by extra wide lenses and over use them. Many years ago when the first 20-35 zooms were introduced a number of big-name magazine shooters lamented that the lenses lured them into lazy framing of their pictures and overly wide shooting. Some gave up the lenses and others learned to adapt by backing up and "zooming with their feet."

Kirk Darling's picture

Wait a minute. There was a bit of confusion there.

If one keeps the same position from the subject, zooming (changing focal length) will produce exactly the same image as cropping. Doubling the focal length of the camera will produce an image with the same subject/background perspective and depth of field as doubling the magnification in post. The author MUST have changed his aperture when he zoomed.

What he did while zooming was to change his position to keep the same subject size in the viewfinder.

Changing your distance to the subject is what changes the perspective (subject to background relationships).

Tom Reichner's picture

Kirk Darling said,

"If one keeps the same position from the subject, zooming (changing focal length) will produce exactly the same image as cropping. Doubling the focal length of the camera will produce an image with the same subject/background perspective and depth of field as doubling the magnification in post. The author MUST have changed his aperture when he zoomed."

Kirk, what you say here is incorrect. Changing the focal length does change the depth of field, and does so drastically. But cropping in post changes nothing at all. I'm not sure what caused you to be mistaken on this point, but what you think is simply not the way it works at all.

stuartcarver's picture

I always understood that ‘zoom with your feet’ was related to using a prime lens, not to do with any sort of composition technique?

Sam Sims's picture

The problem with using a zoom lens is the depth of field and perspective you get when changing focal length. Standing still and zooming to a telephoto length will give a much shallower depth of field. Fine if you are after a shallow depth of field, not so fine if you are not. As a street photographer I prefer to 'zoom with my feet' and let the outside elements dictate how much background blur I get. Of course there's no one rule here. This article asking if zooming with your feet is bad advice isn't very helpful. If you only use primes, you can't zoom with the lens. Different techniques for different lens types.

Kim ALdis's picture

Changing focal length does not alter perspective.

Fred L's picture

Même avec un zoom, l'important est de trouver la bonne distance.

Mike Dochterman's picture

98 percent of the time - GET CLOSER is the correct answer to your friend asking how they can make their photography better. However 'zooming with your feet' is not the same as zooming with a zoom...the former changes perspective, while the latter keeps perspective and just changes magnification.

A photo teacher once told me to walk around with a tripod and find the perspective that works - plant the tripod right there, mount your camera..THEN pick the lens that captures the scene the way you want it

Kirk Darling's picture

I have always determined the perspective and viewpoint I wanted and then sought the position that would give it to me. That decision really rolled all factors into one.

Vitor Munhoz's picture

Side note about Capa: he is always being misinterpreted in his quote. Street photographers loooove to say “If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough” so they can justify getting in ppl’s faces, but Capa was never referring to physical distance or telling people to step closer. You can clearly see in his photography he has a huge wide range of compositions, so why would he ever suggest that? His point was about connecting with your subject, rather than just snapping for your own sake.

Dick Rehnquist's picture

The only way you can "zoom with your feet" is to use your feet to turn the zoom ring on the lens.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Well, that's no easy feet.....err...I mean feat.

Rick Pappas's picture

So, imagine...You are on a hillside looking down on an interesting old building. But, you determine that it's so far away that it will appear too small in your shot. So, you walk down the hill and toward the building only to find that from your new view there are trees and other buildings blocking your shot. Now, take the trees and buildings away in my example. When you arrive closer to the building, it still isn't the same shot that you liked from the hillside in the first place. Maybe, it's something that you like more, maybe not. In my mind the relationship between my camera position and that of my subject is among the most important aspects of what I do. Zooming with your lens doesn't change that camera/subject relationship (perspective). Zooming with your feet does. Yes, you can get closer in most instances, but the photographic composition changes. Often it's not for the better. This is the reason that I don't have a single prime lens in my kit. I find them to be burdensome in terms of composition.

Tom Reichner's picture

I completely agree. I like to find the position that presents the most pleasing composition -- meaning the angle to the subject and the distance to the subject that provides the best looking image. That is where I want to shoot from. Not a little closer ... not a little further. From exactly that one position that gives the very best composition.

And then I want to frame the image precisely the way I think it looks best in the camera's native aspect ratio. I want to do this in camera - no stupid cropping after the shot.

The odds of a prime lens giving me EXACTLY the framing I want from EXCTLY the angle and distance that I want ... are practically zero. I need a zoom lens so that I can be as nit-picky as possible about the framing of the image.

So I will zoom with my lens, and not with my feet. My feet are for getting into the position that gives my image the best look. My lens is for giving my images the best framing. I use each of those tools for what they do best, respectively.