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.”