This photography article was kindly sponsored by GoPro.

There are two wonderful things that happen when a photographer looks through a telephoto lens at a scene. Neither is natural to the human eye and in fact, probably can’t be done without the use of an external lens. One is called compression, and you’ve seen it in movies, most obviously when a character walks across the top of a hill in front of a setting sun. The sun is huge, the character appearing to be treading across its width. If the sun were actually that large compared to the person, it’s likely that the person would be incinerated, along with the hill.

An example of compression © Kym MacKinnon / Unsplash

What happens is fairly simple. A telephoto lens magnifies images that pass through its elements. It doesn’t matter if one thing is a quarter-mile and the other, 93 million miles away; they both get magnified by the same amount—say, seven times their apparent size.

There’s a phrase that photographers like to use: zoom with your feet. This means get physically closer, stick your camera in the face of that subject. Do that with the person on the hill and he or she will get bigger. The sun will still be 92.99999 million miles away from you, so it won’t look any larger. But go back a quarter of a mile, look at the subject through a very long lens, and the person and the sun will be magnified equally, because the lens is just spreading the light, like opening an umbrella.

The infamous giant Sigma f/2.8 500mm zoom lens. When a lens needs a carry handle, it is too big.

It’s compression of distance, making things far away seem closer in relation to things nearer. Compression can fill a scene with colour and form in a way that the human eye can’t, no matter how fast you zoom with your feet. And that’s why a telephoto (a zoom lens for most photographers) lens is, maybe ironically, a good tool for landscape photography. Especially if you have a person or an object in front of the landscape that you want to be a centerpiece of your photo. You can wrap the scene around the person in a highly attractive manner.

Longer lenses can “pack” a photograph so that the elements, including foreground, main subject, and background appear closer together. Photo by Steve Thornton

The other thing that happens when the photographer eyes a scene through a long tube filled with glass elements is a lessening of the apparent depth of field. Put your motorcycle on the side of the road in front of a field, maybe with a treeline a hundred yards behind it. Put your camera to your eye, zoom it to the maximum telephoto strength, watch out for traffic, and walk backwards. At first, you’ll only have part of the bike in the photo, so keep going until you see the whole bike. Make sure the bike is the object that the lens is focussed on, and take a picture. Later, when you can look at the shot on a monitor screen, notice how nicely the background has become blurred, how much the bike pops in the photo, as if someone had gone around it with a crayon, outlining it. That’s the effect of depth of field—how wide, from near you to far away from you, the field of focus is. It’s a lovely effect, used by photographers all the time, and you can alter it somewhat by changing the aperture on your lens, a smaller aperture giving a wider apparent depth of field; it’s like squinting to sharpen your vision. But squinting doesn’t actually do what a lens does. Notice what you see when you look at the scene without the camera. Your eyes are focused on the bike, but the background? It’s not really out of focus, it’s just split into two images by your two eyes. Close one eye and try it, or hold a finger up and look at it with one eye, and notice the background; it’s just as sharp. Again, the lens is able to do things that your eyes can’t, and they are good things. It is all artifact, but it’s a good artifact.

A very shallow depth of field can result in everything being a blur. © Osman Rana / Unsplash

Here’s something about depth of field that you might not know: it’s wider farther away. This means that the background will remain sharp for a greater distance behind your focussed object than the foreground in front of it. Keeping that in mind, if you want your subject to really pop out of a scene, you need to make sure the background is far away from it.

Of course, you can alter the depth of field effect by changing the aperture of the lens, but with a zoom lens, anything more than about 200 millimeters in length, depth of field will be quite narrow no matter what aperture you set. If you want to photograph a scene and keep the foreground at 10 yards from you and the background at 200 yards all in focus, you probably need to use a wider-angle lens. Keep in mind that making a single object, say a cute puppy or a handsome motorcycle, stand out in the photo will be more difficult, but if you’re shooting a valley, say, or a lake, you might want to get something close to you, a person or a motorcycle or a tree branch, to give the photo some scale, to show the close against the far.

This is all assuming that you’re using a camera that you can fit different lenses onto. If you’re shooting with your phone, your options are more limited. However, by noticing what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background, you can achieve brilliant photos with a good phone camera, a GoPro, or some other smaller camera. With some, you won’t be able to adjust an aperture and exert control over depth of field, even if what you’re using offers different lens lengths. But by positioning the camera—high or low, the object of most concern not in the middle of the image, but off to one side, either facing left or right into the photo or, in some cases, facing out of it, and filling as much of the image as you want, you can get better pictures right away.

Pay attention to what’s in your viewfinder; not just the subject, but everything. Here, a senior citizen riding a scooter interrupts the photo on the left. In this case, it adds to the photo, but in most cases it would ruin the picture. Photo by Steve Thornton

There are other matters to discuss here: lighting (best first in the morning and last thing in the afternoon), the rule of thirds (make an x’s and o’s cross-pattern on your image and put what’s important where two lines cross), panning (shooting a motorcycle going past you and blurring the bushes on the other side of the road, and the tires, to show speed), and even ISO and use of tripods and remote controls, but that’s for another time.

A good example of golden hour light in Jakarta, Indonesia © Eugenia Clara / Unsplash

Follow this rule, and your photos will improve, instantly: Look. Don’t just look at the face of the person or the gas tank of the bike, look all around the frame of your photo. Move the camera up or down, angle it side to side, so that not just the object of concern, but everything else in the image, is what you want. Really look at it, take your time, look at all of it, and compose a great photo.

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