When to Zoom Out

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Getting close enough to wild animals is one of the greatest challenges a wildlife photographer faces. So how do you solve this problem? The way most wildlife photographers do is to buy a telephoto lens with as much reach as their wallet allows. Today, a fairly economical way to enter the realm of the super-telephoto lens has been via the family of very nice 150-600mm lenses from brands like Sigma and Tamron or a lens like the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR, which give exceptional reach without the price tag of large-aperture prime super-telephoto lenses.

All photos © Caleb Quanbeck

After getting a super-telephoto, it is tempting to use every bit of focal length that the new lens can offer. I mean, that is why we purchased it, isn’t it—to capture that perfect close-up shot? But is that always the best idea? Are we missing out on a more interesting shot by zooming in too much?

When most people think about what lenses wildlife photographers use, they often think of huge prime lenses covered in camouflage. These big lenses do have some advantages. They are normally a little faster and a little sharper, but they also have disadvantages such as being very heavy, making it difficult to shoot without a tripod, and their weight makes them difficult to carry on long hikes. They also lack the versatility that a zoom lens offers. If the animal gets too close, the only way to zoom out is with your feet. The steep price tag can also be an obstacle to a photographer just starting out. But just because you don’t have one of these prime telephoto lenses does not mean you can’t be a successful wildlife photographer. With your 150-600mm or similar telephoto zoom lens you can still capture spectacular wildlife images.

Here I have an example image that is just too tight for the frame (left). Zooming out gives this Montana elk room to breathe in the image (right).

The Sweet Spot

Something to pay attention to when using a zoom telephoto lens is the “sweet spot.” This refers to where the lens will be most effective, giving you the clearest image possible. A zoom lens tends not to be as effective at its minimum or maximum zoom length, resulting in photos that are slightly less sharp than photos shot at the sweet spot. I remember first noticing this when I was photographing ducks swimming in a river with my 150-600mm lens. When I got home and started editing the photos, I noticed how the photos I shot at 150mm were noticeably sharper than the photos I took at 600mm.

On the Sheyenne River in North Dakota. You can see a difference in sharpness at 600mm (left) versus 400mm (right) of this mallard viewed through the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2.

Low-Light Advantages

In wildlife photography, you’ll often be battling low-light situations. To compensate for this, you will sometimes be forced to use less-than-ideal camera settings to avoid a dark image. One way you can do this is to use a larger aperture, which will allow more light into the camera. Many super-telephoto zoom lenses often have a variable maximum aperture that decreases when zoomed out farther. This causes less light to enter the lens, which means you will need to either decrease your shutter speed or increase your ISO to compensate. But when zoomed to a mid-range focal length, the lens can use a wider aperture, letting more light into the camera, which allows you to set your shutter speed higher and ISO lower, potentially giving you a sharper image.

Not only is the lens usually optically better at the middle of its zoom range, you also lessen the effects of camera shake when photographing at lower focal lengths. When handheld at 600mm, you need awesome image stabilization in addition to your steady hands. Zooming out a bit into the heart of the zoom range can help overcome camera shake issues and increase image sharpness—especially in low-light situations.

Telling the Animal’s Story

A photo is a great way to tell a story. This can often be done by showing the habitat of the subject. A photo of a mountain goat with green grass all around might tell the story of what the goat is eating, but zooming out a little may add a background of snowcapped mountains, adding another dimension to the story. You might also miss an additional animal in the image that could tell a broader story. On a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park, I encountered a cow moose and its young calf. At first, I fully zoomed in and captured close-ups of the mother, but I noticed I was only including parts of the calf in the background. I then zoomed out and was able to capture both in the same shot, telling the true story of the moment.

The zoomed-out image (300mm) of these moose in Grand Teton National Park (right) shows a bit more of the story and context than the 500mm shot (left).

Adding Beauty to the Photo

When zoomed in as close to an animal as possible, the beauty of the photo is completely reliant on the animal itself and doesn’t take advantage of the beauty of the animal’s habitat. When zooming out, the quality of the photo is no longer limited to just the animal, but then can be enhanced by the splendor surrounding the animal. A deer is a regal subject, but a deer wading through a creek during autumn creates a majestic environmental shot. Note that this approach forces you to be more cognizant of the background as you approach your subject—altering your positioning in accordance to maximize the scene.

Again, zooming out from 300mm (left) to 150mm (right) gives a lot more context and feel to the scene with this whitetail deer and doe crossing this stream in North Dakota.

Not Cropping Off Limbs

Another common mistake in using a super-telephoto zoom lens is cropping off limbs or parts thereof. You might think you have a great shot, but consider it in terms of portrait photography. Would you crop off one leg or half a hand? I’m not saying that every picture of an animal must have all the creature’s extremities; there are times that you will want a close crop. Another advantage of zooming out a bit is that you can include the entire animal.

Zooming out just a hair can mean the difference between cutting off an important part of the image (left) and not (right). This mule deer in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota appreciates the intact antlers.

Composition

Zooming out to extreme focal lengths with your super-telephoto zoom lens is a powerful tool to use when trying to create the perfect composition. The “rules” of composition—such as the rule of thirds, avoiding tight compositions, framing, and use of leading lines—are often easier to follow when you have the flexibility of a zoom lens at your disposal.

However, the rules of composition are simply recommendations. They do tend to work and are effective in creating a beautiful image or piece of art, but this does not mean you have to follow them. One of the many joys of photography is the ability to be creative, and if that involves breaking the rules—I’m all for it.

Zooming out from your subject a bit can allow easier application of the rule of thirds in creating a pleasing composition. The idea is to divide your composition into three equal sections. When the subject is placed on a third line, it gives the image a more interactive feel, drawing the viewer’s eyes through the photo. If you are zooming in too close, this is difficult to achieve.

A bison at 600mm (left) versus 200mm (right) in Antelope State Park, Utah. The 200mm shot helps with a successful rule of thirds composition.

Another issue with zooming in too close is that it can create a very tight composition. While it is exciting to capture the texture of fur or the color of the eye on wildlife, tight compositions can sometimes cause a photograph to feel cramped. Zooming out gives your subject enough space to breathe and may give your photo’s audience a more satisfying image.

While it is tempting to rack the zoom as far as you can go (left), sometimes you can get too tight with your composition, as we see here with this wild horse in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The image on the right is more pleasing.

Framing the animal in-between objects is a great technique to bring the attention to your subject. This can be done using elements in the foreground or background such as trees, mountain tops, branches, and brush. Framing isn’t always possible unless you are willing to zoom out from your subject. I enjoy using other animals to frame my subject.

While there is no denying the attraction of a super-telephoto shot with sharp detail (left), the author used other bison to help frame the zoomed out shot (right) in Yellowstone National Park.

“Leading lines” is a technique that uses lines in the picture to lead the viewer’s eyes to your main subject. In wildlife photography, horizon lines, mountains, trees, water, shorelines, and even roads are often used as leading lines. You often lose much or all the leading lines when you zoom in close. Zooming out will allow these lines to add to your composition, often creating an image that can grab the viewer’s attention.

Before (left) and after (right): Zooming out in this scene allowed for better use of the naturally occurring leading lines in Yellowstone National Park.

Don’t Be Afraid to Dial Back on the Zoom

Your super-telephoto zoom lens is a powerful tool that gives you a reach that should be taken advantage of fully. But only using the extreme focal length would be like buying a multi-tool and using only the knife. The potential of a zoom telephoto lens isn’t only zooming in for that close shot. Zooming out, even slightly, gives you the opportunity to find the best possible composition, possibly increase your image quality, and add beauty and story to your photographs.

Share your stories about how you frame your photographs and decide whether to zoom in or out in the Comments section, below.

Caleb Quanbeck is a recent graduate of the photography program at Dakota College at Bottineau and lives in Texas. Follow him on his website or on Instagram.

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