Don’t Zoom, Move: Treating Your Zoom Lens as a Series of Primes

We’ve shared some funny pictures in the past that illustrate how distance, not focal length, changes perspective — but nothing beats a video walk through. So, in this short video, photographer Mike Browne explains why you should treat your zoom lens as a series of prime lenses, and not the equivalent of getting physically closer to your subject.

Here are the final shots, one focal length at a time:




Each shot is framed identically using the lens’ focal length, but because the photographer had to move away to properly frame the shot at any given focal length, the perspective still changed. It’s a simple concept, but even if you’ve heard it explained a million times, you should really give it a try yourself.

So, if the video, the pictures, and the fat cat don’t offer sufficient explanation — or even if they do — grab your camera and a willing subject (we find inanimate subjects rarely object to being photographed) and give this experiment a shot.

(via Reddit)

  • Mansgame

    I don’t think the title of “Don’t zoom, move” is correct because the whole point of this story is that if you move, you change the perceptive, but sometime to get the perspective that you want, you HAVE to zoom. In the pictures above, the framing may be the same, but the perspective is completely different which was done by….zooming.

  • Bruce Garner

    So what is up with her eyes in that 500mm shot? Did she put in some colored contacts?

  • Drude

    “If you have a prime lens, you can’t zoom.”

    wow, deep insights here. Thanks for post petapixel!

  • Igor Ken

    10mm – boobs look bigger. Profit

  • Michael Choi

    I cant focus, the step daughter is too hot ugh,,,

  • Ken Elliott

    I’m afraid that’s a myth. Focal length does not change perspective. Only moving the camera does. Changing the focal length changes the crop. As an experiment, park your camera on a tripod and shoot with a long focal length. Next, zoom to a shorter FL and shoot. Now bring the shots into a photo editor (Photoshop) and crop the wide angle shot to match the long shot. See any difference in perspective?

    View camera guys know this. They decide on the perspective they want. That dictates the camera position. Then they select a lens to give the framing they want.

  • David Liang

    It does change the perspective in the sense that the longer the focal length, the more narrow the angle of view.
    If you shot 2 cars one in front of each other a few meters away, with a wide angle lens the cars would look comfortably seperated. If you stepped back and frame the same cars with a 200mm lens the subjects would look as if they were squeezed together so closely the paint would scratch.
    Even looking at the photos above the perspective of the background changes, in the first image you can see both sides of the street and the buildings on each side, by 500mm you only see a sliver of the street. The viewers perspective has changed with the focal length of the lens.

  • Bob

    Wow that guy needs some exercise, he’s getting out of breath changing a bloody lens!

  • Bob

    By the way the misconception of the perfect portrait lens being 80mm or so…..she looks far more attractive at 20mm.

  • Wilba

    You have exactly backwards. The perspective changed because you moved. Then you had to change the focal length to get the same framing. Position determines perspective, focal length determines framing. Do Ken Elliott’s experiment and you’ll get it.

  • Merv

    You say …”If you stepped back and frame the same cars with a 200mm lens”…

    Ken’s point is that it is the stepping back that changed the perspective, not the change of lens, hence he says “park your camera on a tripod”.

  • Håvard Fandrem

    It’s a good point, but man, does that video need editing.

  • MarvinB7

    Attractive, maybe. The human features are more well represented in true to life form on the 50mm or 150mm. With the 20mm the face is slightly elongated from front to back and the ears ‘swept’, making her look a little odd. If you shot a supermodel with a 20mm for a magazine cover, you would need a very good reason to do so for the editor and publicist to approve the shot.

  • Jim McNair

    Natasha’s Mum spent 16 years saying to her “don’t play in the street”, then her step-dad gets her to pose in the middle of the street!

  • Andre Gasket

    Perhaps I missed it, but what size sensor does he have? Full frame or APS-C

  • Ross Jukes

    I found this guys videos on youtube a while back, he deals with the basics and I personally think he has a very gentle yet informative approach – If you read a blog like PetaPixel he’s not going to teach you anything, but it’s great for people just starting out…

  • Haas Colby

    Anyone else cringe when he set that lens on the trashcan?

  • brob

    I wish I had a Natasha