As a workshop leader and teacher, I’ve often found that many of us are attracted to different focal length lenses simply because of the difference in angle of view they provide. For example, wide-angle lenses allow us to fit more into the frame, while telephoto lenses allow us to focus in on one aspect of a landscape.
But lenses of different focal lengths provide us with more than just a different angle of view; they also alter subject “presence.” For example, although wide-angle lenses allow us to fit more into the frame, they push the subject further away. Everything becomes smaller. The opposite is true with telephoto lenses; less fits into the frame, but everything becomes larger.
So changing focal lengths affects two things: angle of view and subject presence, but most of us really only think about angle of view.
In this post, I'll discuss how using a fixed focal length lens (be it on a prime or a zoom) and zooming with our feet can radically alter the compositional balance between foreground and background subjects. In other words, I wish to show you how you can make the foreground object more present than the background subject, as well as how to do the opposite.
How our eyes see things; the classic 50mm focal length
The photo above shows how I perceived the location in my mind’s eye. I loved the distant mountains so much that I wanted them to have as much presence in the frame as the foreground bush. Since there is a tendency for most landscape photographers to get really close to their subjects, as soon as I got close to where the bush was, I ended up using a wide-angle lens in order to fit everything into my frame. The image below shows the wide-angle version.
24mm view (very close to foreground subject)
After attaching the wide lens, I got more in my frame, but everything within the frame got smaller. The mountains got smaller, as did the bush. I fixed this by walking closer to the bush to give it more presence. This certainly worked: the bush became dominant in the frame, but the background remained small, and it did not change in presence at all. And this is key: when using wide-angle lenses, everything gets smaller; if you move closer to your foreground, it changes dramatically, but your background remains the same. So my foreground became more dominant, while my background became less dominant. The image below shows the same location, also shot at 24mm, but in this instance, I moved back about three feet.
24mm view (moving further away from foreground subject)
Notice how the mountains in the background have not changed in size, but that the foreground bush has become less dominant? By keeping a fixed focal length (24mm) and moving closer to or further away from the foreground subject, only the foreground subject changes in size and becomes respectively more or less dominant.
The progression, left to right: 50mm, 24mm (close to foreground subject), and 24mm (moving away from foreground subject)
If you’re wondering how I got that first shot, the simple answer is that I used the same focal length as my eye. I used the equivalent of a 50mm lens to ensure my background mountains were the same size as I had originally perceived them. I then walked back until the bush was included in the frame, remembering that when zoomed in, everything gets bigger. I zoomed to get the background to the size I wanted and by moving back 10 feet or so, I was able to radically change the foreground, while keeping the background at the magnification I wanted.
For this reason, I prefer to set a fixed focal length and zoom with my feet. It’s also the reason why I prefer fixed focal length lenses to zooms (at least until you fully understand the properties of using different focal lengths).
The benefits of this are:
- When moving around a landscape with the same focal length, the background does not change size. Even if I move 20 feet back, or 30 feet back, the background remains the same. The foreground, however, changes dramatically.
- I figure out how big I want my background to be and zoom the lens to fit the background into the frame.
- I then zoom with my feet. By moving closer or further away from my foreground, I am able to get the right amount of proportion of foreground to balance with the background. In essence, I am changing the presence between background and foreground and altering the balance between them.
I spend a lot of time balancing objects within the frame, thinking of proportions and spatial distances between objects and how they relate to each other. For many of us, this is as natural as computing where to put our hand to catch a ball, while for the rest of us, it’s something we have to work at very much.
By zooming with a zoom lens on location, you make the art of composition much harder than it ought to be because you move two goal posts at the same time: angle of view and presence of objects within the frame.
I find it is rarely a good idea to stand in one spot and zoom, because although I may fit everything I want into the frame, I’m not giving the background and foreground the correct amount of proportion to each other.
By using a fixed focal length, I decide how big my background is going to be, and I use my feet to change the foreground presence to balance against my background. In the examples above, I chose to make the background mountain a certain size in the frame, and I then moved back and forth with my feet to increase/decrease the size of the foreground bush in relation to the background. In other words, I spent a bit of time balancing the presence (or dominance) of foreground subject with background subject.
If you own a zoom lens, try to avoid zooming in and out to fit a subject into the frame. Instead, determine what size you want your background to be, and then zoom to fit that. Then keep the focal length static and move with your feet to fit the foreground. Focal lengths are really for controlling background-to-foreground presence.
There is one more thing that greatly influences how your foregrounds and backgrounds are balanced: you. As photographers, we often wish to get closer to the subjects we want to photograph. If it’s a lake, we might want to get down to the edge of it. Yet oftentimes, our attraction to a place happens from much further afield. We see the lake from high above and find it beautiful. So I often wonder why don’t we take a picture of the lake from where we first become attracted to it. In terms of background-to-foreground presence, we may find that we need to be further away from the lake because we’ve really been drawn in by the presence of it in relation to the background.
How you approach your landscapes has just as much importance as which focal length you decide to use. If you continually go towards the edge of lakes, then you'll always be stuck with opting for a wide-angle lens because that allows you to include the edge of the lake at close quarters, as well as the background mountain range. But it comes at the cost of pushing the background further away, resulting in a different view from the one to which you were initially attracted.
So beware. Before walking into your landscape, think carefully about whether you’re attracted to the location because of where you currently are. As you begin to move closer to your foreground you often have to go wider in angle of view, and this has the corresponding effect of pushing your background further away.
Use focal lengths to control your background-to-foreground presence, but also consider how you approach the landscape in the first place.
Bruce Percy is one of Scotland’s most notable landscape and travel photographers. His work has been published throughout the world in numerous travel and literature publications. His client list includes the Sir Edmund Hilary Foundation, National Geographic Traveler magazine, American Express, and Fujifilm UK. Bruce has published two monographs, The Art of Adventure: 40 Photographic Examples (the preface of which was written by Michael Kenna), and Iceland: A Journal of Nocturnes.
Bruce is a keen photographic instructor and through his own photographic workshop company regularly conducts landscape workshops in Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Patagonia and Bolivia. For more information and news about Bruce, please visit his website.