Stuff's Guide to Photography: how a little zoom can make a big difference

Zoom doesn't just make things bigger. Use it right and it can do all sorts of clever tricks, from making people look pretty to moving buildings closer together.

You don't need a high-end DSLR to get into zoom photography: the best compacts go up to 30x zoom, while Samsung's Galaxy K zoom sticks a 10x magnifier onto an Android phone. Here are Stuff's top tips for getting the most out of a big zoom.

Make it busy

A wide-angle lens or setting (the default for most compact cameras and phones) is useful for something like a party where you want to fit a lot of close-up subjects into the frame, but if you want to create bustle in a picture, get further away and zoom in. A high zoom factor has the effect of compressing the perspective, bringing features closer together. You can use this trick to convey the bustle of shoppers on a high street or to exaggerate the tightness of a queue of people or traffic.

Move a few buildings

Ever wondered how travel photographers manage to fit a whole skyline into one shot, but your holiday snaps only fit in one side of a building? The answer is zoom. Take one long zoom and one river (rivers are very useful because they force a clear, wide break between buildings), stand on one side of the river and shoot the buildings on the opposite bank. You'll find you can squash a whole load of landmarks into a single frame. Next, find a bend in the river and look along the far side at an angle, and you'll find buildings crowding into your lens.

READ MORE: make your subject stand out with blurry bokeh

More after the break...

Perfect your portraits

A wide-angle lens widens what's in the picture, so if you use wide-angle for ears, noses and bums, you'll find them enlarged in the picture - deeply unflattering. Even a slight nudge on the zoom will improve this, and with a bit more zoom, you'll be able to push the background out of focus. Better yet, if you're in beautiful surroundings, take a good 10 or 20 paces back from your subject, then zoom in and use that compressed perspective to magnify distant objects, creating a close-up protrait that still has a scene-setting background.

Layer it up

While a wide-angle lens makes distant object appear even farther away and emphasises wide, open spaces, a strong zoom can be a more effective way to document the changes from front to back in an expansive scene. A portrait orientation will allow you to capture everything from the middle-distance up to the horizon and sky in a stack of layers. The zoom will even out the size of the features in the foreground and the distance, giving a concise representation of the whole scene.

Move the focus

You can also use zoom to create a shallow depth of field, so the area in front and behind your subject is out focus and your subject is picked out as the hero of the picture. Try using this to add tension to a shot, by blurring the foreground and pushing the sharp detail further back. It's easy - even a compact camera with a 10x zoom will be able to achieve this. Just experiment by zooming in as far as you like, stepping well back if neccesary, and using a half-press of the shutter to pick out different focal points in your shot.

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