December 6, 2014

12 Days of Tips #3: Step Back, Zoom-In for Beautiful Backgrounds

Today’s tip seems counterintuitive but works wonders for portraits, especially during the holidays. Once you get your learn on, check out today’s prize below the tip.

Did you know that the lens you use and your distance to the subject can greatly effect the look of the background in a photo?  Have you ever taken a portrait of someone with a wide lens and found the background very distracting and in focus?  This is due, in part, to something called “compression”.  It refers to the effect longer lenses (longer focal lengths) have on the perceived distance between the subject and the background. It’s called compression because the background appears to be “compressed” or squeezed closer to the subject. Often this has the effect of creating a more appealing photo because it helps cut out distracting background elements and bring the background right up behind the subject to fill the space.

In the following example the only thing that changed was the length of the lens (focal length) and the distance between the photographer and the subject. Lighting, subject position (relative to the background), and camera settings remained the same.

Compression Example 1 - 50mm f/2.0

Compression Example 1: 50mm 1/60th @ f/2.0
Sample image courtesy of Photography

Compression Example - 100mm f/2.0

Compression Example 2: 100mm 1/60th @ f/2.0
Sample image courtesy of Photography

Notice the difference in the background?  The lights appear much closer and larger.

Try it yourself! During the holidays place your subject in front of some lights, with as much space as possible between them and the lights. Step yourself back as far as you can and zoom in until your subject fits nicely in the frame.  If you are too far back take a few steps closer.  We want to maximize the zoom, but stay as close to the subject as possible. For the full effect set your camera’s aperture as wide as it can go (smallest f-number).  Make sure your subject(s) are the same distance from the camera so they’re all in focus.

Stepping back can also makes your subject feel less intimidated and therefore more relaxed, providing a more natural pose and smile. It’s win, win!

Lens compression effects more than just backgrounds. Want to learn more and take this concept to the next level in a hands-on learning environment? Check out Exposure’s Posing for Women, Storyteller Teen Class, Spring Break Creative Camp for Kids or the many other classes coming in January!

Know someone who is into photography but not sure what to get them for a gift? Give the gift of knowledge by snagging a Photography Class Gift Certificate from Exposure at 351 Victoria St. Hurry, they’re going fast!

In honour of the long focal lengths discussed in this post today’s prize will be a zoom lens travel mug! Available in Canon or Nikon. See this post for contest details.

Lens mug. Nikon & Canon


  1. Brianne Sheppard

    This is a great tip, and it’s something I have struggled with in the past. :)

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Photography, Tips