Are you making this photography mistake?

There is one thing, that without you ever touching any of your camera settings, dials, buttons and modes can be the make or break of your photo. It’s a mistake we see most often with new photographers. And it’s one you can correct with a flick of your wrist.

I’m talking about your zoom lens. Or rather the fact that your zoom lens does an awful lot more than just zoom.

Most people assume that your zoom is there to bring distant object closer to you.  NOT QUITE.

The more you zoom, the more you can bring them in. By the same logic, your ‘least zoomed in’ lens position is therefore the ‘neutral’. Right??? WRONG! 

Check out the two images above. The first one was taken with the lens not zoomed in at all and the second, zoomed in to the max (within the constraints of that particular lens). We moved a few steps backwards with the latter photo to maintain the same proportion of the portrait in the frame for comparison.

Quite a difference, wouldn’t you say? Now, you may not know the child in question, but I can assure you, she DOES NOT look like herself in the first photo – somehow her nose and her cheeks grew larger in that photo, her teeth more prominent and the shape of her face more oval than it normally is.

I feel like I need to stress one thing here before you go further – it’s not about prettier, better or anything like that – I do not believe this should EVER come into children’s photography. But as parents we do want to photograph them as they are – so they actually resemble themselves and not an exaggerated version of themselves.

So what happened here?

So what does the zoom actually do? 

The less you zoom in, the more your camera will stretch the space – if you take a picture of a room at your least zoomed in and compare it later to what it looks like ‘to the naked eye’ you will see that the photo will make the space appear larger, longer, deeper, more spacious – now you know the estate agent’s favourite tool!

So far so good, but unfortunately, especially when you take a photo up close, it will do the very same to the person’s face – stretch it, skew it, exaggerate the facial features, producing an image that will not really resemble their actual features.

By contrast, zooming in, compresses and compacts the space, making the space look smaller, distances shorter, and human faces – more natural (with the added bonus of often creating the blurry background we like so much).

Your zoom can help control your backgrounds

Zooming will also help you control the background of your image. Just compare the two images below and how much you can see behind the child in the first and second image.

lensWhat is best for portraits then? And how do I know how much zoom is enough?

If you have a DSLR, chances are that when you look on your lens, you will see some numbers on the side – on most lenses that come with DSLRs as a standard, they will often go from 18 – 55.

  • 18mm, for most entry level cameras will be the shortest Focal length – the least zoomed in – it will give you the widest, longest largest space and alien looking portraits
  • around 30mm – this will be most ‘life like’ when compared to the view with the naked eye. The portrait will be fine, though if you get to close, it may still look a little ‘off’. Generally safe enough for portraits though.
  • 50mm and more – that’s when the compression comes into play and people start looking their best.

If you’re shooting with a compact or a bridge camera ( where the lens doesn’t detach and there are no markings on the lens) you’ll need to do a little trial and error to determine where your good portrait range starts. Test your zoom range by standing in the same point in the room and taking a succession of images of the space , changing nothing but the zoom – a little bit at the time. Witch each picture compare how the space feels to what you see with your naked eye – when it starts looking about the same or smaller than your actual space, that’s where your good portrait range starts.


  • Find a willing portrait volunteer
  • Set your camera on the longest zoom first – try to fill the frame with your subject’s face so that their face covers at least 50% of the frame – leaving just a little space above the top of the head and below the shoulder line. Take the picture
  • Try to recreate the same image with reduced zoom ( around 30mm this time). You will need to get closer to your subject to achieve it. Take the picture.
  • Bring your zoom all the way down and get closer still to your subject – you may be finding yourself almost uncomfortably close to them. Remember, we’re trying to get the same proportions of face to frame.
  • Compare the images – notice how the face changes with each zoom change. If you have a longer lens ( 100 or 200mm) try it as well to see how it affects the image.

A little caveat here. I am not actually advocating never using short focal length ( small zoom) with people photos again. The advice above, applies mostly to portraiture, and especially when you are relatively close to the person you photograph. It is still absolutely fine if you want to capture a wider scene and when your subject is a little distance away.



Got a good camera but photos not turning out like you hoped? Check out our Photography courses for Mums and Dads – our talented and inspiring instructors –  Children’s Photographers – share their know how in our classes. Learn online or in-person ( London and Surrey)