Details relating to focal length, perspective, and compression all matter, of course, especially if you’re a photographer, but optical principles are not the purpose of this post. The thing to notice here is the metaphor.
What are we talking about? We’re talking about why you should think about avoiding the zoom function on your camera whenever possible. Do you want to make an object appear larger in your frame? Get closer to it. Want to place it in context with something else nearby? Take a step backwards. By moving your feet your brain gets involved in the process. Sure, your brain gets involved when you fiddle with the middle of the lens…but it’s not the same.
When you adjust the zoom control you’ve taken steps to place the technology of your camera between you and the subject. You’ve opted for a device to do something that you could do yourself. This dulls your thinking and commodifies the result. By forcing yourself to move, you place yourself in the middle of the story, right in the heart of the action.
This works when you’re taking wedding photos as well as when you’re covering urban riots. When you get in close you capture the feelings of your circumstance. You force yourself to pick your subject and define the goals of your photo. You cut out extraneous elements by virtue of simply eliminating them from your field of view.
The converse obtains, too, although often with more nuanced benefits. You don’t always have to move in; sometimes you can move back. The difference here, however, is that most of the time moving further away from your subject simply dilutes the power of your message. Moving away is an option if you’re looking to paint a big picture, but be sure to be clear with yourself. If you’re moving away simply because you’re skittish to move in close, you’re probably making a mistake.
This all takes a measure of courage, and sometimes quite a lot of it. You have to get comfortable with the idea that you just might be in the center of the action. While often true, don’t worry about everyone watching you. The fact is, they’re generally not. You’re not the subject; the thing you’re photographing is likely the thing that’s holding everyone’s attention. When you’re learning, just move in and try to have a sense of humor about it. Once you get it, it will become second nature and you’ll move because you’re motivated to capture something.
Your deeper needs for courage will come because you’ll have choices to make, and often only one instant to make them. Do you want to hesitate when the bride throws her bouquet? When you stand at a distance, you might think you make safer creative choices—keeping your options open, perhaps?—but they’re often boring. In ambiguity, your viewers can’t know what’s important. You become a songbird singing in the middle of the city. Far away from the bird, we simply can’t resolve its tune. You must be courageous and you must be decisive. The bird can’t sing louder, so you have to get closer to it to hear its song.
What if you can’t get closer? What if you’re trying to see something across four lanes of busy traffic?
Sometimes its simply impossible. You want to photograph the bird in the sky outside your hotel window and three’s no way to move in. It’s okay to use your telephoto lens, to use technology to help you. Great glass in front of your camera can help you see all sorts of things! But the philosophy persists: choose your subject and cut everything else out. If you can’t get get closer on your own two feet, allow that philosophy to help you do the next best thing.
Sounds suddenly stressful, right, like your casual snapshot of friends is suddenly going to be the subject of sneers from photo snobs. Relax! Expect to botch the job most of the time. Like all things, this gets better with practice. But the two extraordinary things to remember are this: you can practice this ever time you lift your camera to your eye—cell phones included!— and you can count on the metaphor of getting closer to your subject beginning to filter into all other aspects of your life, too. Deeply integrated, you’ll begin to see things like you’ve never seen them before.