You’ve got to try this technique for your portraits and you’ll find a great impact on your compositions. Zooming-in makes stuff appear closer, and so we usually use it for things that are far away that we can’t get closer to, like football players playing a game, or far-off wildlife. But in this case, you should put your subjects far away on purpose and then zoom in.

Zooming-In Makes the Background Smaller and Closer

Not only does zooming-in make your subject appear closer, it also makes the background appear larger. That means that a small backdrop can become enough to completely frame your subject. For instance, placing your subject in front of a door and zooming-in may make the door a big enough backdrop for a great portrait.

Max Out the Zoom and Take a Hike

But I’m not talking about using a 24-70mm lens or an 18-55mm lens. Nope, you need to pull out your 70-300mm or 100-400mm or 150-500mm and take a hike to get farther from your subjects.

This is the area I wanted to make portraits, but I wanted that mountain in the background to be the entire backdrop.

Lumix GH5, Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens (170mm equivalent view on full frame).

So I placed my subjects on that nearest hill and zoomed-in to 400mm on my GH5, which gives the same field of view as an 800mm lens on a 35mm sensor. That’s a lot of zoom. I used the Leica 100-400mm lens to do it. You can see that the peak in the back (Mt. Nebo) looks like it’s just across the valley, even though it’s ten miles away, and that hill with the trees is completely gone. This makes a terrific backdrop, and the more I zoomed, the bigger and closer those far peaks appear. My camera is nearly 100 yards from the family.

Since the sun was already set behind the mountain we were on, I also used three speedlights and the incredible Nissin Air controller system to trigger them for the light shining on the subjects from the right, which mimics the sunset on the peak behind–but that’s a story for another column.


You should place your subjects far away from the camera and then zoom-in as much as you can. You can draw a background closer and even make the foreground pleasantly out of focus. Of course, you’ll have to use a megaphone to tell them which way to turn their faces–actually, I simply coached them on how to stand before I withdrew to my camera position. Give this a technique a shot, and soon you’ll be carrying your biggest zoom to all your portrait sessions so you can make a memorable and distinctive portrait. It’s like magic when you show your client how majestic an environment looks with a long lens.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.