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How to Take Great Photos Using Zoom

Dominique is the author of Walk in Boston & Walk in NYC, two sites with 18 self-guided tours to visit Boston or New York on foot.

Become a better photographer with these easy tips.

Become a better photographer with these easy tips.

Take Better Photos With Your Camera's Zoom

Today I went for a walk in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, and I thought that, for once, I would put away my descriptions of walks and focus on a different subject (yet a related one): how to take great photos during your visits.

Don't assume that the quality, complexity, or price of your camera is paramount. It's not, unless you want to print in very large format or aim for a job at National Geographic (in which case you certainly don't need any of my tips).

Today, a $300 point-and-shoot camera is 100 times better than what $1000 was buying you 10 years ago. To get the most of it, familiarize yourself with the options it offers—and on location, use its zoom. All cameras have one. It will be the best and simplest thing you can do to take great photos.

In this article, we'll look at:

  1. Taking photos without a zoom
  2. Cropping vs. zooming
  3. Why you should use your zoom

Exhibit 1: Taking Photos Without a Zoom

To make my point, take a look at Exhibit 1: two photos I took during my walk today.

On the first one, I wanted to show the Bunker Hill Monument, the draw of the neighborhood. On the second one, I thought a view of the streets around the monument would be nice too. I could show them to my wife and she would have an idea of how it was when I went there.

Yet I don't think she would compliment me for these two photos. They do their jobs of recording what I saw and I can use them to show her the place, but do they really focus on what I was interested in?

Exhibit 1: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Exhibit 1: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Exhibit 1: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Exhibit 1: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Why These Photos Don't Work

  • There's Too Many Details to Look At: When I see these photos, I have to admit there are too many things around my subject and the image is overwhelmed with details I don't need. That's because what my eye saw and what my brain saw is not what my lens sees.
  • You See Differently Than Your Camera: When you are in front of a scene or a motif that you want to photograph, you only see what you want to photograph and you forget about the rest because you are focused on what you want to show. Your device, on the other hand, has no idea what you want to show.
  • You Need to "Tell" Your Camera What to Focus On: Your camera will record everything if you don't tell it exactly what it should focus on. It will take the people around it, the electric wires in the sky, the papers on the ground—everything you were able to ignore when you took your photo but were there anyway. When you look at your photo later, all these things appear, and suddenly you see them because your mind is focused differently. That's why zooming is much better.

Exhibit 2: Cropping vs. Zooming

When you realize you didn't use your zoom enough, you still have a solution: You use the mighty cropping function and cut everything that doesn't belong. Suddenly, what you wanted to show appears clearly. It's the first photo in Exhibit 2.

Yet there's one problem with that: a digital photo is made of dots called pixels. The more pixels you have on a given surface, the smaller they will be and the sharper your photo will look like.

When you crop your photo, the surface of it stays the same. It means the dots on it needs to get bigger in order to occupy the space. It also means you are losing the high definition of your initial photo.

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When you use a digital zoom, you get the same problem: less dots for the same surface and a blurry result once enlarged. A digital zoom crops directly in your camera the photo taken with the optical zoom to get you the illusion of more zoom. But it's just an illusion!

Exhibit 2: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Exhibit 2: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Exhibit 2: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Exhibit 2: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Why Cropping Isn't as Good as Zooming

In Exhibit 2, the second photo looks like the first one, but I took it using a zoom. It means I have more or less the same number of dots or pixels on this photo that I had in the Exhibit 1 photos. It looks sharper and has a higher definition than the first one in Exhibit 2. Why does it matter, you might say—especially if you perhaps like the first, lighter one?

If you only use your photos on a computer screen, it doesn't matter a lot because computer screens needs a low definition in order for the photos to upload quicker. If your computer screen is a big one, though, it's going to show; the cropped photos won't be neat and clear. Once again, it's always related to the number of dots on a surface.

Besides, most of the photos you can take will need slight adjustments with a photo editor like cropping a little more, playing with colors and contrasts, straightening the image. All these adjustments modify the number of dots on your original image, so the more you have, the more you'll be able to tweak your photos without losing its quality.

Exhibit 3: Why You Should Use Your Zoom

It's now time to explain how to use your zoom, and Exhibit 3 will be useful.

Remember Exhibit 1 and the overcrowded photos? To make sure it doesn't happen, when you have your eye on the monitor screen or in the viewfinder, ask yourself if what you see is really what you want to show.

In that case, I wanted to display the atmosphere of the street and what was unique in it. I didn't need the cars, the sidewalk, and the fence, so I got rid of them by zooming on what was really the essence of the street, the wooden houses and the gaslights.

Exhibit 3: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Exhibit 3: Walk in Boston # 5, the Historic Charlestown

Why Zooming Works

Zooming: It's also about making choices so your photos are a reflection of your thinking, not a sample of what is. It declares that you had an intention.

What about landscape photos, you might ask: I can't zoom on them, can't I?

Well, do you need the telephone antenna that looms in the distance, the branch in the foreground? You don't necessarily have to zoom a lot, but you will probably have to do it a bit.

Happy Photographing!

Zooming is undoubtedly what will make a big difference in the satisfaction that you will have to contemplate the result of your work. Zooming reveals your intention and shows what you thought, what interested you. It takes more time than just releasing the shutter button but it makes you a photographer. Try it! Happy photographing!

If you are curious about what camera I use, it's a Nikon Coolpix P600 with a 60x optical zoom. It's now discontinued by the manufacturer and costs more renewed than what I paid at the time (!), but it will give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

I had a Panasonic Lumix before and I found something similar to the Nikon: It's the Panasonic Lumix FZ80 (about $300).

Have a look if you are in the market for a decent camera; they both have a 60x optical zoom and it's already a pretty impressive zoom.


Dominique Lecomte (author) from Medford, MA, USA on November 28, 2020:

Thanks for your comment, Peggy. Happy photographing!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 27, 2020:

I enjoy using the zoom feature on my digital camera. I also like editing and cropping photos to showcase what I wish to feature. Photography can be a fun hobby for most of us who are not professionals.