Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

How To Create Diversity with a Zoom Lens

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry 2 Comments

If you look at your portfolio do you see diversity?

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

By diversity I don’t mean a variety of subjects and scenes but rather the type of images that make up your personal collection of wildlife photographs.

Are all your images close up portraits?  More often that not this is the case and it’s hurdle every wildlife photographer needs to negotiate at some point in their journey.

It’s quite normal really.  You start off with 70 – 300mm kit lens and relish the ability to get closer.  It’s amazing!!  This ultimately leads to bigger glass – perhaps something like the always popular Canon 100 – 400mm or Nikon 80 – 400mm – which gets you even closer still.  Then you start playing with the big guns.  You rent a 500mm or 600mm for your trip to the Kgalagadi and make very sure that you have your teleconverters with you as well just in case you need to get even closer.

It’s very easy to get caught in this never ending cycle of needing to get closer and closer and yes, I agree, there is nothing quite like a full frame, well-lit close up of a leopard looking straight at the camera but it’s when you sit back and look at your portfolio of images  that you might see the bigger problem.

You only have portraits – close ups – and very few, if any at all, images that shows the animals in their environment.  Now I know some of you might argue that only shooting wildlife close ups is your style and that’s what your going for but in most instances I don’t buy that.  Yes yes, there are a few well known photographers who have kind of carved a niche for themselves by only sharing these kind of images but for the majority of us shooting different types of images is not only a good idea from a portfolio point of view but a great exercise to train your own composition and photographic eye.  Is there not a pretty strong argument to be made that chasing a style and being in a rut is very much the same thing?

This is a discussion I have had with many photographers on Wild Eye safaris and workshops.  Now if we’re ever in the field together we can chat, in any given sighting, about when, how and why you would consider shooting wider and not only go for the full frame close ups.  It has to do with your vision, what a scene makes you feel and the reason you pick up your camera in the first place but for the purposes of this blog, and to try and give you some take home value, let’s go for a more pragmatic approach.

If you struggle with always shooting close ups and with knowing when to shoot wider here is a great exercise you can do when you next head out into the field.

Using a telephoto zoom lens shoot the same scene at various focal lengths.  Using a Canon 100 – 400mm it would go like this:

  • Zoom to 100mm, compose, make an image
  • Zoom to 200mm, compose, make an image
  • Zoom to 300mm, compose, make an image
  • Zoom to 400mm, compose, make an image
  • Turn your camera to portrait orientation.
  • Zoom to 100mm, compose, make an image
  • Zoom to 200mm, compose, make an image
  • Zoom to 300mm, compose, make an image
  • Zoom to 400mm, compose, make an image

Pretty simple right?

But think about it.  By doing this you will have created 8 different images of any given sighting and in tike a few things will happen.  First thing is that you will get used to changing focal lengths in the field and managing your camera and settings on the fly.  Trust me, this is vital and something a lot of people need to work on.  Secondly, when you sit down in front of your computer and open Lightroom you won’t have 16 of the exact same images but many different types of images which is obviously a great thing!

In time, and if are photographically honest with yourself, you will find yourself drawn to certain types of images.  Sure, it might be that it’s the close ups and that’s fine but think of the diversity you would have created in your portfolio, the fun you would have had making the images and the in the field practice which makes you a better photographer.  It’s golden and a helluva lot more fun and productive that just shooting at the same focal length again and again and again.

Let’s look at a quick example.

These three images of two young elephants fighting were all taken with a Nikon 80 – 400mm and I did exactly what I mentioned above.  The ellies were moving all over the place and I wasn’t sure how best to capture the scene so I started at 80mm, made a frame, zoomed in, made another frame and so on until I reached maximum  zoom at which point I pulled back and started again.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

Focal Length: 80mm

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

Focal Length: 180mm

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

Focal Length: 400mm

Eventually I settled on the close up images – since the background was quite messy and the tight interaction made my photographic voice the most excited – so that’s where I stayed and worked the scene from there at 400mm.  The cool thing is that I ended up with not only great close up images but also some very decent wide angle images.  Diversity.

Here’s another example of a static subject where I applied the same technique.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

Focal Length: 120mm

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

Focal Length: 320mm

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Wild Eye

Focal Length: 400mm

Same sighting.  Same subject.  Different images.  Get it?

Again, the great thing here is that I ended up with different images, all usable, and I had fun playing around with options.  I mean seriously – at what point do you have enough “close-up-of-a-lion-with-something-dead-in-it’s-mouth” images?  Apart from softly killing your photographic voice by shooting the same thing again and again, Lightroom is a whole lot more fun if you have different images to catalog, work on and process.

Ok, just to be fair – and I’ll discuss this at more length in a future blog post – I also think there is massive value in using prime lenses and composing within the constraints of the creative crutch created by not being able to zoom but will put that discussion on ice for now.

Let’s sum things up.

If you’re struggling with composition, a lack of diversity in your portfolio and the decision making process of when to zoom in or out give this technique a try.  I am quite certain that somewhere along the line you’ll find new inspiration, new ideas and you’ll end up with some great images along the way!

For a more in depth discussion on this topic you can check out episode #29 of The Wildlife Photography Podcast which I did right after finishing this post.  More depth, more value, more food for thought!

If you have questions or if you have tried this in the past – I’d love to hear from you so get in touch or leave me a comment below.

Happy shooting!

Until next time.


About the Author

Gerry van der Walt

I am a private and specialist photographic safari guide, public speaker, co founder of Wild Eye and wildlife photographer. Visit my website at or follow my journey on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter a look forward to changing the way you see the world.  I also host a Wildlife Photography Podcast and I Vlog!

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