What is Zoom Compression in Photography?

One of the most powerful tools in landscape photography is being able to “compress” your field of view.  With it, you can create stunning images that will truly make you look like a pro.

The basic gist is that you are photographing a scene that is quite far away (ALL elements of the scene) and using a telephoto lens.  In regards to the photo above, normally, two acacia trees photographed with a telephoto lens would fill the frame with the trees.  That is, they would appear rather large in the resulting photo.  However, these were on the very distant horizon of Kenya’s Maasai Mara – potentially a mile or two away.  The compression happens when you compare the trees with their surroundings.  Technically speaking, the trees are the foreground and the sunset is the background.  When taking the photograph, however, this isn’t that intuitive, as they both seem like distant specs on the horizon – both the trees and sun.  But, because these comparatively are both quite distant from you, the photographer, a sense of “compression” happens, making the background (sun) appear more prominent than it actually is to the naked eye.  That’s when the magic happens.

Sunset in Honduras

Ever see those photos of massive moons over a landscape of a city or mountain?  No, the moon wasn’t necessarily 100 times its normal size that night.  It’s just what happens when you zoom in on a very distant landscape.  In fact, when doing so, you’re likely to not even be able to see the trees or equivalent “foreground” with your naked eye.  However, by using your zoom like a telescope, you are magnifying everything.  You magnify the microscopic trees just as you magnify the normal sized sun or moon.  Same thing goes with colorful sunrises and sunsets.  The actual colors you see may only be a fraction of the sky, but by zooming in, your photo will look as though the entire horizon is on fire.

We won’t go into the physics of why this happens, as it’s irrelevant to mastering the technique for a good compression photo.  The key thing to note is that this compression is actually a type of distortion, making background images larger than they appear in real life.

The other key thing is to know when and how to take advantage of it!  Things to look out for are:

  • Distant horizons with “foreground” texture. Texture really just means “stuff” – something to photograph.  Maybe it’s a stand of trees, or an entire forest.  Or, in the case of the orange sunset photo example above, just some trees on top of a hill.  Basically, you’re looking for something to be your subject.
  • Something notable in the “background”. Notable is again just an ambiguous word.  The most common background subjects would be the sun and moon, but city buildings, lights in a distant harbor, and even mountain ranges are all other examples.
  • PLENTY of space between you and the entire scene. When practicing, it may be hard to find examples of this, and rightfully so.  Scenes that allow you to photograph clearly in one direction for something miles away aren’t necessarily around every corner.  However, the best way to recognize opportunities like this is to get out there and practice.  In no time you’ll be able to recognize these opportunities when they do present themselves.

Hope this helps, and if you have any questions as you go along, leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help.


Go forth and give it a shot,