In a previous post - Shooting Long, I talked about shooting portraits with a long tele-zoom lens. I was shooting on that day with my DSLR, but the same principle applies to compact point & shoot cameras.
This is another pair of shots from my wife's Panasonic ZS3 point & shoot camera. Like most compact cameras, this Panasonic has a zoom lens- a pretty long one at 12X. This means the focal length (when adjusted for sensor size) is equal to 25mm on the wide end, and out to 300mm when fully extended.
For the photos above, I positioned my pretty volunteer with her back to the sun. I stood very close to her, only about three or four feet away, and took the first shot. For this shot my lens was zoomed all the way out to it's widest setting of 25mm. For the second shot I simply backed up and zoomed in. With the lens zoomed all the way in to 300mm I needed to step back a good 20 feet or so.
So look at what a difference a zoom lens can make. First, looking at our subject, the distortion caused by the wide angle lens in the first photo is obvious. Her head and facial features have a little bit of that fun-house mirror effect. Now look the difference in the two backgrounds. In the first photo the background is cluttered and distracting. All of the background elements are in sharp focus which gives the image a very two dimensional look. The background of the second photo has a much different look. It's soft, slightly out of focus, and the overall scene is greatly compressed which makes the background less distracting. See the difference in the picket fence? That's the compression effect from the long focal length.
You don't necessary need to zoom to 300mm. Portrait photographers generally favor a lens focal length of at least 70mm, this is long enough to eliminate wide-angle distortion. So give this a try next time you're shooting a portrait- back up and zoom in.