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Viewport Zooming and Scaling in After Effects

By Sara Wade
After Effects

After Effects is a powerful tool...but if you're using it wrong, you're not seeing the full picture

Have you ever been working in After Effects and suddenly lost sight of the picture? We mean literally. “Why does my shape layer look pixelated? I thought vectors were resolution independent?” “I need to zoom in farther? Why won’t After Effects let me do it?” These questions often come up for those newer to After Effects. While the difference between scaling and zooming is pretty straightforward, awareness of the details of both viewport zooming and scaling in AE can help your process.

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Hey all! I’m Sara Wade and today I’m going to clear up a common point of confusion for beginning After Effects users. We’re going to talk about the difference between viewport zooming and viewport scaling. Even seasoned After Effects pros need to remind ourselves of these details when we view a vector at 400% zoom and it looks like a pile of messy pixels.
In this video, you’ll learn:

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Viewport Zooming and Scaling in After Effects

What is the Difference Between Scaling and Zooming?

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The main difference between zooming and scaling has to do with which variable is being changed in your composition. When you zoom in on your viewport, you are affecting the magnification control. When you scale, you are affecting the object.
Have you ever had this problem? You try to scale an object in After Effects and it ends up more pixelated than original Mario. The problem is likely how you've set up your composition, so let's have a look. For this example, I set up two composition windows: a Bitmap Plant on the left, and a Vector Plant on the right.
The main difference between the two is that bitmaps are made of pixels, whereas vectors are made of points and instructions, meaning they are resolution independent. This means I can zoom in without any loss in quality.
When I zoom in on the Bitmap Plant to 800%, you'll see what I mean.
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The image is fuzzy, pixelated, and just not that fun to look at. Now, if I do the same thing to my vector art...
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Crisp as a New England morning. Since the vector art is using points and a formula rather than colored pixels, it creates a sharp image at any resolution. If you are scaling a vector image and you see pixelation, check that the Continuously Rasterize box is unchecked. After Effects is trying to rasterize your image, which affects the image quality.
But what about if we try zooming in?
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Wait a minute! Why are both of my images pixelated? As we said before, zooming affects the magnification controls. After Effects renders vector previews before zooming, which is why both images appear blurry.

Handy Keyboard Shortcuts for the Viewport

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You know us; we LIVE for keyboard shortcuts. If you're not rocking the hotkeys, what are you even doing? So we made a quick list of some of the most important ones to use in the Viewport.
  • Zoom in (comp, layer, footage) - Period (.)
  • Zoom out (comp, layer, footage) - Comma (,)
  • Zoom to 100% (comp, layer, footage) - Forward Slash (/) on main keyboard
  • Zoom to fit (comp, layer, footage) - shift + (/) on main keyboard
  • Zoom to fit up to 100% (comp, layer, footage) - Alt or Option + (/) on main keyboard
  • Set resolution to full in comp panel - CTRL + J, CMD + J
  • Set resolution to half in comp panel - CTRL + Shift + J, CMD + Shift + J
  • Set resolution to custom in comp panel - CTRL + ALT + J, CMD + OPT + J
Other useful viewport shortcuts:
  • Toggle show/hide safe zones - Apostrophe (')
  • Toggle show/hide grid - CTRL + '
  • Toggle show/hide proportional grid - ALT + '
  • Toggle show/hide rulers - CTRL + R
  • Toggle show/hide guides - CTRL + ;
  • Toggle show/hide layer controls (masks, motion paths, light/camera wireframes, effect controls points, layer handles) - CTRL + Shift + H
  • Toggle grid snap - CTRL + Shift + ‘
  • Toggle guide snap - CTRL + Shift + ;
  • Toggle guides locked = CTRL + ALT + Shift + ;
Want to learn even more about the Viewport in After Effects? Watch the rest of our video above!

We just zoomed through that tutorial

That’s it! Pretty simple, huh? Next time the pixelation gremlin strikes, you will know exactly what to do. If you want to learn more about After Effects with the help of industry pros, check out After Effects Kickstart from School of Motion.
After Effects Kickstart is the ultimate After Effects intro course for motion designers. In this course, you'll learn the most commonly used tools and best practices for using them while mastering the After Effects interface.