Zone focusing

With street photography zone focusing can be a life-saver between the decisive moment and a hit-and-miss-shot – toss the autofocus camera and get a manual lens instead…

Zone focusing is pretty straightforward, the photographer simply uses the DOF (Depth Of Field) effect to have the desired object(s) at working distance in focus. Zone focussing comes in handy, when there is no time to fiddle with the camera controls, or when the photographer wants to be extra unconspicious – without using the viewfinder to focus (aka. shooting from the hip).

Once you know what an f-stop is, and how to set it on your camera, you’re good to go. After some time you will get better at guessing distances and you’ll be a master of zone focusing in no time…
In the illustration above, the aperture (f-stop) is set to f8 and the focus is set to 2m (~7ft). The focus ring also shows f-stop markings to either side of the focus point (DOF scale).

Every f-stop shows a line directly related to a number on the distance scale. In this example everything from 1.5m to 3m (5ft to 12 ft.) will be in focus. This works at any distance and with any lens with DOF markings.

zone focusing is much more practical for street photography than the hyperfocal distance, which simply extends DOF from infinity into the foreground, which is great for landscape photography. street photography rarely needs to rely on infinity focus and smaller apertures like f8 or f5.6 are more common and a close working distance (hence zone focusing, also called scale focusing) are more practical.

Another great technique is to learn how to guess distances and using muscle memory in combination with a tabbed lens.

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5 Replies to “Zone focusing”

  1. “…will be perfectly in focus…”
    is a little bit exaggerated. Actually it should read
    “…will be sharp enough for all practical (candid shooting) purpose…”

  2. I have seen footage of a number of very famous photographers in action from HCB to Gary Winogrand. They shot and move on very quickly.
    It seems clear to me that they are Zoning with their Leicas. It strikes me that a lot of the most famous photographs in the world are not pin sharp. The ultimate test of a good photograph is not that is spot on focus wise, but good composition and the power in the subject.
    Great photo journalists have mastered the principles of photograpy, then they forget them.
    And hit the streets occasionaly adjusting focus and exposure. I might be wrong though.

  3. I really like what David said there. I always have the feeling that I’m doing my best to make a technically good picture, but will never make a great picture that way. Since I stopped using autofocus on my dslr I found that some of the cooler pics had the focus accidentally wrong. Or were off on some other point like exposure etc. Now if I ever would master to do that on purpose….

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