A Comprehensive Guide to Zone Focusing
Capturing life both candidly and in focus is one of the most difficult, yet most important skills to master in Street Photography. Life moves fast, life is unpredictable and life can happen at any moment around you. Other genres and subjects in photography allow you the freedom and time to set up each shot perfectly. Candid life doesn’t. Since it doesn’t get ready for you, you have to be ready for it.
So how can you make it easier on yourself to capture life in focus the moment it happens? By removing the need to focus your camera on the scene before making the photo. And how can you do that? By learning how to zone focus.
In my opinion, learning how to Zone Focus can be one of the most valuable skills you learn in Street Photography. It’s why I use this technique 90% of the time when I’m shooting Street Photography.
I’ve mentioned Zone Focusing in past articles and it usually brings questions from readers. It can sound more confusing than it actually is if you only give a quick overview. So I wanted to make a comprehensive guide covering all things pertaining to Zone Focusing. The how, why and what of Zone Focusing. Hopefully this guide can answer everyone’s questions and more, but if not, you can always ask me below in the comment section.
Zone Focus Like the Old Days
Zone focusing, also known as scale focusing, started in the days before auto focusing existed. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, if you didn’t have a rangefinder camera, zone focusing was the way to go. And even if you did have a rangefinder, it was still the way to go for many Street Photographers.
Before we go into much more detail, zone focusing is generally when you use a high f-stop number for a deep depth of field (f/11+), while having your camera pre-focused to a certain distance. Thus, giving you a range of distance in front of you that you know will be in focus, while eliminating the need to auto or manual focus for each shot.
Why Zone Focus?
So with the technology of today, why would anyone choose an old school technique like zone focusing when you have such advanced auto focusing systems that do all the work for you? Actually, there are plenty of reasons, even more specifically for Street Photographers, and anyone capturing the uncontrolled subject of life.
5 Reasons to Zone Focus
1. Auto Too Slow
Yes, the auto-focus systems of today are faster than ever. Depending on the camera, some are much faster than others too. But when capturing life and uncontrolled subjects, it might not always be fast enough. If you can really learn zone focusing, you guarantee the fastest possible focus. You can’t get faster than no need to focus at all.
2. Back Focus or Wrong Focus
Even if the auto-focusing works fast enough, it still might not always focus on what you want it to. Auto-focusing systems still aren’t 100% perfect and when dealing with uncontrolled moving subjects, you never know what they’re going to do. The auto-focusing might miss the subject or lock onto the wrong subject, especially if they’re at a pinpoint distance. With Street Photography, a more common problem can be when it misses the moving subject and focuses on the background instead, which even with a high f-stop, will likely give you a noticeable out of focus foreground. With Zone focusing, you already have the focus locked to the area you want in focus.
3. No Re-Composing
So let’s say your auto-focusing is fast as lightening and never misses your subject. Even then, you will likely have to recompose your shot after locking the focus onto your subject. With zone focusing, you can compose the shot from the start.
4. Life Moves
Life moves fast and doesn’t tell you where it’s going. Having to worry about getting the focus right with something uncontrolled and fast moving is not always easy. With zone focusing, it makes it that much easier. You already know the area that will be in focus so it doesn’t matter how fast they move. As long they’re within your pre-determined range, they will stay in focus.
5. Focus on the Photo
One of the biggest benefits to zone focusing is how it allows you to completely focus on the scene and photo. You don’t need to worry about focusing, so you can better become part of your surroundings and just react to what happens around you. There’s no disconnect from what your eyes see and your framing of the scene. You can observe, compose and capture in one fluid reaction.
Example: Fast Reaction
One thing I’m often told is how fast I react. Sometimes when I take a photo, my eyes see and I react instinctually by making the photo before my mind even has a chance to think. If I had to think about focusing first, there’s no question it would lower my ability to react as fast to capturing a moment.
This moment above happened in a split second reaction, and was gone as quickly as I saw it. I was walking along the street when I saw this strange moment out of the corner of my eye and immediately turned and captured it in one quick reaction. There’s no way I would have caught it without zone focusing.
*This example also brings up one other advantage of zone focusing. When shooting into windows or reflections, auto focusing can focus on the far distance into the reflection when you want it to focus on the closer subject behind the window. Zone focusing eliminates this problem.
So What Exactly is Zone Focusing?
Zone focusing is pre-focusing the camera a specific distance, and combining that with specific camera settings that together give you a distance range. Within that area of distance, you know all of the scene will be in focus. So then it’s already pre-focused for every scene and subject you shoot. Zone focusing is also being able to change this in-focus distance range manually on the fly.
This sounds more complicated then it is to do. So I’ll break it down completely to give full understanding of this extremely valuable technique. Then you should be able to perform it out in the streets without a problem.
Depth of Field (DOF)
The first thing to understand is Depth of Field, commonly shortened to DOF. When you focus on a subject, the Depth of Field is the total area behind and in front of the subject that appears in focus.
A shallow Depth of Field would be something like a portrait shot where the eyes are in sharp focus, while the background is completely blurred (also called bokeh). A deep Depth of Field would be something like a landscape shot where everything appears in sharp focus.
So if you focus on a subject 3 meters away, depending on your camera settings, everything from 2 meters to 5 meters might be in focus. This would be your total Depth of Field. (Also, notice that the Depth of Field will always go further behind the subject than in front of it.)
If you can pre-set your Depth of Field, you will already know what will be in focus by looking at the what you’re photographing. Of course, the greater the Depth of Field, the easier it is to place everything in focus with your eyes.
How to Zone Focus
For pre-focusing, you can focus your camera on a specific distance in front of you and then lock it in. Or just set it manually if your lens is capable and you already know the distance you want.
While pre-focusing the camera determines the exact distance the focus is set, your camera settings determine how much the Depth of Field expands from that distance.
The further your pre-focused distance, the deeper the Depth of Field. A subjected focused at 1 meter away might give you a range in focus from .2 meters in front and .3 meters behind the subject, a total DOF of .5 meters. A subject focused at 3 meters away might give you a range in focus from 1.5 meters in front and 10 meters behind the subject, a total DOF of 11.5 meters.
Settings & Focal Length
After pre-focusing your camera, aperture and true focal length determine your Depth of Field.
The smaller your aperture, the deeper the Depth of Field. An aperture of F/1.4 will provide an extremely shallow Depth of Field, while an aperture of F/16 will put much more of the scene in focus.
The same goes for the true focal length. The wider the focal length, the deeper the Depth of Field. A focal length of 200mm will provide a more shallow Depth of Field, while a focal length of 24mm will put much more of the scene in focus.
“True” Focal Length
I say “true” focal length because many confuse sensor size with also affecting the Depth of Field, when it doesn’t. A 50mm lens on a cropped sensor might convert it to a 75mm focal length, but the “true” focal length is still 50mm.
This is important to remember when talking about Zone Focusing because it’s true that shooting at the same focal perspective on a full frame camera will decrease the Depth of Field compared to a cropped sensor camera, but this is only because their “true” focal lengths are actually different. So when it comes to DOF, look at the “true” focal length on the lens, not the focal perspective it provides in camera.
*Most guides for zone focusing disregard this fact because it can add another layer of confusion, but I’d rather explain everything accurately. If you have any questions about this, just ask me in the comments below!
Here is a helpful Depth of Field Calculator for you to test how these factors work together:
There are also many free DOF calculation applications you can download for your phone.
*Also note that “acceptable sharpness” can be up to opinion. While the Depth of Field should keep everything within it in relative focus, there still is a gradual loss of sharpness the further you get from the pre-focused distance. After practicing on your camera, you can look over your photos to see if this is noticeable enough for you, and then increase aperture in the future if you feel it’s needed.
Depth of Field Scale
While not necessary for zone focusing, if your lens has a scale on it like the one below, it can be very helpful.
Whatever distance you turn the scale to point at with the middle line is your pre-focused distance. Then you can look at the lines connected to your specific aperture on each side of that middle line. Where your aperture’s lines point are your depth of field distances at that specific pre-focused distance. This can come in handy when quickly changing your pre-focused distance and DOF on the fly.
After pre-setting and knowing your Depth of Field, how do you guess the area of distance that will be in focus? Well, if you select a high f-stop, you make it more easy on yourself, but for the most part, it just takes practice. You can measure an area of distance in front of you with your feet and then look at that area to get a good idea of what it looks like. Or if your camera or lens can give you a focused distance reading, you can use that to get an idea. From that point just test out your judgement by taking photos and seeing how they turn out. After a little practice, it should become easy. And with a high f-stop, you don’t have to be perfect, either.
My Normal Settings
There are no universal settings for zone focusing. You might have your own preferences for shutter speed, aperture or ISO. Also, available light will be a factor too. But generally you want a high f-stop for zone focusing, with the rest only being important for exposure and personal preferences.
Here are my normal and most used settings for zone focusing (ISO includes a range for correct exposure):
- Aperture: f/11
- Shutter Speed: 1/500th
- ISO: 400-1600
- 28mm or 35mm lens (full frame equivalents)
I find f/11 gives me plenty of focal distance, especially on a mirror-less camera. If shooting on a full frame camera, sometimes I close it down to f/16 when the light is bright enough.
You’ll sometimes hear or read this term when it comes to Zone Focusing. It’s not the same as Zone Focusing, but it is closely related so I’ll give it a explanation here.
The hyperfocal distance is the pre-focused distance where everything further out becomes in focus all the way to infinity. So instead of a specific in-focus distance range like you get with Zone Focusing, Hyperfocal focusing gives you an area in focus that goes from one point to forever. I find Zone Focusing more valuable because it allows the in-focus area to start closer, which is needed much of the time in Street Photography. Hyperfocal distance is still worth knowing, though, because if your lens and settings allow a close enough hyperfocal distance, then you don’t even need to guess the distance anymore. It will all be in focus until infinity.
Get in the Zone & Take Control
I use zone focusing around 90% of the time for Street Photography. That’s how valuable I find it. When it comes to Street Photography, I like full control in an uncontrolled world. I find that zone focusing helps gives that much more control of what and how I capture that uncontrolled world.
If I miss a shot or it doesn’t come out how I planned, I want it to be 100% my fault. I’d rather blame myself than my camera. Zone focusing helps put a little more of that responsibility on myself.
Street Photographers like to talk about becoming part of the streets and their surroundings. Getting to a point where the camera becomes more a part of you than a separate piece of gear helps you get that much closer. And I find zone focusing really helps that camera become an extension of yourself.
So for any Street Photographers or photographers of uncontrolled life, I highly recommend trying out zone focusing for yourself. It does take practice so you don’t want to give up too soon, but when you get it down, there’s a good chance you’ll fall in love with it too.
I hope this guide is useful for anyone interested in Zone Focusing. If you have any more questions regarding Zone Focusing, or this guide, please ask me below!