A Simply Explained Zone Focusing Tutorial for Street Photography
Zone Focusing will free you as a street photographer.
There is nothing worse than capturing the perfect moment and ruining the focus. With zone focusing that just does not happen as often.
With the unpredictable and constantly changing nature of the street, getting a shot in perfect focus is difficult.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Auto-focus is a great luxury. Our eyes may get older and fuzzier, but as long as that red or green square is highlighted over the area that we want in focus, then most likely the focus will be correct. Also, if an unexpected moment happens and you need to change your focus quickly, then auto-focus is a powerful tool.
However, autofocus is far from perfect. You have to look through the viewfinder to use it and you have to select the focus area, so there is a good chance that you will miss some split-second moments. And at times, the auto-focus will malfunction, especially in low-light.
For about 50 percent of my photography, I use autofocus with the focus spot in the center. I will then lock-in the focus and recompose as quickly as I can. Manual focusing, or more specifically zone focusing, is the technique that I use for the other 50 percent.
Zone focusing frees you up to not have to focus, because your camera is already focused. You don’t have to lock in the autofocus and recompose. Instead, you just pick up the camera and shoot. It is so freeing that it can almost feel like the camera isn’t there. It’s just you and the scene.
How to Zone Focus
Zone focusing is the act of turning your camera to manual focus and choosing a set distance away to be in focus. I typically choose somewhere around eight to ten feet away.
With zone focusing, you want to maximize your depth of field to make it more likely that your subject is sharp. This is why many people prefer to do it with wide-angle lenses, such as 35mm. I find it too difficult to zone focus correctly with a lens longer than 50mm. The more depth of field in your image, the easier zone focusing will be.
Then simply wait until your subject enters the range that you are focused on, and understand that you will have more flexibility with the sharpness the deeper your depth of field is.
Here is a technical example. If you are shooting with a 35mm lens at F8 and you pre-focus your camera to 8 feet, then everything from approximately 5.5 feet to 15 feet away will be in an acceptable range of sharpness. The closer that objects get to 8 feet, the sharper they will appear.
Here is a link to figure out the depth of field depending on your focal length, aperture, and focus distance. You can see how much tougher it gets when you go below F5.6. www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html
Also, keep in mind that the closer you get to your subject, the smaller the range of acceptable focus will be. If you are shooting at F2, then it can be extremely difficult to be accurate consistently at close distances, such as 3 feet away. Trying to focus on something 8 feet away at F2 is much easier.
Learning to zone focus with a smaller aperture is a difficult but very important skill for street photographers to master. There are few technical skills that you can master that will have a better effect on the outcome of your photos.
If you practice, then it is possible to zone focus even at F2 with a wide-angle lens. I shoot often in low-light situations, particularly on the subway. I will ruin the focus on many of these shots; it is impossible not to, but I catch more than enough to make it worthwhile.
Above all, remember, if you have time to use auto-focus and your subject will not notice, then use it. In this case, it will be much more accurate than zone focusing.
Zone Focusing Exercise
Hopefully, your lens or camera has a manual focusing meter on it. If not, your camera will have a focusing meter somewhere on the screen.
Go outside with your camera and auto-focus on objects that are different distances away, particularly between five and 12 feet. Guess the distances and then check the meter to see how close you are to the exact numbers. Remember that the auto-focus is not always accurate, so check each distance by auto-focusing twice on each object.
Do not be discouraged if you are off at first. This is a difficult exercise. However, you should work on this until it becomes second nature.
Check out this guide to learn more about street photography: What is Street Photography? – An Introductory, How-To Guide for Beginners and Intermediates