Zone Focusing

One of the best techniques for candid street photography. Read on for an introduction, tipps to train and make use of zone-focusing and a special trick.

In a nutshell

Zone-focusing is nothing else than setting the camera to be sharp at a given distance and a field in front and behind that. Yet it is so much more.

It’s faster than the fastest auto-focus and more reliable in crowded scenes.
In street photography you often do not have the time to blink before a subject, situation or decisive moment has passed. You sometimes cannot deal with the fraction of a second the auto-focus needs nor do you have the time to readjust the focus if it has misinterpreted what you have seen.

It let’s you concentrate on the composition rather than both, focusing and composing in literally no time.

Because you are faster and do not need to work with your settings after raising the camera you move more smooth, thus drawing less attention and so getting more candid shots.

get people into your predefined zone
Where zone focusing helps a lotWhere it doesn’t help that much
You want to get near peopleYou want to stay aloof from people
You have to be fastYou are fishing. But I guess you’re locking the autofocus, then.
Your auto-focus is too slow for some shots(see above)
Your auto-focus misinterprets your subjectEmpty streets
Your auto-focus changes the subject while you are shooting in continuous modeEmpty streets
You want to do night street photographyYou do long-exposures on a tripod
You want to be noticed less You don’t care being noticed (which is a good thing)

Technical Background

Zone-focusing is harder to explain than to do. If you are already familiar or uninterested in depth of field, feel free to skip to the next part to make use of zone-focusing.

When you focus on a subject you have a certain depth of field (DOF) that starts in front of your subject and stretches behind that. Everything within this field is acceptably sharp. For street photography you want to set your camera to such a DOF that you know how to stand to a subject to get it sharp in no time, i.e. the zone that you feel compositionally pleased and personally comfortable with. The good thing is, that you can calculate that:

two times the squared distance to your subject multiplied with your f-number and your circle of confusion; divided by your squared focal length

Ok, I’ve understood that there’s circle of confusion. And I want to leave this without further explanation, because a lot of people already did.
All you need to know from that calculation is,

  • the longer the distance to your subject,
  • the higher your aperture,
  • the wider your lens (shorter focal length),

the wider your depth of field. Because I assume that you want your subject near by yourself, you have to set your aperture according to your focal length. To do this, we’re going back to the good thing that you can calculate this. Even better, you can read your zone either from your lens or little tools on your phone.

Make use of zone focusing

On your lens you can read the DOF according to the distance you’ve focused to. The f-numbers on the left and right side literally frame your DOF depending on the distance. Again you see that higher f-numbers increase your zone.

reading DOF from a lens

Chances are that you do not have such a lens. In that case there are some Apps like PhotoPills (Android/Apple), DOF Calculator App (Android/Apple) or the Online DOF-Calculator. Since I use PhotoPills, you’ll find a screenshot on the right.

Depending on your camera, lens, aperture of choice you can tweak your focus zone until you’re comfortable with it and set your focus to that distance. Because my camera has precise markings for […] 1,5m, 2m, 3m, 5m […] I always juggle with those values.

Typical settings

You are good to go if you’ve discovered some standard settings so that you don’t have to mind if you need to set them.

  • Focal length: 35mm (~53mm equivalent)
  • Aperture at f11
  • focus point at 2m: zone ranges from 1,47m to 3,14m in front of me
  • focus point at 3m: zone ranges from 1,94m to 6,63m in front of me
  • Focal length: 27mm (~41mm equivalent)
  • Aperture at f8
  • focus point at 2m: zone ranges from 1,40m to 3,53m in front of me
  • focus point at 3m: zone ranges from 1,82m to 8,63m in front of me

You see that my near distance more or less stays the same when I change lenses. I just need to remember 1,40m and 1,80m as my near limits, because I normally do not shoot behind the far distance when I’m out hunting.

Situations that you encounter behind that range have the tendency to unfold out of the people’s movements and gestures. If you train your eye to anticipate those events it’s most of the times sufficient, to switch to auto-focus (or run to bring your zone to the action). Going back to zone-focus is easy then.

Special Trick

Here comes a special trick to make use of zone-focusing to overcome the anxiety to start shooting people that near.
If your camera has a continuous shooting mode and the ability to switch between a silent and a mechanic shutter you can easily make the people think that you’re setting up to shoot something behind them (see one of the hunter techniques).

  • Set up your zone, activate continuos mode and the silent shutter
  • When a person enters your zone, raise your camera to your eye and start shooting
  • When the person has left your zone, switch to the mechanical shutter and click something frivolous. It will be out of focus anyway.
    Function button for silent shutter

If the person has thought you are shooting it, it now is tricked and doesn’t even think about you anymore. To example this, here’s the contact sheet for the first image

Got the shot
Got the shot
Thanks for another one
Thanks for another one
left the zone
left the zone
pretending to shoot the building
pretending to shoot the building

Training Tipps

Now that we’ve covered the basics, there’s one more thing of importance. You may need to practice a lot to master this technique. You need to discover your zone depending on your style. You need to get a feeling on distances and how fast people move through your zone to know when to raise the camera and when to click the shutter.
I can give you four little tipps to get started

  1. Use a prime lens, set up a high f-number, focus on one distance and tape the aperture and focus ring
  2. Train with non-people-motivs. As you move through the streets, you’ll find plenty of objects to train your distance-assessment. Stop before, let’s say, a lamp-post when you think it’s in a perfect distance. Stop, shoot and evaluate your images.
  3. If you have a focus-assisstant for manual mode in your camera (e.g. highlight sharp areas in red), try observing both, the people around you and your display while people move through your frame. Make mental clicks, at least.
  4. Consistent with the special trick, shoot in continuous mode and click the shutter rather early than late.
  • Street Photography Cookbook ⋆ rouven kurz photography

    […] ⓘ A guide with deeper explanation and a special trick can be found here. […]

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