Confused about zone Focusing for Street Photography?

The old adage “f8 and be there”, pretty much sums up zone focusing. Zone focusing allows you to focus manually without having to re-focus; set your lens at a predetermined point then simply shoot away. It is a simple and fast technique which can transform the way you shoot and will enable you to react to an unfolding scene instantly. Many street photographers say that zone focusing liberates their shooting as it allows them to work extremely quickly, unobtrusively and accurately.

Here’s how it works:

  • Step 1: Choose an appropriate aperture. On a bright day, use f/11 or f/16 – around f/8 in darker conditions (don’t worry too much about shutter speed and ISO for now – we’ll cover that in a later section). Let’s assume for now that we have gone for f/11.
  • Step 2: Take a guess at the range of distances at which you are most likely to shoot. Let’s assume this is somewhere between six and twelve feet.
  • Step 3: Look at the depth of field marks on your lens barrel to see which correspond to that aperture then set the focusing scale so that the distances in question are within those depth of field marks. You will now see which distances will be in focus for your chosen aperture of f/11. For example, anything between four and eleven feet may be in focus with the lens in question.

When set up in this way, your camera is effectively a ‘snapshot’ camera, so you don’t have to worry about getting the focus right; you just point and shoot.

Most traditional lenses – and many modern ones too – have barrel markings such as these to aid zone focusing. In this picture of a 50mm standard lens you can see that by using an aperture of f/16 and setting the focus to 2m everything between 1.5m and 3m will be in focus. With a wide-angle lens, the ‘zone’ would be much wider. There are some very useful online calculators to help you find your precise focus setting – this is a good one.

Do bear in mind, however, that focus is not an absolute rule. There is always a zone on either side of the focused point which is sharp to an acceptable degree. The size of this zone will depend on your distance to the subject, on the focal length and aperture of the lens and on the size of the final image. Look at some of the great street photographs taken over the last 100 years – many of them are acceptably sharp but by no means absolutely sharp.


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