Sep 23, 2022

Zone Focusing - How, Why, And When To Use It

Zone focusing is a fundamental street photography technique. Here's how it's done.

Hunter Scott
Hunter Scott
Zone Focusing - How, Why, And When To Use It

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. When you’re on the streets, speed is crucial. One of the best ways to speed up your shots, and a technique that I find makes shooting street photos much easier, and much more fun, is zone focussing. Let’s clear the air and sort out the jargon, and make sense of it.

Zone focussing is EASY

Jargon is everywhere in photography - and when it comes to focus, you’ve probably had the whole book thrown at you; hyperfocal distance, inverse square law, circle of confusion, the list goes on. In reality, zone focussing is very, very simple. It’s quick, easy, and makes complete sense once you try it out. All you’re doing when you zone focus, is pre-setting the focus on your lens so that you don’t have to touch it before you take a shot. 

Stay with me here - there’s some strategy involved. 

Does Gear Matter?

Well, yes and no - you can zone focus a rangefinder and an SLR in much the same way - I would advise against using this technique with an 8x10 view camera however. You’re also going to want a fairly wide lens - the wider the lens, the easier this all gets. You can absolutely zone focus on a 50mm if it’s bright outside and you can stop down plenty, but I prefer to use anywhere between a 21mm and 35mm lens (you should know by now that 28mm is my all-time favourite). 

The reason we’re after a wide angle lens is that the shorter the focal length, the greater the depth of field is at a given aperture. To make that make more sense, think about this. If you are using a 35mm lens at f/5.6, and a 200mm lens at f/5.6, the 200mm lens has a blurrier background, right? See, this is simple. I promise this will all make sense.

Zone Focus Street Photography Example
Zone-Focussed Street Photo (28mm)

Depth of Field?

Hold a camera up to your eye and rack focus back and forth - you’ll see that focus moves from close to you, to far away, and then infinity. The direction focus moves in is the “depth” we’re talking about when we say “depth of field”. As you stop down a lens, the size of the in-focus part of the frame increases, meaning you have a larger “slice” of stuff that’s in focus between you, and infinity (really far away).

You said this would make sense!

Ok so here’s the fun part about photography - the theory makes so much more sense when put into practice. I’ll use a 28mm as my example lens. If I focus on an object 3 metres away, at f/2.8 that object will be in focus, but we’d expect the areas directly in front of, and behind it to blur pretty quickly. If I set my aperture to f/8 however, everything from 1.5 metres allll the way to infinity will be in focus. Caveat - it won’t all be tack sharp - 3 metres will still be marginally more in focus than 12 metres, but it’s a tiny difference unless you’re pixel peeping. You can now start to imagine just how powerful this technique is. 

Zone Focus Street Photography Example
Zone Focussed with a 28mm - notice how everything is in focus?

Ok, so how do I do it?

If you’re lucky, your lens will have a distance scale, as most of them do. It will look something like this:

Zone Focusing Scale For Street Photography
Zone Focusing Scale For Street Photography

Set your focus to 3m, and your aperture to f/8. Notice on the scale, where the distance markings line up with the indicators for f/8. Everything between those two distances is in focus. You can, armed with this powerful and ancient knowledge, now pre-set any range of distances you like. With my 28mm, I almost always have it set to 3 metres, so that anything from 1.5m or 5 feet, to infinity will be in focus at f/8. If I need to get up close and personal, I’ll set it to 1 metre, so that anything between 70cm and 1.5 metres will be in focus. You can smell people’s breath that close! This area of focus is called the “zone”, hence, zone focussing.

Here's a video I made for you where I go over the whole thing!

Once you’ve wrapped your head around this, the next part is the most fun. Go out and shoot, with your focus set to whichever distance you prefer to work at, and don’t touch the focus! You can literally pop the camera up to your eye, compose, fire the shutter, and move on. Using a wide angle lens in combination with this technique has completely eliminated the necessity of focussing at all for me, and it’s made a huge difference in how quick I can be, and I miss far fewer important shots. If you run into any trouble using zone focussing I’d love to help - drop me a line and I’ll help you figure it out.