How zone focusing will help you to get better street photography

Jan 2, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How zone focusing will help you to get better street photography

Jan 2, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Zone focusing is a term that often seems to confuse people. But if you don’t know what it is, then it’s quite easy to understand why. It’s a common technique for a lot of subjects, and particularly for street photography. I often use it myself because it means I can just raise my camera, take the shot and know it’s in focus where it needs to be.

This video from photographer David Coleman explains exactly what zone focusing is, with several ways to implement it in your shoot workflow. Once mastered, it can be a fantastic way to let you shoot with confidence on the street, just knowing that your subject is in focus.

YouTube video

Essentially, when you have your camera focused to a given point at a given aperture, you will have a distance closer than that point at which things start to be acceptably sharp. You will also have a distance behind that point where things cease to be acceptably sharp. This depth between the near and far areas of sharpness is the “zone” referred to with the zone system.

When you know what your zone of focus is for a given focus distance, you can raise your camera to your eye without having to adjust focus. You just know that if a subject is stood between X and Y distance away from you, they’re going to be sharp. If you don’t have to wait for your camera to autofocus, and you don’t have to adjust it manually, it means you’re able to respond quickly and get the shot.

Some lenses have what’s called a depth of field scale printed on them by the aperture ring. This lets you see what those near and far points of the zone are when you’re focused at a particular distance at a certain aperture. At one point in time, pretty much all lenses had these markings. Today, with modern autofocus systems very few do, so you can use depth of field scale apps, such as Photopills to help you figure it out.

So, if you’ve heard about zone focusing, but you’re not entirely sure what it is, then have a watch of the video. You might decide that it’s not for you. But you might just find it helps you to improve your keeper rate. Especially if you’re shooting street photography with film.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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11 responses to “How zone focusing will help you to get better street photography”

  1. Tj Ó Seamállaigh Avatar
    Tj Ó Seamállaigh

    People, please…… Metric for Heaven’s sake.

    1. DUCK! Avatar
      DUCK!

      Nothing finer than proper measurements, they relate in general to parts of the body and are easily visualised. The metric system is based on a Napoleonic whim that turned out to be based on a false concept.

      1. Tj Ó Seamállaigh Avatar
        Tj Ó Seamállaigh

        wow .. u read lot of fantasy and fiction I can see.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metric_system

        Some reading is helpful – and it’s not about lengths and weights when it comes to Metric. The thing extends even to radiation dosemetry.

        1. DUCK! Avatar
          DUCK!

          Your attitude is indicative of a Wikipedia slave, and you probably read the Guardian too, so I am not surprised that you use fingers and thumbs to count…

          You can also take your shoes and socks off, when you run out…

          1. Tj Ó Seamállaigh Avatar
            Tj Ó Seamállaigh

            Come back when you get a degree in science.

    2. Huge Dom Avatar
      Huge Dom

      We use metric too but foot is an easy concept to understand… is about length of an adult foot.

      1. Tj Ó Seamállaigh Avatar
        Tj Ó Seamállaigh

        Understandable. Now, let’s imagine a photographer, you or I, trying to shoot a subject. If you are going to measure the distance on-location (i.e. practically measure it), then yes, feet is quite helpful to approximate. If you rely on sight to approximate the distance (which is most likely), then feet and metric are at equal level; like you can imagine the number of feet between you and the subject, you can imagine the distance in meters by looking as well; there is no advantage for feet units over the metric in this perspective. The greater difference here though is, the metric system is hierarchic: units from millimeters and below and up to kilometers are all related and can be easily estimated, imagined and put into perspective with each other. Mile, Foot, yard, and inch are not hierarchic and each one of them come from a different discipline.
        I used feet in my work (not photography) in specific condition where my tape meter did not expand large distances beyond 5 meters. So, I measured my steps to make an approximation of the distance, but then it must be converted to meters. All our science work from equations to graphs (specially those linear ones) depend on systematic metric units. With feet, inches or yards, all these principles do not hold.

    3. Renlish Avatar
      Renlish

      I prefer metric too (Aussie here) but I can understand enough imperial to figure this out. ;)

  2. Endre Baginyi-Korcsák Avatar
    Endre Baginyi-Korcsák

    The PhotoPills guys have a very extensive tutorial on DOF and focusing. Worth learning it. “The Definitive Guide To Always Expose Your Photos Correctly!”

    1. Markus Avatar
      Markus

      Thank you for the hint!

  3. Markus Avatar
    Markus

    Regarding metric vs imperial: Most manual lenses show both. If you are using a lens without the information (recent AF lenses), you just have to think about once (with the help of a focus calculator) and that’s it. It is not that complicated. BTW: This (metric/feet scales) is a perfect reason to buy some old lenses for adapting. I highly recommend Minolta MD lenses, cheap and very good WAF (women acceptance factor). Have fun! ;-)