Zone Focusing in Street Photography

A Street Scene

In this article we look at zone focusing and particularly zone focusing in street photography. This is the preferred method of focusing for many street photographers and is also sometimes used in Landscape photography.

But why? Isn’t zone focusing a manual method of focusing? How come we had so many advances in built in camera auto-focusing systems and people are still using manual methods of focusing? This article discusses these questions and more…

What is Zone Focusing?

Choose a particular distance to focus on, at a particular aperture, and that gives you a particular depth of field. This depth of field is called the ‘zone’, and then you photography subjects that are in that zone. The idea being that when the subject is in your zone or you need to do is click.

Whenever you are using this method think in terms of the area around you that is in focus. For example, 1 -3 meters away from you is in focus. Anything or anyone stepping, cycling, or moving in your area is therefore your subject matter. So stop thinking in terms of subject matters being in focus, it is now the area that is in focus.

When would Zone Focusing be Used?​

When we think about when would zone focusing be used then there are a few different situations. It is mainly street photographers who use zone focusing. Particularly those street photographers you specialize in candid type images. That is those images of people acting naturally in their day-to-day lives.

When We Were Young

A street photographer might use this method when they want to get close to someone and take a shot without them noticing. The reason for this is it is a lot faster then your camera’s focusing system because essentially you no longer need to focus.

Another example of when zone focusing would be used is in Landscape photography. A landscape photographer may want to be absolutely clear about which particular distance the camera should be set to focus on.

Manual Focus Street Photography

Dafen Art District painter

A Manual Lens is better designed for zone focusing. You have probably seen some manual focus street photography and been impressed with the sharpness and quality of the shots. Zone focusing with a manual lens is easier to set up as the dials for control are all located on the lens itself.

Manual focus street photography is popular because the images appear more natural. The photographer is able to react faster without thinking too much about settings. Also manual focus street photography can be more fun for the photographer than using an autofocus system.

How to use Zone Focusing with a manual Lens

Manual lenses

So as discussed many street photographers prefer to use a manual lens as it feels more natural. Here is a guide on how to set up and use zone focusing with a manual lens.

On a manual focus lens you will have an aperture ring, which is usually on the inside. You will have a focus distance ring, which is usually on the outside. On the focus distance ring the measurements are usually in white for metres and red for feet. So for example, on a bright sunny day you may set an aperture to F8 and a focus distance as 2 meters.

Two Manual lenses

In addition to this you have a ring in the middle which will usually say something like 8, 16, 22 – this is your zone. So for example if you are on F8 you like at the 8 zone in the middle ring. You then look at the corresponding values on the outer distance ring. So for example, one point on the 8 zone may correspond to 2 meters, and the other may correspond to 5 meters.

That means everything from 2 to 5 meters is in focus. So you can now go around shooting subjects between 2 and 5 meters whilst being fairly confident that they are in focus.

How to set up Zone Focusing on Fuji X System Cameras

Fujifilm X-T4

Many street photographers use the zone focusing on Fuji X system cameras as an alternative to using a manual lens. I personally don’t own a manual lens, I may buy one in future but for now this is how I shoot zone focusing. Here is how to set up zone focusing on Fuji X system cameras.

Fujifilm lenses don’t tend to have the same markings as the older ones which were designed for manual focus. So you mainly use the menu system in the Fuji X system camera to set up the zone focusing to your preference. Here is the method I use to set up zone focusing on my Fujifilm X100F and Fuji X-T3 camera systems.

First need to switch the focusing over to Manual, this is on the front of the Fuji X camera. Then go to the AF Menu and set the following settings:

MF Assist = Focus Peak Highlight Red (High)

Focus Check = Off

Depth of Field Scale = Film Format Basis

Then go to set up, screen set up:

Focus Scale Units = I like mine set to meters

Within the screen set up, go to display custom settings, check to display the following:

AF Distance Indicator

MF Distance Indicator

Now go back to the view finder to test it out:

You should see a distance scale on the bottom of the screen with a white dot. Either side of the white dot is a blue line, this blue line is your depth of field at the particular aperture your camera is set currently set at. So as you change the aperture to lower numbers you will see the blue line becomes smaller, the opposite being true as you change to higher numbers.

Now use the focus ring on the camera to set your perfect distance of focus, i.e. where the white dot in the middle is. As a rough guide I like to set mine to 2 meters, and on a sunny day I set my aperture to F8 with a minimum shutter speed of 1/125.

Advantages of Zone focusing​

So why use zone focusing in street photography? Why not just us the cameras auto-focus. Here are some of the advantage of zone focusing:

1. Control

With zone focusing it is easier to control what is in focus. As street photographers we like to be in control. There are so many things that are out of our control, like where the subject walks, the weather, who else chooses to stand in the shot, etc. Therefore as street photographers we try to gain control over as much of the scene as possible.

Do you want the foreground, middle-ground, or background to be in focus? It is your choice, with zone focusing you have full control of the focus area.

2. Not only center point focusing

Huaqiang Bei Zone focus

With normal focus only the center point is in focus, whereas the area across the screen is in focus with zone focus. So subjects that are at one end of the view finder, such as the far left or far right, will still be in focus.

This can be useful in street photography as people like to make sudden unexpected movements. Of course you can use wide-tracking or continuous focus to deal with movement but this can sometimes be problematic. Zone focusing provides a reliable solution to subjects moving out of the center point of focus.

3. Speed

This is the main reason I like zone focusing in street photography, because it is fast. Speed is everything in street photography.

You need to able to act quickly to capture moments before they have past. Zone focusing is faster because you simply hold the camera up and shoot as soon as you see a subject in your hyper focal distance. No need to half press the shutter to focus, or readjust any settings really, you see the shot and boom you got it!

Huaqiang Bei Chinese workers

4. Shooting from the Hip

This is when you have the camera near your body or hip rather than near your face. The reason for doing this is your subject isn’t aware you are taking a picture and is therefore acting more naturally.

This method is much easier mastered in zone focusing because you don’t need to focus. Simply wait for the subject to step into the zone and take the shot.

5. Cost

Many of your favourite street photographers from the past used zone focusing. So you can use similar lenses to them and achieve the same results. No need to buy the latest most expensive lens with this method. You can achieve super fast, sharp images at a low price.

Summary

I would recommend zone focusing to anyone who would really like to take their street photography to the next level. I know how it feels when you see other photographers pictures and you wonder why you can’t get the same natural looking images. Once I switched over to zone focusing I realized that this was the piece of the jigsaw I was missing.

As well as improving my street photography it has also helped me to understand how focus works. This has resulted in a better understanding of photography and sharper images for me.

I recommend you stick to the same focus distance rather than continuously change it. This is particularly relevant at first because you want to train your eye to understand when a subject is in your focus range without even looking at the camera. That way you can be super quick and discrete, and therefore capture genuinely natural moments.

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