There is nothing worse than seeing an excellent opportunity, pressing the shutter, only to discover the focus just wasn’t there. Missing focus can be an annoying problem when photographing events or situations where things change quickly. In many cases, missing focus can be avoided by using a technique familiar to many street photographers to catch “the decisive moment.” Zone focusing, or scale focusing, is a method that can improve the number of sharp photographs you are getting. As another photography technique that has been around for so long, it might seem difficult to anyone unfamiliar with it. However, zone focusing is just an additional technique that can be useful in the right situations.
WHAT IS ZONE FOCUSING?
Zone focusing is a method to prefocus your camera and lens before ever taking a single photograph. Rather than focus on a single subject, zone focusing relies on focusing at a predetermined distance. Long ago, before autofocus was the principal means of focusing a lens it is today, a camera lens would come with a focus scale printed directly on it. A focus scale gave a guideline for what would be in focus at a given focal length and aperture.
Simply put, zone focusing means focusing for the distance you expect your subject to be. Zone focusing is a way of taking advantage of depth-of-field to achieve more in focus images.
HOW DOES ZONE FOCUSING WORK?
Zone focusing works best with smaller apertures (the higher the f-number, the smaller the aperture) to achieve more depth-of-field. If you rely on a shooting style that mostly uses a wide open aperture to produce lots of bokeh, zone focusing won’t work for you. Additionally, zone focusing will work much better when there is a lot of light available. The smaller apertures that you will be working with demand it.
Apertures around f11 and above will be better suited to zone focusing. Set a shutter speed that is roughly double to your focal length. Auto ISO can be used to great advantage in achieving proper exposure. And really, that’s it. Now you can be confident your image will be in focus.
As an example, let’s say you are using a 23mm lens and want to focus on subjects 7 to 15 feet (2 to 4.5 meters) away. You can set your aperture to f7.1 and know that you have a depth-of-field of roughly 4 ½ to 17 ½ feet. Anything that comes into the frame in that range is going to be in focus. All that’s left is for you to decide on your framing and snap away.
There are few things to remember that will help you with zone focusing:
- Larger sensors mean less depth-of-field, and smaller sensors mean more depth-of-field. For users of cameras with APS-C cameras this may be an advantage.
- The wider the focal length, the greater the depth-of-field. Knowing this you can decide if it’s better to stay at a particular focal length, say 50mm, for greater depth-of-field.
- The further away from your subject, the more depth-of-field. Focusing on a subject 7 feet away will produce more depth of field than focusing on a subject 3 feet away.
WHAT IS ZONE FOCUSING GOOD FOR?
Of course, zone focusing often associated with street photography. However, there are other situations where zone focusing might also be useful.
Wedding Receptions – Since flash, either on or off-camera, is often a necessity for wedding photographers the smaller apertures are usable. Setting a zone of focus means focusing on the moment and not worrying about focus.
Concerts – Whether in the crowd or working the venue officially, setting a zone of focus for the performers on stage.
You Decide – There may be other situations where the technique is useful. Explore its possibilities.
HOW TO ZONE FOCUS WITH MODERN CAMERAS
Most modern lenses are autofocus and skip the scale distance marking on the barrel. A few exceptions like Fujifilm’s 16mm, 35mm f1.4, and 23mm f1.4 exist. Also, some third-party manual lens manufacturers like Samyang and Rokinon include distance scales on their lenses.
Fortunately, camera manufacturers have given an alternative, and many cameras compensate with a digital distance scale available through the viewfinder or on the LCD. You may have to check the display settings on your camera to enable it.
Additionally, there are some apps available for mobile users that will do the work of figuring out what depth-of-field you’ll get at what apertures.
Zone focusing is not a magic bullet that will work for every photographic situation. Look at zone focusing as another technique to use when it suits the situation best. Like many things having to do with photography, there might be other methods that work best for you in a given situation, but there is still a place for zone focusing in modern photography. So give zone focusing a chance to help you achieve a greater number of sharp images, it may be exactly what you are looking for to up your number of keepers.
To find out more about zone focusing and see some of the math behind it check out this article.