Using Zone Focus to Improve Your Street Photography

zone focus

If you’re looking for the fastest focus system for your street photography, you may think you need to buy the latest and greatest camera that promises the fastest auto-focus ever or similar.

However, there’s a way to use manual focus that, when done correctly, will always be quicker. This technique is called zone focus or scale focus and has been utilised since the days of your favourite old street photographers.

Despite the technological advances since, it’s still used by experienced street photographers today, along with its close cousins hyperfocal distance and pre-focusing.

There must be a reason why they choose to use these techniques, and why you should at least investigate them too. They may sound tricky at first but will make shooting quicker and easier once you know how to do them.

Come learn what zone focusing, hyperfocal distance, and pre-focus are, how to shoot with them, and how they can improve your street photography.

What is zone focusing?

A simple explanation of zone focusing would look like this: instead of focusing on your subject, you focus on a zone in your frame and shoot when the subject enters it.

This means using manual focus to set the distance at which that zone is from you and using the aperture to set how deep or shallow the zone itself is.

Zone focus was born of necessity as many cheap cameras from the mid-20th century had adjustable focus but no focus aid when looking through the viewfinder. The best the photographer could do was figure out the focus by using the number scale on the side of the lens, and so scale focus was born.

As you can see on the lens below, the scale tells you how much of your frame you can expect to be in focus based on the aperture value you choose, and at what distance. The lower your aperture value, the less depth of field you have.

We’re set to f8 here – as shown by the orange 8 – and focused to 1.5 metres, and the scale is telling us we’ll be in focus from 1 metre to 3 metres.

For some reason, the term zone focus is more commonly used than scale focus today. This may or may not have to do with the fact that the number scale on the lens isn’t as essential as it once was. I genuinely don’t know for sure, though.

As camera viewfinders and screens now allow you to see what is in and what is out of focus, the in-focus zone can be judged and set without having to use the number scale.

As we’ll see later, this technique means more efficiency and more reliable results for street photographers, which was especially important in the days where film cameras were the only option and every shot counted.

Zone focus vs subject focus

One way to cement the concept of zone focus in your mind may be to compare it to the more regular way you can focus when making a photograph. As that’s just focusing on the subject, we can call this subject focus, for simplicity’s sake.

Take a look at the pictures below.

In both cases, I moved the focus until it was on the lens I wanted it to be on. I was able to do so with either auto-focus or manual focus because the lenses weren’t moving. They remained where they were in the frame so the focus moved to meet them.

So far so normal.

Now look at the next two pictures below, which give a rudimentary demonstration of how zone focus works.

In this first one, Brahma, the Monkey King and the two Buddhas are all in a line along one plane. They’re also not moving.

This means you wouldn’t need too much depth of field to have them all in focus, and also have all the time in the world to focus on them.

However, when you’re shooting street photography, you’re likely to have moving subjects at all different depths in your frame. If you want to have them all in focus, you’ll need more depth of field.

By using zone focus, you can set the in-focus zone to be as deep as you need it to be. This will negate the problem of your subjects moving around so long as your in-focus zone covers where they’ll be, as you can see in this second picture.

One Buddha has moved forward while the Monkey King has moved back, but my focus hasn’t changed at all from the first shot.

It’s still set to where Brahma and the other Buddha are but I have enough depth of field (as roughly illustrated by the scale on the paper) for the areas in front and behind to be in focus too.

This means all four deities are still in focus, and will be wherever they may move to within that zone. This is a basic demonstration of zone focusing.

Zone focus vs pre-focus

You may have heard of the term pre-focus. If you have, you may be wondering how it differs from zone focus. In truth, the two techniques are not too dissimilar, with a lot of overlap between them.

Pre-focusing means to anticipate where a subject will be and to focus on that spot specifically to make the shot when it gets there. It’s a technique that gets used a lot in wheeled-sports photography; be that on the corner of a car race track or the top of a BMX ramp.

Take a look at the photographs below.

I want to get a sharp image of a London bus passing a red phone box but fear my auto-focus might not be fast enough to lock onto the bus in the place I want it to. It certainly doesn’t know exactly where I want the bus to be when I shoot.

But if I pre-focus on the phone box, I can shoot when the bus gets next to it and know it’ll be in focus.

Remember, the focus is in the same place on both of these images. All that moved was the bus.

As I said, here’s a lot of overlap between zone focus and pre-focus.

As zone focusing means you focus in preparation for what you will later shoot, it’s really a kind of pre-focus, and as pre-focusing means focusing on a place and waiting for something to be there, it’s really a kind of zone focus.

To me, the difference is in whether you’re focusing for a specific shot or for a whole session.

If you’re shooting different buses on different London street corners and changing your focus for each, you’re pre-focusing. If you’re setting-it-and-forgetting-it for a day of street photography, you’re zone focusing.

How to zone focus in the real world

Zone focusing isn’t a hard thing to pick up once you’ve given it some practice. This section will outline the basics, with the obvious place to start being the camera settings.

Although not every day is the same, the settings I go with would usually be in the following ranges, shooting in aperture priority mode:

  • Aperture: f8 or f11
  • Shutter Speed: 1/125 to 1/500
  • ISO: 400 t0 1600

An aperture of f8 or f11 gives you enough depth of field to not miss focus while still allowing a fast enough shutter speed to not have unwanted motion blur in your images.

The ISO value is set to balance the aperture and shutter speed at figures anywhere in those ranges and depends on the light available. If you’re not sure how this all works or how to shoot in aperture priority mode, check out this article here.

Once you have your camera set with enough depth of field and shutter speed, you’re ready to zone focus, and there are two simple methods for this I can give you to start with.

First is those aforementioned numbers on the lens, if your lens has them. These tell you where you can expect the in-focus zone to be at the aperture you’ve set.

Take a look at this image again. As mentioned earlier, at f8, my shots will be in focus between 1 and 3 metres when I focus to 1.5 metres.

Looking at the other aperture values, I’d be in focus between 1.2 and 2 metres if I set it to f3.5, and in focus between around 0.9 to 6 metres if I set it to f11.

The second way to zone focus, and the way I mostly do it, is to use the manual focus aid on your camera.

If I’m shooting digital, this is the focus peaking feature on my Sony mirrorless. If I’m shooting film, it’s the range-finding mechanism in the viewfinder of my Yashica Electro.

Either way, the method is the same. I typically know the distance my subjects will be when it comes to shooting, so I’ll just pre-focus on some inanimate object at the same distance at the beginning of the session. Once my subjects step into the in-focus zone I’ve set up, I can shoot knowing they’ll be in focus.

As I shoot with manual focus vintage lenses or film cameras, doing this has become second nature to me. With practice, it can for you too.

If you avoid the bad habit I have of playing with the focus ring between shots, you can almost set-and-forget your focus for long spells of your day.

More technical zone focus information

While the above is a practical outline of how I use zone focus, you can get a lot deeper into the weeds with the theory of it all if you want.

To be frank, I generally don’t want to. I prefer to figure things out and explain them in a way that helps you to just get out there and shoot, but here’s some information in case you do enjoy numbers and physics and stuff.

Depth of field has been mentioned a few times already in this article and I’m presuming you know what it is, or have been smart enough to go read up if you haven’t. Again, this piece explains it.

While changing the aperture on your lens is the best-known way of changing the depth of field, there are a couple of other things that affect it too and that could be useful to know if you’re zone focusing.

These are the focal length of your lens, and the distances between you, your subject, and the background. When you shoot from further away, you’ll have more depth of field in your scene.

To illustrate the focal length point, look at the scales on these lenses; the left one a Super Takumar 28mm f3.5 and the right one a Super Takumar 55mm f1.8. When shot from the same distance and aperture value, the 28mm lens will give you more depth of field than the 55mm.

At f8 and focused to 2 metres, the 28mm Super Takumar will give an in-focus zone from around 1.2 metres from you to around 7 metres away. When set the same, the 55mm Super Takumar will give you around 1.75 metres to 2.5 metres in focus.

This means it’s typically easier to zone focus with a wider angle lens, as you get more leeway with your in-focus zone.

To illustrate the point about the distances between you, your subject, and the background, look at the scales on the images below. Both are of the same lens – the 28mm Super Takumar set at f8, just with the focus ring set differently.

As you can see from the first one, when the lens is focused to 1 metre, you’ll be in focus from around 0.8m in front and to around 1.5 metres behind.

When the lens is focused at 2 metres, you’ll be in focus from around 1.2 metres in front and to around 7 metres behind. That’s quite a difference.

I like to find my focus and other settings by feel while I’m out shooting, but I know some people like to have them figured out beforehand.

If that’s you, you can see what depth of field your camera, focal length, aperture value and shooting distance will give you from the comfort of your own armchair by using this handy calculator here.

Hyperfocal distance vs zone focus

Hyperfocal distance isn’t the same as zone focus, but the concept is closely related and, in some cases, could be a better technique for your street photography.

It likely will be a better bet if you shoot landscape or other work with more depth of field in it.

Whereas zone focus gives you an in-focus zone from one point to another in your frame, hyperfocal distance gives you everything in focus from one point and beyond, all the way to infinity.

Whether this is good for your street photography or not depends on the shots you want to get and the lens you’re using.

If your subjects are physically close to your camera, you’ll need to zone focus. However, if they’re further away and beyond the point that the focus begins, you can use hyperfocal distance.

If this is your style of shooting and you never stray from it, you can set hyperfocal distance and simply go about making your photographs without worrying about whether they’re in focus. If you’ve set your lens correctly, they just will be.

Your lens choice will also affect whether or not you can use hyperfocal distance for your street photography, with that in-focus zone beginning further away from you the longer your lens is.

You can see this again on the 28mm and 55mm Super Takumars. When set to f8, the hyperfocal distance on the 28mm begins at 1.5 metres, whereas the hyperfocal distance on the 55mm set the same begins at around 5 metres.

If you need your in-focus zone to begin closer to you than those values, you’ll need to use zone focus.

Why use zone focus, pre-focus, or hyperfocal distance for your street photography?

Hopefully by this point you know what zone focus, pre-focus, and hyperfocal distance are and how to use them for your street photography, but allow me to reiterate anyway.

In all cases, we’re manually focusing our camera on a given point, with the aperture set to give us enough depth of field and the shutter speed set to have no unwanted motion blur, and shooting when a subject enters that in-focus zone.

That’s all well and good but it doesn’t fully explain why you’d want to turn off a cutting-edge automatic feature on your expensive new camera and learn some decades-old manual techniques instead.

It also doesn’t explain how they can improve your street photography.

So here, punctuated with shots taken with a mix of these methods, is why and how.

Because they can be faster than the fastest auto-focus

This is probably the number one reason why you should learn these manual focus techniques: the added speed they give your shooting process.

Think about what happens when you shoot with auto-focus. You’re reactively focusing on the subjects of your photographs. As they enter the frame, you and your auto-focus react to them.

This has to happen again and again with each new photograph or subject, and it’s impossible for it to do so instantly or with 100% accuracy every time. This leaves room for a missed shot if you or your auto-focus aren’t fast enough.

With zone focus, pre-focus and hyperfocal distance, you’re proactively focusing on a distance before your subject arrives. You have all the time in the world to prepare. Once they enter that zone, you shoot knowing they too will be in focus.

What’s more, if you don’t change your focal distance by moving your focus ring between shots, you don’t have to refocus for the next photograph when using zone focus and hyperfocal distance.

This isn’t a perfect analogy but think for a second how many fish you’d catch by throwing a spear at each one you saw, and then think how many more you’d catch by knowing their path and setting up a net for them to swim into.

Even the fastest spear is slower than a net already in place.

Because they give you all the control

There are some other problems you can encounter when using auto-focus aside from its speed. Think now about its accuracy.

You know the photograph you’re trying to make but your camera doesn’t. This makes it possible for it to focus on the wrong thing. That may be the wrong face in a crowd, or it may be the back of someone’s head next to the intended subject who is facing you.

It could just focus beyond your subjects and on the back of your frame, giving you a bunch of blurred people in front of a sharp backdrop. Even if you’re shooting with a deep depth of field, a shot missed in this way will still be good only for the recycle folder.

To get around this while still using auto-focus, you could recompose your shots. That is to half-press your button to lock in the focus on your subject and then move your camera to re-frame the image and get the composition you want.

That to me sounds like a lot of work and a good way to miss the moment. Zone and pre-focus and hyperfocal distance mean not having to recompose at all.

You have the control and, at the risk of beating a dead horse, you’re not compromising on speed.

Because you can shoot from the hip

Shooting from the hip is a popular technique among street photographers who want to remain a little more incognito when they shoot.

Raising your camera to your eye to use your viewfinder just makes you far more noticeable to the people you’re trying to get a candid shot of. The problem is, if your camera is down by your side, how can you know if your images are in focus?

When using auto-focus, you have to make sure it’s locked on what you want to shoot, before you shoot. This can be difficult if you’re not looking at your viewfinder or screen.

If you use the zone focusing technique though, you already know which part of the frame will be sharp.

Your composition might not be the best it could be when shooting from the hip, although you might like the more haphazard style this gives you. Or you may have an LCD screen you can point upwards to compose with. That’s how I generally shoot on digital.

Regardless, whether shooting from the hip is your thing or not, and whether you get the composition you want while doing so, zone focusing at least helps you hit the focus more reliably than auto-focus when you don’t have the opportunity to be looking.

Because they’re the best choice in low light

One thing I often see in camera reviews is how auto-focus systems start hunting too much in low light. What has been working perfectly in daylight becomes useless once the sun goes down.

This is perhaps less of a problem for street photographers who generally head out during the day than it is for people who shoot in other situations.

Think about trying to get the auto-focus to do what you want it to do while impatient subjects hold a false grin in a dark bar or wait to blow out the candles on their birthday cake, for example.

Your subjects shouldn’t be moving too much, so setting up an in-focus zone and making sure they are in it is preferable to waiting for the auto-focus to stop hunting and settle on what you want it to settle on.

This translates to street photography shot at night with a flash and is important if you want to continue shooting after dark.

If you use auto-focus in the daytime, you’ll find trying to do so in lower light more difficult. If it’s not working out, you might just call it a day and head home.

If you know how to zone focus in daylight though, the principle remains the same at night. You just might need to use your flash.

Focus on a distance you know your subjects will be in with a depth of field deep enough to capture them, shoot, and let the flash light up the scene with no waiting for your auto-focus to find them first.

Because you can use vintage lenses and cameras

This is a big one for me personally as I tend to only use vintage lenses on a digital camera, or old film cameras. As most of these have no auto-focus, I have to zone focus, pre-focus, or use hyperfocal distance to get the results I do.

All the street photographs you see on this post were shot on vintage lenses using a mixture of these techniques. They’re from a 365 street photography project I did.

It was using this old gear that taught me how to zone focus. I don’t remember reading up on it before I started shooting with it; it was more that I found myself doing it on my own and discovered later that it’s a thing people deliberately learn.

Don’t be like me, though. Do it the right way round. Learning the zone focus technique means the world of vintage gear opens up to you.

It’s similar to why I recommend you learn to shoot in aperture priority mode. Because once you can, you can use almost any camera. If you only use the automatic modes, including auto-focus, you’re restricted to cameras that have them.

I wrote here before about why to use vintage lenses and also how. You can shoot inanimate objects with them using manual focus but, if you’re going to shoot street, you’ll need to know zone focus.

Because your favourite street photographers used zone focus, pre-focus, and hyperfocal distance

The importance of this point depends on the individual. It may matter to you, or you may not care. Both are fine.

All street photographers today, including you, have the option of auto-focus. It’s right there in your camera, even if that’s your phone camera, along with countless other settings that mean you can get fantastic shots without worrying about too much other than composition and light.

Auto-focus is generally great at what it does, but maybe its presence is holding you back. It’s probably what’s kept you back from learning zone focus until now, because it’s meant you haven’t had to.

However, if you only had manual focus, you’d have looked for a more efficient method for your street photography.

That’s what the iconic names had to do back in the golden age of street photography in the mid-20th century, and that’s why they used the techniques we’re talking about here.

We’ve all got our favourite street photographers. If you genuinely want to shoot like them for some reason, use zone or pre-focus or hyperfocal distance too. There’s a good chance your favourite street photography was shot using it.

Because they can genuinely improve your work

There seems to be a belief among some photographers that work has more merit the fewer automatic settings are used.

That photographs shot in fully manual mode are somehow better than ones shot in full auto, regardless of how they look, purely because they were shot in manual mode. Or that photographers who use more automatic modes are somehow beneath those who go more manual.

I disagree. I believe the quality of the photograph is more important than how it was shot. If you get great results shooting in an automatic mode, carry on.

However, using hyperfocal distance, pre-focusing, and zone focusing for your street photography isn’t about that. It isn’t about feeling superior. It’s about learning a technique that can help you make better photographs.

A lot of what’s been outlined above comes down to the following statement. Read it and remember it.

By giving you more speed and control, these techniques give you more freedom to look for your shots and compose them exactly how you want with zero distractions and zero wasted time.

This is how using zone focus, pre-focus, and hyperfocal distance can genuinely improve your street photography.

Final thoughts on zone focus, pre-focus, and hyperfocal distance

Zone focus, pre-focus, and hyperfocal distance can be intimidating terms if you’ve only really shot with auto-focus, or have tried without success to use regular old manual focus, which is really best left for inanimate or predictable subjects.

However, once you’ve learnt the basics and have put in some practice, you may well find them the best way to shoot your street photography.

By stripping away the potential unreliability or lag of auto-focus and allowing yourself to concentrate fully on making your images, these methods give you another way to improve your work while opening up the world of vintage gear to you too.

You don’t even have to be into street photography or old cameras and lenses to reap the benefits though, as the principles of the techniques will never change.

If you use the newest camera and shoot sport, your children, your pets, and anything else with moving subjects, zone focus, pre-focus, and hyperfocal distance can help you get better results there too.

Give them a try, give yourself time to really get to know what you’re doing with them, and just see if they don’t. 😀

… p.s. if you’ve found this guide to zone focus, pre-focus, and hyperfocal distance useful and think others will too, why not give it a share?

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