Zone Focusing - Street Photography Techniques

Street Photography offers so much in the way of images, all kinds of environments and lighting situations are seen so no one camera setting is going to be good for all of the situations you face on the street. The streets are far to diverse to expect just one camera setting to work for all. Although some settings cover more situations than others you shouldn’t settle for just those settings. It’s about having an arsenal of skills to tackle any situation that comes your way. Here we delve into Zone Focusing and talk about what situations you might want to use it for, how it helps, and how to do it right.

Zone focus is basically manual focus, only pre-thought out. It’s setting your focus to be a certain distance in front of you at all times. Imagine you’re on a busy street, with lots of foot traffic walking towards you. The subjects are moving so fast towards you that AF focus (or manual focus) is just not fast enough, since by the time you see the composition and grab focus the subject has moved forward and is now out of focus, or the composition has changed entirely. These situations call for zone focusing. Turning off AF and setting your focus to a certain distance in front of you allows you to get that shot, without the focus lag that comes with autofocus or your slow manual focus skills (you can pretend all you want).

You will need a basic understanding of depth of field (DOF) and its relation to your aperture of choice to get the most from this technique. Zone focusing on the street with your aperture set to f/1.4 is not going to help you much because your DOF would be shallow and you’d end up with missed shots entirely. This is because your subjects would be in and out of the in-focus depth of field in a split second. Having your aperture set to something like f/8-f11 gives you a larger depth of field.

Now imagine being on that busy street again, with those people walking towards your frame and this time the space from 5ft - 20 ft in front is in focus already, all you have to do is get the exposure correct. The freedom to enjoy the streets is much greater working this way. You’re able to feel the streets and get to know them better and understand them, thats getting in the zone! If you have time to think about the shot you’re going to take, like composition, aperture, you can move a little for a better shot, then you have time to change to a more suitable setting anyway. So anytime you’re walking in busy areas where you might expect reactionary images, you should set up for zone focus. Preset zone focus, all other settings are secondary but not any less valuable or used. It’s just picking the right tool for the job essentially.

I always shoot zone focus at night when using a flash on my camera. I have a 28mm lens on my camera and have it set to f/8. I switch to manual focus and set the focus 5ft in front of me. Having it set at 5ft gives me an area of focus that is roughly 14ft long. From 4 ft to 18 ft, I can get good acceptable focus. Generally, I’m trying to frame the subject 5-8 ft away from me. All I’m doing is waiting for the subject/s to fall into that area.