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Photography Technique: A Guide to Mastering Zone Focusing for Effective Street Photography

Photography Technique: A Guide to Mastering Zone Focusing for Effective Street Photography

Quick reaction is one of the most important tools of street photography. With genres such as portrait or landscape photography you can time it right - wait for the correct light, plan your composition, and be ready for the moment to come. In the street however there's often little to no time to react as an events unfolds before the eyes. It's no use fumbling around with your camera as you see seagull swooping in to steal a chip or the ice-cream dropping to the floor. There's no time to setup on the streets; subjects are moving, and moving at random. Being prepared can bring order to this chaos we call the hustle and bustle of the street.

Highly popular before automatic focusing(obviously), and still popular with rangefinder photographers zone focusing still holds its place in photography today. Once you're used to it zone focusing becomes second-nature with a lot of photographers swearing by this method.

Depth of Field (DOF)

Understanding Depth of Field (DOF) is important to understanding zone focusing. It describes the distance in-front of and behind the subject you are sharply focused on. This can be effected by a range of different factors:

Aperture - Low aperture(f3.5), deep depth of field. High aperture(f22), a lot more in focus.

Focal Length - Short focal length (28mm) will offer a lot more focus in the scene, with wider focal lengths (100mm) will provide a deeper depth of field.

Focal Distance - More will be in the shot will be in focus the further away you focus. Focus on a closer subject and the distance will be shortened leading up to and after your sharpened subject.

Sensor Size - Larger camera sensors such as a full frame cameras will allow more focus within an image. Smaller sensors such as micro four-thirds will offer more depth of field within an image.

Cambridge in Colour offer a great tool to help you calculate your 'acceptable' depth of field here:

It can be useful to use however once you have depth of field in your head you'll likely never need to use a calculator again. 'Acceptable' depth of field is also is based on opinion. There are varying factors with that acceptable depth of field such as the image display size. However, if you think the image works, then at the end of the day, it's up to you!

Zone Focusing:

So here we go. Zone focusing is a method in which you pre-focus your camera to a specific distance with your other settings in mind (aperture). This way as a subject approaches in the street you know that your camera is specifically set to focus at 6 FT. Rather than having to fiddle with focusing, potentially being noticed by the subject, you're instead prepared waiting for your subject to enter your zone. The aim of the game is to master knowing when that subject is 'in the zone' of focus. This way you can forget about focusing the camera leaving you to focus on composing the shot. Shooting from the hip with this method also becomes easier.

While not totally required having a scale on your lens can help with zone focusing.

The image above shows the lens set a f8 then pre-focused at 8ft. The f-stop scale helps you work out what will be in focus. The lines connect your specific chosen aperture to the distance. In this example anything from between 7-11 FT will be in focus, with anything outside of that distance becoming blurred.

Hyper Focal Focusing

Hyper focal focusing is a technique in which you set the camera lens from your chosen zone of focus up to infinity. This can be useful but also detrimental as it's not always ideal for your shooting conditions. Therefore you'll need good light, or slow shutter speeds if you're planning to focus to infinity in f16. On the other hand small apertures such as f3.5 can soften the image.

Generally speaking most lenses offer their sharpest point in the middle. The image below so shows a 28mm lens set at f8, pre-focused using hyper focal focusing. This means anything from 5m to infinity will be in focus with anything at 10 metres being the sharpest. Anything prior to 5m will becoming increasingly blurred the closer it is to the lens.

The "f/8 and be there" Rule

The "f/8 and be there" rule made famous by Arhur "WeeGee" Fellig, in response to a question asking about his photographic technique. Now that doesn't mean it's a solid rule. It is however a good starting point for those on the move as it allows you a suitable setup for differentiating light, varying subject lengths and getting a sharp image. The less you have to play with your camera the more your chances are of being able to look up, spot scenes and compose subjects quickly.


There seems like quite a lot to take with zone focusing but honestly, as I was writing this I found it way harder to explain than it actually is to do. It is a method well and truly worthy of spending your time learning. As mentioned it allows you to keep your head up, less to think about technically and more time spent composing your subject in the street. That being said there may be times where you need to change your focus quickly. That all becomes easier and feels natural once you've got the hang of zone focusing.

Did this guide help? Want to know more? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment on the blog or if you'd prefer to speak with me directly head over to the Contact Me page.

Jordan Murray Street Photography

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