[2018-07-10] Zone Focusing
10th July 2018
I've been doing street photography, earnestly, for the past eighteen months or so. I still feel I have a lot to learn as well as workout what techniques suit me the best. To provide a bit of background, I initially tried shooting with 35mm (equivalent) focal length lens but ditched that idea because I had to get really quite close to my subjects, and some of the good people of Dundee can get a bit miffed when you do that. Admittedly, that could have been down to poor technique on my part. I then moved over to 50mm (equivalent) focal length lens and I felt much more comfortable with that setup. The downside to 50mm is that you can lose some of the context around your subject and I've started to think that perhaps 50mm is a bit too long and now, that I have a bit more experience, I should try experimenting with something wider again.
A couple of months ago, I found this article on Mirroshot.co.uk via Reddits on /r/photography subreddit. The article advocates using a 28mm lens, setting your aperture to either f/8 or f/11 and pre-focusing to 1.2m. With the depth of field so deep on 28mm lens, this should mean that everything between just under a meter up to about 2m should be in focus. This is what zone focusing is, setting up your camera so that everything within a certain range will always be in focus - no auto focus required. I'd previously come across similar texts and articles advocating the use of a wider lens and zone focusing but I'd always thought that modern cameras focused so quickly these days that the need to pre-focus was surely a thing of the past.
I was sceptical about zone-focusing but also Intrigued but, I thought I'd try what the Mirroshot article advocated and experiment with this technique for a week or so to see how I got on with it. I was worried that I'd have to get right into peoples faces to get any decent shots at all, but my concerns were unfounded. Perhaps this was due to having more experience and more confidence since I last used a wider lens for street work. What I was surprised to find was that the zone-focusing technique was oddly liberating.
Previously, for street work, I mostly shot with an Olympus Pen-f or a Fuji X-T20. On both of these cameras I'd use the centre focusing point and would then re-compose the shot once the camera had accquired focus; both of these cameras focus very quickly so I thought this was an efficient way of working. For this exercise, to force myself to pre-focus, I used my Sony A7 Mk1 with an adapted manual focus Minolta 28mm f/2.8 Rokkor. With the Rokkor pre-focused to 1.2m and the aperture set to f/11 everything between 80cm to just over 2m would be in focus, according to DoF guage on the lens. The camera was in manual mode, with auto ISO set. I also had focus-peaking enabled so I could see that my subject was in focus or not. At the start of each photo-walk, I'd take a meter reading and set the shutter speed so that the camera selected ISO 100, give or take.
With this setup, I found that I could get the shot I wanted a lot faster than by using auto-focus and then re-composing. This was what I found so liberating - it was easier and quicker to get the shots I wanted when all I had to do was just compose, check the focus peaking and press the shutter. What the Mirrorshot article said was true, you can just concentrate on taking pictures and not have to worry about settings. I was quite pleased with the results and have continued to use zone-focusing since my first outing.
Here are my "keepers" from my first week of trying this technique.
Ryan Richardson August 8, 2019
Hey great to see you experimented with this technique, I used to own the street photography blog you mention! Has been down for about a year but hope to get it up and running again! all the best and happy shooting!!