Area Focusing: How to (Always) Capture Sharp Street Photos

Zone Focusing: How to (Always) Capture Sharp Street Photos

zone focusing: how to capture sharp street photos

Do you struggle to catch consistently sharp, in-focus street photos ? You’re not alone.

In street photography, regularly nailing focus, especially unless you have the opportunity to look through your camera’s viewfinder, can be insanely difficult (and often seems impossible).

That’s where zone focusing comes in.

You see, zone focusing lets you set your own focus in advance. And then, when your subject steps into the body, snap – you get the shot.

Its not all street photographer zone concentrates, but the ones who do swear by it. And while I personally use autofocus when I can, We swear by zone focusing, as well.

What exactly, specifically, is zone concentrating? How does it work? And how can you learn to do it just for sharp photos?

All will be exposed in this article! Let’s get started.

zone focused composition of boy in a crowd
Canon 5D Mark II | 17mm | f/11 | 1/320s | ISO 1800

What is zone focusing?

Zone focusing is a method where you personally prefocus your lens to a certain range and adjust your aperture for a deep depth of field . Then, when you’re confronted by an interesting subject, you don’t need to focus through your viewfinder; instead, you wait for your subject to enter your acceptable zone of focus and capture the photo.

Note that zone concentrating is very flexible. If you like to shoot intimate portraits, you are able to zone focus just a few foot in front of your lens. And when you prefer wider shots with additional distant elements, you can area focus 10+ feet aside.

Why is area focusing so useful?

Zone focusing functions varying degrees in plenty of photography genres, but it is most commonly used by street photographers for two major reasons:

  1. When capturing on the streets, the world happens fast . Gorgeous photo opportunities slide by in the blink of an eye. If you take the time to focus, you’ll often miss the shot.
  2. In street photography, placing a camera to your attention often makes your subject matter (and you) uncomfortable. If you can focus without searching, you’ll be able to keep pain to a minimum while capturing more honest scenes.

In other words, if you’re a street photographer, zone focusing is an easy method to increase your keeper rate while keeping your photos perfectly candid.

Zone focusing plus depth of field (dof)

woman walking along outside the subway
Canon 5D Mark II | 28mm | f/4 | 1/250s | ISO 3200

Before I explain how to zone focus, it’s essential that you understand the factors that go into creating a zone of razor-sharp focus, also known as a deeply depth of field.

As you may already take note, depth of field refers to the zone of suitable sharpness in a scene. So when you focus on a subject and you create a deep depth of field (more on how to do this in a moment! ), your own subject will turn out razor-sharp – but so will a certain area in front of and behind your subject.

For instance, if you concentrate on a subject that’s 10 ft away, a deep depth of field would make certain sharp focus from about 8 feet to fourteen feet, depending on your specific digital camera settings. Keep in mind that the area behind your subject that is acceptably sharp will always be greater than the area in front of your subject, and in many cases, it will be a lot greater.

What affects your own depth of field? 3 simple factors:

  1. Aperture . The smaller your aperture, the more the depth of field. So if you’re shooting from f/16, you’ll have far more in focus than if you capture at f/2. 8.
  2. Focal length . Wider focal measures create a deeper depth associated with field.   So if you are shooting at 28mm, much more of your scene will be in focus than if you are capturing at 100mm. (This is why I rarely zone focus with lenses longer than 35mm. )
  3. Distance to the subject (or point of focus) . The further away you focus, the more depth associated with field there will be in a picture. So if you focus on a person 10 feet away, then you will have a deeper depth of field than if you focus on a person 3 feet aside.

In order to test out these different factors and see how they affect the depth of field in real life, take a look at this website , which offers a handy level of field calculator.

How to zone focus: step by step

man walking with hat and suitcase zone focused
Canon 5D Mark II | 17mm | f/8 |  1/400s | ISO 1600

You can zone focus in three simple steps:

  1. Adjust your camera settings for a strong depth of field
  2. Prefocus your zoom lens in the right area
  3. Hit the shutter button when your subject moves into range

Let’s take a look at each step of the process in greater depth:

Step 1 : Adjust your own camera settings for a serious depth of field

When zone focusing, you want the range of clarity (i. e., the level of field) as huge as possible. That way, you have the most room for error, and you’ll end up with the most keepers. Plus, a deep level of field will allow you to maintain multiple subjects sharp, which is useful if you’re capturing a far more complex, layered shot.

First, you’ll have to choose a wide-angle lens, for example 24mm, 28mm, or 35mm. My personal go-to focal duration is 28mm, but any of these options work for zone concentrating. Unfortunately, if you zoom any kind of closer (50mm, for example), you’ll struggle to get an useful depth of field variety.

Next, make sure your camera is set to Manual mode , and dial in a filter aperture. I’d recommend functioning at f/8 and over and above – so depending on the gentle levels, you might use f/8, f/11, f/13, or even f/16.

Because area focusing is often done with moving subjects (and you might be moving, too! ), make sure your shutter is at least 1/250s, even though higher is better, if you can afford it. And adjust your ISO to keep your direct exposure sufficiently bright.

Really, it’s the mixture of the wide focal duration and narrow aperture that’ll give you the deep depth of field you need, but it is important not to neglect your other settings.

Step 2: Prefocus your lens in the right area

Now that you have your digital camera settings dialed in, it is time to determine where you need to focus your lens.

Part of this would be personal preference and may even depend on the context. For instance, if you prefer more personal street portraits, you’ll want to focus a few feet in front of you. Or if you’re shooting in an environment where people are transferring at a distance, you’ll want to concentrate farther away.

But it’s not just about artistry. Recalling the discussion of depth of field, you know that a closer point of focus decreases the range of acceptable sharpness. So if you wish to maximize the chances of a sharp chance, it’s a good idea to focus far off in the distance.

Regardless of where you plan to focus, the lens with a manual focus display is a huge advantage here. I’m talking about something similar to this:

That way, you understand exactly where your lens is focused (and you can regularly prefocus in the same spot).

If your zoom lens doesn’t include a manual focus display, that’s okay, yet you’ll need to spend additional time learning to estimate distances.

Step 3: Hit the particular shutter button when your subject matter moves into range

You’ve got the right settings, and you’re prefocused in the right spot.

Which means that all you need to do can be take the photo.

Keep an eye out for interesting photograph opportunities. Estimate your selection of focus.

Then, when something interesting happens, wait until the subject makes your focusing zone, then take a photo. The nearer your subject gets to the middle of your range of focus, the better (and don’t be afraid to capture multiple photos to maximize your chances of nailing a sharp shot).

A zone focusing tip: learn to suppose distances

Zone focusing works really well, and when you’re shooting in light with a narrow aperture, you’ll have a lot of leeway.

But if you’re like me, then you often do street photography in less than ideal lighting, for example on the subway. And thanks to the poor light, you’ll have to widen your aperture – to f/2. 8 plus beyond.

What does this mean? Well, even with a wide-angle lens and a relatively distant issue, you’ll need to be very careful; your range of sharpness will be quite small.

man standing by the subway tracks
Fujifilm X100 | 35mm | f/2 | 1/250s | ISO 3200

For this reason, you need to learn to estimate the ranges away from your camera’s lens, all the way up to around 12 feet. I suggest using a strapping measure and measuring out there the distances. Then just go out and practice.

Find various objects and try to guess their distance. Then, before you head out to shoot, pick an object at a known distance, focus on it, and use it as a sort of “calibrator” for all your future photos.

The other reason to obtain good at guessing distances? People move and scenes develop. You might want to capture a person walking toward you at ten feet, then again at 5 feet. To nail each those shots, you’ll need to have one hand on the focusing band, and practice manually concentrating back and forth, from 10 foot to 8 feet to 6 feet and so on.

Eventually, you’ll be able to capture someone walking toward you at both 10 feet and 6 ft, without even having to look over the viewfinder. It’s a tremendously effective technique, and you can use it for some gorgeous results.

couple walking together zone focused

How to zone focus: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be a capable zone focuser – though I certainly recommend you spend some time actually getting to know different distances (and how to accurately prefocus in those distances, too).

So head out along with your camera. Have some fun with area focusing. You’ll love the results!

Now over to you:

Have you tried zone concentrating? What do you think? Do you like this? Share your thoughts in the feedback below!






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