How to Use Zone Focusing for Street Photography

Street photography is all about capturing the decisive moment, and to do that you need to act fast. Unlike in other genres of photography like landscape photography and portrait photography, you need to decide within a fraction of a second if you don’t want to miss the story.  Photographer David Coleman shares his tips on how to focus faster for street photography by using zone focusing:

Zone focusing is about setting your camera so that your subjects will be in acceptable focus within a certain range. For this, you need to fix your aperture and manually pre-focus the camera. By manually focusing the camera to a certain distance, you lock in a certain area (focus zone) in front of and behind the focus plane in which subjects will be acceptably sharp every time. Therefore, if you’re able to place your subjects within that zone, they will come out to be sharp without any worries. This is different from hyperfocal distance in the sense that the far limit for hyperfocal distance is at infinity, while for zone focusing, the far limit is somewhere nearby.

Camera Settings for Street Photography

For street photography, Coleman recommends using a wider lens (between 20mm–35mm on a full frame camera), as these focal lengths provide a better perspective for this genre. Before you learn how to set your zone of focus, prepare your camera by following these settings:

  • Set your camera to aperture priority mode and set the aperture to f/11 to have a greater depth of field.
  • Be mindful that the shutter speed is no slower than 1/125 second to avoid any kind of camera shake and motion blur. If your camera doesn’t allow you to set the minimum shutter speed, switch over to manual mode and then set your shutter speed and aperture.
  • To make the photo-taking process even more efficient, let the camera to decide the ISO by setting the ISO to Auto.

Techniques for Zone Focusing

Now that your camera is all set for street photography, it’s time to set your zone of focus. For this, use any of the following techniques.

  • Use the Depth of Field Scale on the lens. Some prime lenses come with a depth of field scale, also known as distance scale. If you don’t know how to use the scale, all you have to do is coincide the near limit of your zone of focus to the aperture that you will be using. The far limit and the focal plane will then be automatically shown on the scale.
depth of field scale

Notice the aperture is set to f/11. The near limit of 4 ft. is then rotated until it coincides with the aperture value of 11 in the distance scale. This gives a focal plane distance of 6 ft. and the far limit of around 12 ft. on the distance scale itself.

  • Remember three numbers: 35, 6, & 11. If you don’t have a distance scale on your lens—or if you have a zoom lens—use a 35mm focal length, set your focal distance to 6 feet, and use an aperture of f/11. This will allow you to have a near limit of 4 feet and a far limit of 12 feet (i.e. a zone of 8 feet, which is great for street photography).
  • Use online tables and apps. This is a more accurate way of determining the zone of focus. For this, you can go online and search for zone focusing tables or even download apps that help you calculate depth of field. Such tables or apps provide you with the zone of focus depending on your type of camera, the focal length, and the aperture that you would like to use.

It’s up to you to choose which of the above techniques work for you. Be sure to try different near and far focusing distances and see which one works best for you. Once you get the hang of it, you will realize that not having to fiddle with the focus point every time allows you to spend a bit more time in composing your shots and concentrating on capturing the decisive moment.

“You pre-establish your zone, and any subject that walks into that zone is going to be in focus, and you’re going to be able to capture that decisive moment.”

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