Lessons from an amateur #001: Zone focusing

Disclaimer: This is my first ever tutorial, so apologies if there are mistakes, I am more than happy to take on any suggestions.

Used a lot by street photographers, I have to admit I’ve never used zone focusing before. I like to incorporate shallow depth of field with my photos and I like to keep the ISO low and shutter speed high. But the compromise is that sometimes I miss a moment because the AF is searching and I lose the shot.

And that has been occurring much more frequently lately.

So, for the first time I decided to try out zone focusing, and had interesting results. This tutorial is designed to give you an idea what I experienced, from an amateur’s point of view.

So, what is zone focusing?

Zone focusing is a technique used to reduce your dependency on the autofocus and allows you to focus on the composition and capturing the image rather than fiddling with settings. When the aperture is set relatively high (usually f8 upwards), you only need to be within a certain distance to your subject for it to be in focus (so I use my feet to focus). The higher the aperture, the more clarity you will get over a certain range.

This is useful because you don’t have to constantly fiddle with the manual focus ring and settings. Perfect for street photography, especially when you want to capture something quickly.

What are the cons of zone focusing?

The thing to consider though is with the higher aperture value for zone focusing, less light is available to be used (the lower the aperture value, the more light can be used). So in order to compensate for this, the ISO value may have to increase and/or shutter speed slowed down in order to get more light in. If you want your pictures to have incredible detail without any noise / pixelation, then keep the ISO low (therefore the shutter speed is slower). If you want to take pictures with less motion blur, the shutter speed has to be faster (therefore the ISO has to be higher).

If it was a bright day (as it was when I was taking photos for this tutorial) then you can keep the ISO value low (around ISO100 – 200), and the shutter speed can be set at a respectable 1/160 (which is enough to freeze movement).

Also, with the higher aperture, your depth of field is increased. Depth of field is a term used to describe how much of a photo is in focus. Say you have an object 1 meter away from you: “deep depth of field” means that objects behind and infront of your subject is in focus, whilst “shallow depth of field” means that although your subject is in focus, their background may be blurred.

Below is an example of a picture that was taken with f1.4 (low aperture, meaning shallow depth of field):

As you can see, although the guitar player is in focus, the background is blurred. This is achieved with a smaller f value (in this case f1.4). The smoothness of the blur is called “bokeh” (thanks to Ananda Sim for the definition – great Melbourne based photog, check out his site at http://anandasim.blogspot.com.au/) and the quality of bokeh depends on your lens. Although many people like the blurred background, the problem is that in order to get the guitar player into focus, I had to spend time getting the person in focus and then taking the shot, because if I didn’t then he would also be out of focus. This takes time and sometimes long enough that you miss the shot you wanted.

Below is an example of a photo using zone focusing, where the f value is high (in this case it is set on f10):

As you can see, the subject closest to me is the girl sitting down whilst on the phone. She is in focus and was sitting 2 meters away from me. With the higher aperture, even the boy doing a trick on his skateboard is also in focus. The people crossing the road and the building behind them are slightly blurred but much less blurred than the earlier example. This is because the higher aperture puts them all relatively in focus. I didn’t have to fiddle with the Autofocus on this shot because of the zone focusing technique.

Summing up
So, if you want to try zone focusing, follow these steps:

1) Set your aperture to a high number (around f8 and above)

2) Depending on your style of shooting, make sure that the shutter speed has been decreased and/or the ISO value has been increased. This is to ensure you compensate for the lack of light entering your camera. Apply your metering to an object at a certain distance (the distance you’re likely to be when taking a photo of your subjects) while you adjust the shutter speed and ISO.

3) Turn off “Autofocus” as you now can set it to manual and not worry about your subject being in focus. This will tell your camera not to search for a focus point.

4) Start snapping! But here’s an important piece of advice: it is still good practice to use your feet to get into the appropriate distance from your camera to get a better focused shot. So although majority of your shot will now be in focus, be wary of the required distance between yourself and your subject – it may warrant you to move closer to the subject.

Below are some of the shots I took today:

Without zone focusing:

With zone focusing:

Hope you found this tutorial helpful! Until next time (next topic will be on framing and composition).




2 thoughts on “Lessons from an amateur #001: Zone focusing

    1. Cheers Daniel and thanks for visiting – you’ve got some interesting stuff on Flickr as well, great street photos mate. There’s a Melbourne based Photowalk group on Google + that you might like, check ’em out on my Google + profile (I still don’t know how to send people circles, so bear with me).

      Keep on shooting mate!

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