Learn Zone Focusing and Hyperfocal Distance in Street Photography

Learn Zone Focusing and Hyperfocal Distance in Street Photography

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Blurred man by Spyros Papaspyropoulos

Introduction

If you are new to Street Photography you might have heard the term “Zone Focusing” being discussed by more experienced street shooters from time to time. You might have even heard the term “Hyperfocal distance” too. If you have been shooting in the Streets for quite a while, you have probably looked into these terms and even tried applying them to your shooting style. Street Hunters that use manual lenses or film cameras without auto focus capabilities, swear by both methods and most of them have possibly reached a point where they can take sharp, in focus pictures using Zone Focusing or the Hyperfocal distance, faster than they would using any AF capable camera. But how you might ask? What is Zone Focusing? What is Hyperfocal Distance and how can it help a Street Photographer take sharp photos with a Manual Focus lens so fast!?

During this post I will try and explain both terms as simply as possible, in my own words. I will give you my personal interpretations and I will also offer links to more “official” resources that explain the terms in a more scientific way if you wish to look into them further.

Before we learn about those two terms though, we need to understand what happens when we focus with a lens. So let’s start.

Focusing with any lens

When focusing with any lens, what we tell the camera to do is to move an invisible mask back and forth along the visible area we can see through our viewfinder. This invisible mask can be short or long, or as Photographers refer to it, shallow or deep depth of field. When we move the focus ring on a lens with our finger, we tell that invisible area to move back and forth. Now, the wider our Aperture the shallower the depth of field. In other words the wider the Aperture the shorter the invisible mask that has things in focus. I have illustrated my thoughts below using some rough designs I made to help you understand the concept.

Shallow DOF - Streethunters.net

Deep DOF - Streethunters.net

In addition to the designs, I have shot some photos at different f stops (Aperture settings) so you can see the differences. I have made faint marks of the size of the invisible mask area so you can understand what happens each time. I have shot the photos on the carpet floor on purpose, so you can see the area that is sharp much easier.

Zone focusing

This invisible mask can be moved from close to far from our viewfinder, can become shorter or longer and can be easily controlled by us when out on the streets. Of course, the wider the Aperture the harder it is to control this with precision. It can be done with lots of practice, but most Street Hunters, like shooting at f 8.0 and above to get a longer invisible mask thus getting more things in focus at the same time. So, if you haven’t understood what Zone Focusing is by what I have mentioned until now, let me lay it out for you in plain English.

My definition of Zone Focusing

Zone Focusing is when we adjust our camera to be in focus for a particular zone, or a particular size of invisible mask. This can be a short zone or a long zone. You can set it to be in focus for 2 meters starting from 1 meter away from you, you can set it to be in focus for 4 meters starting 2 meters away from you and so on and so forth. To know what will be in focus and how to set your zone, you need to know 3 things. Without these 3 things, you can not set your zone focus to a specific setting.

  1. Aperture
  2. Lens focal length
  3. Subject distance

If you are not familiar with all or some of those terms, please visit this awesome Photography glossary with illustrations by Tinyprints.com. You can read about all Photography terms there and enjoy some cool illustrations to help you understand everything better. I highly recommend you visiting this page.

How do I set my Zone Focus?

Knowing the above numbers let’s you estimate the zone focus size and distance very easily and vise versa, knowing what you want to set your zone focus too, can only be achieved by controlling these numbers. Of course, we live in an age where free online dof calculators exist and with those we can control our Zone Focusing very easily! One of the most well known ones is located at www.dofmaster.com. Using the Depth of Field Calculator or the Depth of Field Table any Street Photographer can estimate the depth of field to set their zone focus. There is a mobile site version as well for using it on the go! You will notice that the website hasn’t been updated for quite a while and the latest camera models, from 2013 onwards specifically, aren’t listed, but don’t worry. If you use a digital camera and you know your sensor size, just use a camera of the same make with the same sensor size to make your calculations. So, for example, if I owned a Fuji X-Pro1 I would just use the Fuji X-Pro1 sensor size from the calculator to estimate my depth of field.

Example

Let’s perform an example so you can understand this better. If I want everything at 2 meters in focus at all times using an imaginary Fuji X-Pro1 camera, I have to set my settings to the following numbers:

  1. Aperture at f8 at least, I will go for f11
  2. Lens focal length at 35mm
  3. Subject distance
Zone Focusing
Zone Focusing. Image from www.dofmaster.com

By setting my imaginary X-Pro1 to those settings I know now I can shoot anything within the zone of 1,47m and 3.14m and get it in focus. That gives me a zone that is 1.67m wide that starts 1.47m away from my lens. Everything in that zone is in focus. Check out the graphic I have made below to better understand this.

Zone Focusing

Wouldn’t it be cool if we didn’t have to worry about zones when shooting in the streets? Wouldn’t it be cool if we could could just set a starting point and then have everything from there onwards in focus? That is possible and that is the Hyperfocal distance.

Hyperfocal distance

Hyperfocal distance is a similar concept to that of zone focusing with one difference. Instead of setting a zone distance in which everything is in focus, hyperfocal distance lets you have everything in focus from one point and onwards to infinity! Let me share with you my personal definition of Hyperfocal distance.

My definition of Hyperfocal distance

Hyperfocal distance is the focus distance that we set our lens too in order make our camera have everything in focus, from one starting point all the way up to infinity! The starting point of your Hyperfocal distance is affected by the same 3 things that you need to control when zone focusing. Without these 3 things, you can not set your Hyperfocal distance.

  1. Aperture
  2. Lens focal length
  3. Subject distance

If you are not familiar with all or some of those terms, please visit this awesome Photography glossary with illustrations by Treat.com.

How do I set my Hyperfocal distance

This is very easy. Let’s pick up our imaginary Fuji X-Pro1 again. As we know from the previous example we performed for Zone focusing, the X-Pro1 has a 35mm lens. So, all we have to do is load the the Depth of Field Calculator and punch in the following numbers:

  1. Aperture at f11
  2. Lens focal length at 35mm
  3. Subject distance

We get the same results as in the previous example, but now we need to focus on another number. That number is 5.45m and it is the Hyperfocal Distance.

Hyperfocal distance
Hyperfocal distance. Image from www.dofmaster.com

That means, that if we focus our camera at 5.45m specifically using the distance meter on the lens (if that is available) or the distance meter on the camera LCD or viewfinder screen (if that is available), we can set our imaginary Fuji X-Pro1 to have everything from 2.725m an onwards in focus, all the way to infinity! This is one of the Street Photographer’s mightiest weapons. It is faster than any AF system in the world and it can be achieved on any old camera. As long as you know your numbers, you are fine!

Quick Tip: How to set Zone focus or Hyperfocal without a lens with a distance indicator?

Zone focusing and Hyperfocal distance are usually used when our lens doesn’t support Auto Focus, something like old manual lenses for example. Old manual glass, has distance indicators on it, making the zone focusing easy to set if you have calculated your numbers. But, what happens if you want to zone focus, using a modern AF lens that doesn’t have distance indicators on it? Some cameras like the Fuji X series cameras have distance information displayed in their OVFs and EVFs. So, all one has to do is to switch to manual and turn the focus ring until the correct distance is selected. There are cameras though that don’t have distance information. How do you overcome that hurdle? Well, quite easily actually. If you need to set your focus distance at 6 feet for example, all you have to do is put your back to a wall and walk 6 feet away. Then turn and focus on that wall and you are set. This isn’t an accurate way of zone focusing, but it works perfectly well, believe me I used to do this all the time with my SONY NEX-6 & SEL20F28 combo. Give it a go!

Conclusion

No matter what camera you use, be it a film camera or a digital camera, if your system supports manual focusing you can always take advantage of the ease of use and speed of Zone focusing or the Hyperfocal distance.

What are the benefits of Zone focusing and Hyperfocal distance?

  1. First of all you avoid any possible focus hunting that could happen using a Auto Focus camera system.
  2. Secondly because you skip the focusing part altogether, a zone focused or hyperfocal set camera, fires shots much more instantaneously than any AF system.
  3. Last but not least, you can take sharp photos while shooting the street at night using a flash! You just set your zone or your hyperfocal distance, activate your flash and then you just fire and forget! Everything in focus, even in pitch black!

Useful links

If you haven’t tried this before, next time you hit the streets give it a try. Below I have copy pasted all the useful links I referred to during my post for your convenience.

Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

33 COMMENTS

  1. Spyros,
    I hate to be /that/ guy, but again, image format size has no direct influence on depth of field.
    On your article “A guide to buying the best camera for street photography”, three people, including myself, wrote about this.

    The influence that format size does have is incidental. The direct factors that contribute are: aperture, focal length and the distance between you, subject and background.

    • You are right Mavritivs! I will correct it. I must have got confused looking at the DOF Master charts while writing my post. As you can see the description of the action is correct, so I just got that muddled up. Sorry for that and thank you very much for noting it for me! I appreciate your feedback 🙂
      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

  2. Spyros,
    Many thanks for this. I’d realised auto focus wasn’t doing me any favours shooting street and now I have a couple of approaches that should help speed up my shot time . I think it’s going to be of particular help in getting in closer for candid shots where the af limitations of my Fuji X-E1 become particularly apparent.

    Thanks also for the link to Treat.Com glossary, it can only help a self confessed photographic ignoramus such as myself.

    • Hello Tony!

      Thank you very much for taking the time to read the blog post. Yes, autofocus always has that split second of extra time in comparison to manual focus. It is only natural. Even the fastest AF system can’t beat no focusing at all 🙂 With Zone focusing that is exactly what you are doing. You set your camera to a certain distance and you don’t have to focus any more after that. You will notice that your camera will be much more responsive. I also find Zone focusing terribly helpful at night when shooting with a flash.

      The Treat.com glossary is very helpful, I agree. The guys at Treat.com shared it with us a week ago and we thought it would work great with this post.

      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

  3. Just as a follow up — for anyone else using Fuji X series cameras there is an Android app DoF X-Mount that will do the relevant calculations.
    May well be a version or something similar for Apple or Blackberry users but you’ll need to check for yourselves as I don’t have a fruit flavoured phone.

    • Thanks for sharing that with us Tony. Actually there are many iOS DoF calculating apps, but I just use the mobile site of dofmaster.com since it is free and does it’s job just fine. As for a specific Fuji DoF app, I can’t say. Maybe another reader knows this, but I am sure a simple search in the AppStore will shed some light on this 🙂

  4. Spyros thanks for taking the time to produce such a useful guide – the graphics are very helpful too.

    I knew a bit about zone focusing, but when I’ve tried in the past I used the depth of field scale on the lens of my camera to approximate. I used a Pentax MV (aperture priority), set the aperture to f/8, the distance to something like 2.5m and knew that anything a couple of metres either side would be in focus (I forget the exat figures.) I was then freed up to focus purely on those two fundamental choices in photography – where to stand and when to press the shutter release button.

    It was very strange at first using an SLR in a way that was more point and shoot than a point and shoot! I got some decent results.

    Your guide shows us how to be a bit more specific with the figures, and once we do the calculations once, with one camera and lens combo, it’s pretty easy to remember to remember which aperture and focus distance to set it to, to ensure the consistently achieve the depth of field we want.

    It’s a good point too that this is a way that we can use manual focusing lenses in a very quick and effective way – I imagine many people new to (street) photography would associate them with constant adjustment and fiddling about, and instead use autofocus.

    • Hello Dan and thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate you taking the time to read through the guide. I am happy that you found it useful and yes, I agree that with a one camera – one lens combo, after a few minutes on the street, you can get used to these methods pretty fast. I use them most of the time, especially when I am out shooting with my Yashica Electro 35 CC that has a 35mm lens. That focal length makes zone focusing and hyperfocal distance a breeze to configure.
      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

      • Spyros, I realised after writing about the SLR above, I’ve also been doing a similar thing with my old Cybershot compact, just not calling it zone focusing.

        I set it to Program mode, so you have a bit more control than fully auto, set the ISO to 400 which in decent light makes the camera most of the time choose f/7.1, and rather than use autofocus, use the preset focus, set to 1m, or 3m. Then all I need to do is compose and shoot.

        Much quicker, and I know the camera will capture a decent photograph of the scene instantaneously with a press of the shutter button, rather than half pressing to lock the autofocus, then fully pressing to capture.

        I remembered I also used to have a Konica Pop which had a fixed focus distance of 2.8m. Once I got an “eye” for that distance, it made the camera in many ways more enjoyable and instinctive to use then a camera with a focus range of say 1m to ∞. Again, I could turn my full attention to the composition right in front of me.

  5. Hey Rob, awsome post and very elucidating.

    I was left with one question: When you say everything from 2.7meters onwards will be in focus to infinity, this means that I need to be 2.7 meters from my subject (at least) for him to be in focus? Anything I shoot (with these settings) that is closer than that will be out of focus?

    I don’t know if I got it right! Thanks alot

    • Hello Giuliano and thanks for reading my post,

      As for your question. Yes, you have to be 2.7 meters at least from your subject for the specific settings I have used in my example. Anything you shoot that is closer, will not be in focus.
      I hope that helps.

      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

  6. Spryos, the Treat.com link is no longer valid. Please check and correct,/update if possible. Thanks. Perhaps you can also add more info on how you dothi this with your manual lenses used on your digital cameras so the beginners understand as i can see how it would still be unclear to than. Also if they have a new lens without markings they won’t be able to do this but that was not explained in the article.

    • Hello Stephen! Thanks for bringing the broken link to our attention. We made a note explaining that the link is no longer valid. As for how to zone focus using a lens without markings, that is a great idea and indeed I should add that information in the post. I will make a note of it to make the addition next week. A quick tip as to how to do this would be to measure one’s distance in feet in front of a wall. So, one can go and stand with their back to a wall, count for example 6 feet which is about 2 meters and then turn around, focus on that wall and set adjustments accordingly.
      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

    • Hello Stephen,

      The link that was broken has now been re-established by Treat.com. It now exists on their new website at Tinyprints.com, so I have updated it if you wish to visit it. I would also like you to know that I added the Quick Tip you requested about how to set your focus distance with a lens without a distance indicator. Thanks for the idea!

      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

  7. Superb!
    I’ve read lots of tutorials and watched a few videos too on this technique but I can safely say this is the easiest write up yet that I’ve come across on understanding what it all means and how to put it into action.
    I’ll be trying both techniques soon to see how I get on. I’ll probably practice in the garden or in the house first so I don’t waste valuable time or miss a shot while I’m out.
    A big thumbs up for this, cheers!

  8. Hello,
    the more I read about zone focussing the more confused I get….

    What is the difference between the calculation method above and just using Manual Focus and setting it to a certain distance, say 2 metres? and then carry on using the TV mode or whatever I’m using at the time, without paying attention to aperture?
    Would the result be different from the calculation method?

    thanks in advance!

    • Yes it is totally different because one of the parameters that set the Zone is Aperture so if you have TV mode on and your aperture changes all the time you can’t possibly have a preset aperture, thus your zone focusing keeps on changing. So, in other words your zone focusing is cancelled the second you switch to TV.
      Thanks

  9. Thank you, this is very interesting!

    I know if I use TV mode, I cannot influence the aperture, but I never knew that the settings of manual focus change after I have set them – if the zone in focus is determined by aperture/focal length, I wonder what the point of the distance scale in the manual focus setting is….

    I guess I will stick to autofocus then because I have never managed to take a good quality photo in AV mode yet.

      • Guess what, it DOES change in TV mode as well! I noticed this before sometimes but I thought it was me touching the controls by mistake but I tested it now and as soon as I focuse somehwere far away, it changes from 2 metres to +5 metres. So I guess I will need to learn zone focussing the right way 😉

  10. Never tried street photography before but reading this i’m going to give it a go. I follow street hunters on youtube and love your video’s, keep up the good work.

    • Hello Gary and thank you for your kind comment!
      I am really glad you find the videos interesting. I invite you to try Street Photography and please get back to me and tell me what the experience was like for you.
      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

  11. I really appreciate your time on writing this article!

    Although I am no expert in both topics, I played around with the DoF calculator (thanks for this link!) and would like to add my views on this as an appendix to your article.

    Hyperfocal distance focusing can be seen as a special case of Zone Focusing where the far limit of acceptable focus is always infinity.

    Hyperfocal distance is the nearest distance which you can focus the lens at, for which the far limit of “acceptable” focus is infinity. It is only dependent on the aperture and focal length of the lens.

    If you focus the lens at any point beyond this distance, only the near limit of “acceptable focus” changes – the far limit remains infinity. You have to make sure that your subject is beyond the near limit (if not then select higher f-stop or smaller focal length)

    eg for 6X4.5 film format, 60 mm lens and f/8, the Hyperfocal distance is 33 feet, near limit is 16.5 feet and far limit is of course infinity (note that sharpest focus is 33 feet) – all distances are measured from the lens.

    Now, if your subject is,say, 15 feet from the lens you will have to do either of three things:

    1. move back from subject until you are at least 16.5 feet away, if you have space

    2. choose higher f-stop and change your lens focus … f/9 gives you hyperfocal distance (lens focus distance) of 29.4 feet and near limit of 14.7 feet … results in slower shutter speed

    3. choose smaller focal length and change your lens focus… 56mm gives you (at f/8) hyperfocal distance (lens focus distance) of 28.8 feet and near limit of 14.4 feet

    (Of course, the “sharpest” focus is at always the distance you focused your camera at)

    • Hello Ashoke! Thank you so much for this additional valuable information. I am really glad you found the post useful and even happier that you contributed to it with such a valuable comment!
      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

    • Yes, the Fujifilm cameras have a distance indicator, but their in built calculator doesn’t work properly. For example in the X70, if you set Aperture to 11 and focal distance to 1.5m, the zone focus should be from 0.80m to infinity, but that isn’t what it shows. The only camera that I have found has a decent zone focusing indicator is the Ricoh GR.

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