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.
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.
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.
- Lens focal length
- 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.
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:
- Aperture at f8 at least, I will go for f11
- Lens focal length at 35mm
- Subject distance
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.
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 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.
- Lens focal length
- 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:
- Aperture at f11
- Lens focal length at 35mm
- 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.
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!
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?
- First of all you avoid any possible focus hunting that could happen using a Auto Focus camera system.
- Secondly because you skip the focusing part altogether, a zone focused or hyperfocal set camera, fires shots much more instantaneously than any AF system.
- 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!
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 and also some links worth checking out to help you understand Zone focusing even better.
- Photography glossary with illustrations by Treat.com.
- Depth of Field Calculator by dofmaster.com
- Depth of Field Table by dofmaster.com
- Zone focusing as explained on Wikipedia
- Hyperfocal distance as explained on Wikipedia
- A Beginner’s Guide to Aperture and Depth of Field
Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!