Every photographer worth his or her weight in near misses needs to find a way to capture the most important moments that appear in front of them as they unexpectedly arise and just as quickly disappear. Often it’s a struggle between relying on the set-up of an autofocus camera versus learning how to use camera equipment in a manner that permits the photographer to trust their own instinct.
The more that you photograph, the more often you ‘just’ miss the moment as it aligns itself perfectly in the frame … and then vanishes forever before you recognize it and are able to push the shutter. Curious about the world around them, photographers quickly learn that it is the pursuit of the next shot that is the most exciting part of photography. Over time, photographers learn by failing. To become a better photographer and a better artist, one needs to continue failing forward.
While sloppy technique can be interesting, it’s much better to be interesting and capture what it is you’ve set out to capture. It’s important then to find a technique, whether it is through manual or auto focus that minimizes reaction time and provides the photographer with the means to work out how the action will play out in front of them. From there, they can then determine how to align that moment in the compositional elements presented within the frame … all in the split second they have to get it right.
Many photographers still use manual focus for the majority of their shooting except for fast action circumstances where it is more effective like news or sports applications. Remember though, that before the advent of autofocus, photographers were shooting every kind of photography (including sports) with manual focus.
Why would anyone give up using modern autofocus? Because it is possible to use a technique like zone focusing to achieve tack sharp images … with the confidence and control of knowing that the result you get after pushing the shutter will be in focus and framed exactly as you wish it to be framed.
Just what is zone focus? It’s a type of focusing system that relies on determining the distance to the subject and setting the focus using a scale printed on the lens. While it’s not for everyone, zone focusing does provide a measure of camera equipment control that can free up a photographer’s mind to better concentrate on the right moment, expression or composition on the fly. It can also be much more easy to figure out in practice than via explanation.
First, it’s best to remember what depth of field means in photography. It simply refers to the area in front of and behind the subject you focus on that will appear sharp in the resulting photograph. As an example, if you choose a subject, depending on the lens aperture that you choose, a certain amount of the foreground and background will be in focus. That is the depth of field of the shot. Because of how lenses are designed, remember that the area behind your subject that is sharp will always be greater than the area in front of your subject.
Several quick points using depth of field for zone focusing:
- Smaller apertures translate into greater depth of field in a resulting photograph. If you shoot at f11, you will get much more of the area in front of and behind your subject in focus than you will by shooting at f2.8.
- Zone focusing is easier with wider angle lenses. 15mm, 19mm, 21mm, 24mm and 28mm are all great focal lengths for zone focusing. Focal lengths of 35mm and above are much more difficult for zone focusing.
- The further away your subject from the camera, the more depth of field you will get in the resulting image. So, if you are using something like a 21mm lens on close up subjects, you can still end up with out of focus backgrounds in front of and behind the subject. Experimenting and practice are best.
- Full frame camera sensors provide less depth of field than cropped sensor cameras.
The following website, http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html is a great reference.
With zone focusing, you really do need to use lenses that have a printed distance scale on the lens. The lens will then provide you with a quick reference to the depth of field you have with any shot you are considering.
In zone focusing, you simply pre-focus your camera to a certain distance and estimate the depth of field you will have as the subjects move through that ‘in-focus’ range. With a lens with a focusing tab on the bottom like a Leica M lens, you can easily manage the depth of field zone with quick turns of the focusing tab.
The benefit of zone focusing readily becomes apparent as you simply click the shutter. As there is no delay between when you react and push the shutter due to a need to focus, the photographer can spend their time concentrating on composition, emotion or the action at hand.
When using zone focus, my lens of choice is a 21mm manual lens on a rangefinder camera. Since I like to get close to the action, I dial in a close setting on the lens of .7 meters. At f8, this means everything from two to 15 feet will be in focus in front of me. As I shoot often with a 21mm lens in narrow spaces, I know instinctively what will be in frame and what will be outside of the frame. With this setting, I can engage and talk to my subjects while I shoot one-handed. While that is not necessarily how others might choose to shoot, it provides me with the flexibility to shape my photography as I see fit. And that’s the under-realized value of zone focusing.
In street, documentary and news photography, it’s easy to utilize the auto ISO setting in your camera to make certain that your images will not have motion blur when using setting in the f8 to f11 range.
Your first attempts at zone focusing may be clumsy and confusing, I know mine were. But with practice, you may find that you can become quite proficient at the technique. For those who like street photography, it can really open the door to some brilliant shots that you might not have been able to get before as you struggled to direct the autofocus on your camera. It may be worth an experimenting with the technique. After all, great photography is for the bold.