Manual focus series II : Zone focus

Skill : normal
In focus rate : 90%
Picture style : candids

Zone focus is a very effective way to shoot with a rangefinder. Indeed, you manually chose the plane that want in focus by setting the distance and aperture on your lens. For example, set your 35mm lens (on full format camera) on 3 meters and an aperture of 5.6 and you’ll know by looking at the distance scale that the plane between 2 meters and 5 meters will be in focus (often referred to as the depth of field). So where does it lead us to ? To the point that you can set the focus by estimating the distance to your subject before actually bringing the camera to your eyes. No more need to focus in the viewfinder and a very valuable gain of time to take your shot, especially useful if you are after candids. Actually, you could spend a whole day without any need to focus your camera by setting the focus ring on 3 meters and the aperture on F11. Then everything between 1.8 and 7 meters would be in focus and would cover about any situations you will encounter in street photography. Easy isn’t it ? Apart from the loss of speed that would happen at F11, it also gets more complex when you like to shoot wide open as I do (with large apertures such a F1.4). Inded, the focus plane becomes very thin. For example, take the same 35mm lens at 3 meters with an aperture of F1.4 and your plane of focus now only ranges from 2.7 to 3.3 meters. This will create great blur effects in the background nevertheless your focus zone will be of only 60 centimeters and a wrong estimation of distance will fatally lead to a misfocused picture. Therefore if you are going to use zone focus with wide open lenses, you better learn to estimate distances very accurately.

Enough theory and here are two shots taken today to illustrate this technique. The first one portrays a young man in a relaxed position enjoying the sun in Rue St-Honoré. I wanted to get a candid shot and knew I would have to be quick before he reacted to my presence. Thus I mentally pre-framed the picture and located where I would position myself. I then estimated the distance that would separate him from me, that is 3 meters, and set the aperture to F2.8. Given there was no background and no blur opportunity, F2.8 would give me a plane of sharpness of 1 meter in a static situation, safe enough. Then all I had to do was to go to the postion I had previously identified, kneel down, frame and hit the trigger. By zone focusing, I gained a lot of time by not having to focus in the viewfinder. The man did see me, yet he did not have time to adjust his behaviour to my presence. The definition of a candid shot.  (click on picture to enlarge)


Leica M8 with 35mm Summilux at F2.8, 1/4000, ISO160

The second shot shows a man smoking in front of a large fashion ad a bit further on Rue St-Honoré. This was a bit trickier since closing the lens to a smaller aperture would have meant a significant loss of speed and a risk of blurred shot. I therefore left the aperture at F1.4, positioned myself at 3 meters, quickly rose the camera to my eye and triggered. Again, the man did see me but did not have time to alter his expression and gesture. Another candid shot even if not fully in focus. 2.5 meters would probably have been a better distance estimate, yet I would say it did not impact too much on the shot.  (click on picture to enlarge)


Leica M8 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/1000, ISO160

9 Responses to “Manual focus series II : Zone focus”

  1. Mattias dit :

    Do the people ever rect s you taking their photo. Did the smoking guy say or do anything?

  2. Dan dit :

    Great idea for the series. I myself am struggling with the candid shooting thing. I am trying to focus through the viewfinder at f1.4 and missing the focus on some of the shots or fiddling too long till the shot is gone. I need to start giving the zone focus a try… the thing is that I want to shoot at f1.4 because that is the main idea when shooting leica no? – shooting wide open..

    tell me the first one, is it over exposed? that also is a thing to consider when shooting zone – you don’t see in the viewfinder what is the correct speed reading.. although the smaller the aperture the less likely you’ll have a problem I guess.

  3. Dimitri_c dit :

    Hello -

    Yep, thank you so much for those lessons…
    Have a nice day…

    - Dimitri

  4. simon dit :

    i’m quite sure you could have chosen a smaller aperture in the second photo, as the speed is 1/1000 ;)

    dan: the guy is sitting in the bright sun, all you have to do is meter to another spot which is in the sun and you know how to expose. or you estimate the correct exposure using the good old sunny 16 rule.

  5. admin dit :

    Mattias, yes people do react, but most often in a positive way then negative. In the case of the first picture, the guy smiled. As for the smoker, I don’t know, did not hear him scream …

    No it was not overexposed according to the histogramm but a very light reflective sones (+ my processing). Both technique Simon mentionned work, in my case I use sunny 16, that is I go all manual on exposure electing speed before the shot. On a bright sunny day, 1/4000 F2.8 or 1/4000 F1.4 with a ND filter will do it.
    Anyways. I will write a series of article on exposure in a few weeks.

    I could have gone to F2.8 and still be at 1/250 which is to me the limit in these quick situations. Yet did not want to deal with focus shift of the 35mm Lux. But this is another story … ;)

  6. Tibor dit :

    excellent shots with great composition on the two especially the second one with the background poster.

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  8. Shooter dit :

    This one really works…..

  9. This is the technique I use often on wider lenses as the 35 mm Summicron. My fav. focusing distance is around 3,5 m with an f-stops betwenn 4 and 5.6. This way I have decent DOF and am ready for fast walk-by shots. Thanks for this series, Yanidel. Greetings, Carsten