An Introduction to Zone Focusing for your Leica, Rangefinder, or DSLR

When I first started shooting street photography, I was always frustrated that my autofocus would always be too slow to capture the decisive moment. After trudging around the internet, I was first introduced to the idea of “zone focusing” by Markus Hartel on his blog.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with zone focusing you essentially use a high f-stop number with a deep depth of field (f/16 or f/11) and have your camera pre-focused to a certain distance to get your photos in-focus. This is beneficial because although modern autofocusing systems are quite good, they are not 100% reliable. Using zone focusing when shooting street photography allows you to get far more keepers.

1x1.trans An Introduction to Zone Focusing for your Leica, Rangefinder, or DSLR

Aperture at f/16 and focused to around .9 meters. You can see everything from .7 meters to 1.5 meters will be in-focus

Regarding the settings, I typically use the following when shooting:

  • Aperture: f/16
  • ISO: 800-3200
  • Shutter speed: Above 320ths/second
  • Prefocus: 1 meter
  • AV-mode
Why do I use the above settings? Shooting at f/16 allows me to get the deepest depth-of-field with my lens. I keep my ISO high so my shutter speed will be above 320ths/second (this allows you to capture people walking and not blurry). I don’t mind having extra grain or noise in my images. I actually find it to make my images more gritty and raw. Also I keep my lens pre-focused to around 1 meter– because that is how close I generally am to my subjects when shooting.

Have any questions about shooting zone focusing or hyperfocal focusing? Leave them in the comments below! 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Emanuele-Lukin-Toscano/1395671505 Emanuele Lukin Toscano

    Well, only one advice to the ones new to hyperfocal!. I use hyperfocal a lot and every lenscamera has their hyperfocal distance so…do some research depending on your camera. For my fuji x100 for example, HF distance at f/11 is 2.36 mt, where at f/16 is 1.68mt. For the Fuji, use the distance indicator at your vantage, hyperfocal make the manual focus of the fuji usefull!

    • Overseastom

      Emanuele speaks the truth – here’s an online resource to find the correct numbers for your particular lenses. They also have iPhone & Android apps. Here’s the link, happy shooting, everybody :) http://www.dofmaster.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1492574386 Bruno Candeias

    From my experience, i noticed that it’s even easier to zone focus with a compact camera with an wide angle lens, because in that case the depth of field is much bigger!

    Nice tutorial, Eric :)

  • Fabrice Drevon

    Or you can go with Nikon and hyper fast & reliable autofocus ;-)

  • http://www.boliston.co.uk Adrian Boliston

    I’ve been using just zone/hyperfocal focus for about 2 months with D700 & 28mm/2.8D and it’s definitely the way to go.

    The only annoyance is that the focus ring on the lens can be moved too easily (by accident) so sometimes I’m almost tempted to stick a bit of tape on it.

    I don’t tend to shoot ultra close so normally leave it around 2m and set to program mode (P) as this mostly keeps aperture around f/11 in good light. I leave auto ISO on so that it goes up to iso6400 if I’m shooting somewhere dark like a street at night or in a pub or club.

  • http://www.facebook.com/les.faber Les Faber

    This is a very timely post Eric. I have been wondering about the best approach to take with my M3 (as film costs money). Well done!

  • Dan

    I think there is an error in terminology. It’s not hyperfocal zone focusing what you describe, it’s just using your depth of field scale. the hyperfocal distance is essentially the minimum distance that contains in it’s right-side depth of field scale – infinity. Am I mistaken?

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Thanks for the correction Dan. I had my terminology a bit mixed up– thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/portostreetshooting Porto Street Shooting

    zone focusing isnt’t the same as hyperfocal…

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Sorry thanks for the correction!

  • Yanidel

    Hi Eric,

    I like your explanatory picture, good one. Yet, Eric, F16 at ISO800 or above allows you to get only a fraction of the M9’s amazing image quality capability. That is for two reasons : diffraction and digital noise. Pictures at ISO160 and max F8 are simply stunning, so why not try to estimate distance with a little bit less of error margin ? The corresponding 30cm depth of field at F8.0 is still pretty long at 1 meter.
    All the best, Yanick

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Dear Yanick,

      Great to hear from you and your travels look like they have been going very well! I will try experimenting more with low ISO and f/8 and see the difference in results!

  • Anne Schmidt

    Funny that you apparently didn’t know about that very well known technique. I use it every day with my M3. Digital photography is really not a progress. ;)

  • http://streetphotographyinthecity.blogspot.com/ Luke Ekblad

    Why would I want to focus this way when auto focus, wide aperture and low iso works fine and produces higher quality pictures? Whats the advantage.

    • Guest

      It’s faster, you aren’t going to get autofocus in a rangefinder any time soon, and not everything is about BOOARKEEH!

  • http://www.galapinoyredux.com Cedric

    I use the same technique with the X100. I haven’t complained about its AF since then. ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000772196043 Carsten Schmidt

    hi Eric,
    thanks for the column, but i have to say that while this technique eases the pain it also turns a great camera into nothing else than a point and shoot camera.
    i think there are way too many pictures out there shot with f16 or maybe f11 where everything is in focus. and especially on the street where there is always background i find having nearly everything in focus extremely distracting. and i think depth of field is extremely important to focus the eye of the viewer … and tell a story. you lose that ability by shooting with f16.

    can it be painful to shoot f1.4 or or higher? yes, it can. you miss shots. but at least you tried.

    my set up is usually low ISO, f stop of somewhere between 1.4 and 2.8 depending on the quickness of the subjects i am shooting and the light levels and the shutter speed is set by light meter and then depending on slight changes in light i move up or down a bit … and then focus i usually preset at 2m but that is the one dial i change when i shoot.

    • http://kennethreitz.com Kenneth Reitz

      Same here, but on the street often between 2 and 4. If i’m feeling really crazy, 5.6.

  • Guy

    Hyperfocal is so simple: choose a working aperture, let’s say F 11. On one end on top of the barrel, put the infinity mark in front of F 11. On the other side of the barrel, look at the sharpness distance in front of F 11. Everything between that distance and infinity will be sharp enough. Not rasor sharp, but very acceptable. This is hyperfocal, the fastest way to take a picture with no disturbing at all. Just shoot.

    Note 1 : the infinity mark looks like a sleeping number 8 (∞).
    Note 2: some barrels have infinity mark at right, some at left.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1254613293 Sascha Santana

    Hi Eric: I wonder because I read an interview (Fotoeasy magazin 1/2011) about the 8 golden rules of streetphotography and you mentioned in rule2 that you are also using the P Mode / ISO 400, right?

    Any difference / advantages for P-Mode vs “Zone Focussing)

    Thx
    Sascha

  • Don

    Eric – have you considered doing an article about your manual settings with flash? Would be VERY useful for those of us that don’t use a TTL flash!

  • Anonymous

    Well, I keep it a lot simpler than this. For one thing, I’m using a small sensor camera with a very wide lens (Lumix LX5 at 24mm equivalent) so DOF is already going to be deep due to both the sensor size and the angle of view. I need a high shutter speed since I shoot from the hip and never have time to steady the camera, so f11 or f16 is out of the question. What I do is go into aperture priority mode, put it on f4, then go manual focus and focus on something about a metre and an half (5 ft) away. Then I use the manual focus control (with it’s DOF scale) to set it so everything within about 1.5 and 3 metres is in focus. Bingo, off I go. After all, anything that’s more than 3 metres (10 feet) away is background anyway.

    If the light is lower I go to f2.8 and scale it so things just over a metre and just about 2 metres are in focus.

    Bearing in mind that the LX5 scale is pretty conservative, so results are acceptable beyond the scale. Usually.

    All that to say, f11 or f16 seems excessive for street photography, where your subject is usually no more than four or five feet away. (Different if you’re full frame and using 50mm I suppose…)

  • Cyrus

    1/320 is quite fast for street photography – you should get by fine on 1/200th

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  • David

    Eric, this is the first video of yours I’ve watched the whole way through and you really don’t know what you’re talking about, do you? You don’t know what is zone focusing and hyper focal, you can’t ‘remember’ if a small f stop is a large aperture or vice versa, you tell people to always use a large aperture for street shots when we can all see that many of the best street shots have a shallow depth of field to isolate the subject … What makes you think you are qualified to hold workshops, taking peoples money? Learn a few things from your friend Thomas before pretending you are some sort of professional.

    • Spamfreewhois

      What makes you think he needs “qualifications” to publish a website and share his experience on the web?

      • GokhanCukurova
    • Henry

      LOL, you use Thomas Leuthard as an example of someone to learn from. Hilarious. I agree that Eric should post more of his own stuff, but you must be blind to think that Leuthard has anything worthy to share. His photos are the one of the most dull and uninspiring have seen from any of these self proclaimed photography gurus. Just because a person shouts a lot, it doesn’t always mean they have anything interesting to say.

      • Anne

        A bit harsh maybe, but not that wrong concerning Thomas’ work, unfortunately… I’m among the ones who have no opinion on his work, which makes me uneasy.

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  • JasonR

    Thanks Eric. Ignore the naysayers. You do a hbuge amount to help and advise the newcomer. It’s much appreciated.

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  • http://www.peterdbarton.com/ Peter Barton

    Eric, Where did you get the curly cable for your 560 flash with a Leica end and a conventional end for the 560? I’ve been having trouble finding one.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      You can find them on Amazon, they are cheap- only $20!

  • Ronnie

    Can somebody explain what’s the difference between zone focusing and hyperfocal focusing? Newbie here.

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  • cat with gun

    Am I right in thinking that hyperfocal is all about using the infinity symbol on the focus ring in correspondence with the working aperture. You can then judge from the barrel markings where the critical focus zone/point is ie: on my 28mm elmarit @ F16 i set the infinity symbol to correspond to F16 also, then reading the barrel markings from left to right I can see that anything from 0.8m to infinity will be in acceptable focus with the critical focus point @ 1.5m. Hyperfocal offers us the ability to shoot everything acceptably focused very quickly whereas zone focusing allows us to be more selective with what we choose to be in focus.
    What doesn’t make apparent sense in this description is that if you use film you cant just change the iso/asa setting for each shot as you can with a digital camera. I’ve been doing a lot of work in Borough market in London recently. It exists under a railway bridge and can be quite dark and very crowded. So if you’ve shot off half a roll @400 in bright light or even 320 then go into a badly lit crowded area and are getting shutter speeds of 30th/sec on a F 16 or F22 you either have to change rolls or push the film X2 or X3 stops at least and lose in development what you’ve already taken. The only option is to shoot with a faster aperture, which on my lens is F2.8 fastest, which when used with the hyperfocal principle only allows acceptable focus from nearer 5m to infinity, which with a wide angle doesn’t help with close up photography.
    This is when I’ll use zone focusing more because I’ll stop the lens down to F2.8 and set the lens to either 0.7, 0.8 or max 1m. I may have to push the film by 1/2 stop but I found that won’t affect the development time to much on the stuff shot at 400. I don’t think it is as simple as to say wack the lens onto F16 or F22 and that’ll
    give the greatest depth of field, well it will do, but what’s the point if there’s bad exposure.

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  • Sgd Sole

    Eric, many thanks for this great video I’ve found it extremely useful! 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/phillip.lwiza Phillip Lwiza

    Eric I think a lot of people missed your point. I love street photography because of what Eric has stated in his settings. Street shots are not about getting creamy backgrounds or billboard sharpness. No it’s about using your viewfinder as a window into who you are. I have seen great street shots taken at 3200+’ISO. I have seen IPhones destroy 1Ds and 1.2 primes because of content. Eric can take a Blackberry Pearl and produce shots that a 24-70 canon or Nikon could only dream of. Photography is the expression of individuality, it’s why we love it. Keep shooting we will keep watching.

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  • bubba

    Great lens, but not a great explanation of zone focusing.

  • Kevin

    Well Eric there are quite some different opinions here… To me I’d say you’re doing a good job by sharing your experiences, to both newcomers and advanced ones.

    For me isolating the subject is important to create the right focus and perhaps nice bokeh. HOWEVER, more important is the content. Shooting something quite odd or the perfect composition is what streetphotography is about to me.

    So just keep it up and let’s learn from each other, because I can kima agree with both opinions.

    (but damn, shooting at 1m will never be possible for me I guess….that close)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ihtzaz.qamar Ihtzaz Qamar

    When shooting a landscape, if one focuses at infinity, the middle ground or foreground may be out of focus. Focusing at hyperfocal distance is like focusing at less than infinity and all grounds have a better chance of being in focus.

    Zone focusing is about deciding a slice of acceptable focus, from some minimum to some maximum distance (and this max distance is not infinity). This, in my opinion, is more useful for street photography.

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  • J D

    Eric,
    thank you for sharing! Street is something I have always been interested in but haven’t had a moment to invest into broadening my photography skill set. I find street photography to be one of the most expansive and artistic of genres and you explain zone focusing in manner that is easier to understand. Most of my work has been studio; control over the environment and time are essential. Street however poses that elusive shot, that moment where being indecisive or unfamiliar with technique or gear can lose a moment forever.

    And I must mention – I’ve been working with other photographers for years. Many people here have commented on your use of proper verbiage and on and on and on and I want to just add this: I know famous photographers who could care less about gear, technique and technical jargon because in the end the resulting image is all that matters. To those who want to rant about minutia of the art and background and gear get off your high horse…its not the best perspective.

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  • Aliki

    Hello…. I am learning my the Canon 550D and i made the mentioned
    settings ( iso 800-3200, f16, time 1/320 in av mode) and i took pictures
    but they are all black. What did i do wrong?

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  • http://dangerismymiddlename.com Paul Danger Kile

    There are apps for calculating hyperfocal. Some are as easy to use as the scale on your lens, so that’s an option for those of us without a scale.

  • AntMax

    I want your tshirt!

  • Arturo Arévalo

    hi eric,
    any special setting in shooting color film indoor, when lighting conditions are not the greatest?

    for outdoors your advice has been great!
    Aperture: f/8 or above
    Shutter: above 250ths/second
    ISO: ISO 400 film pushed to 1600
    Focus: Prefocus to 1.5 meters

    thanks eric!

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  • http://www.aquashieldroofingcorp.com Elmo Vanaria

    This was helpful for me and it really gave me allot to think about. Thanks for this!

  • blackroel

    My normal settings with the Sony RX1 is: 1/500 f8.0 and ISO automatic and focus manual set on about 3 meters. Thats an drawback with this camera that you can’t really set good the distanz manually, but you have to, then for my opinion the autofocus is to slow. See pictures on http://www.streetfoto.ch

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  • alex

    hi eric! i would like to ask you how do the zone focusing work with a Fuji xpro-1? Actually it’s very difficult to focus in manual mode.

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  • Watermelonbeast

    Wow! This is absolutely hilarious. Zone focusing and hyperfocusing? This was basic photography for anyone who used 35mm SLR prior to autofocus cameras. My daughter wants to learn photography and the first thing I am going to do is let her use my old Spotmatic. It actually has stopped down metering so you can see depth of field changes. Wow how advanced!! Personally, I have dumped my Canons and gone to a Sony NEX 6 and am using some of my old glass. I am taking much better pictures now. Although I must admit I would use the Canon 50D for sports and animal photography and stay in aperture priority mode to manage depth of field.

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