What is Zone Focusing and how do I use it?

If you've ever found yourself in a busy, fast-paced situation and struggling to focus your camera, I have an excellent solution for you! It's called "zone focusing."

Zone focusing (sometimes known as scale focusing) is a focusing technique that makes use of the focal plane of a lens to shoot in fast-paced situations while maintaining focus.

You do this by "prefocusing" to the desired distance.

An example of zone focusing would be manually focusing your lens so that any subject between 5 and 8 feet away is within the range of acceptable focus.

This technique is most commonly used by street photographers, but zone focusing can also be used in other fast-paced scenarios where quickly focusing is difficult or impossible. A wedding reception, busy event, or parties are other immediate scenarios that come to mind.

HOW TO SET ZONE FOCUS:

There are a few different ways to do this, but the most common way is to use the depth-of-field scale on the lens itself. Note that some lenses don't have this scale. We'll get to how to work around this later one.

To zone focus, your aperture needs to be at f/8 or above. Anything more shallow than f/8 will not give you a wide enough focal plane to make this technique useful.

In the example image below, I have my aperture at f/16. Knowing that I want to be closer to my subjects, I adjust the focal ring to a minimum of 6ft. At f/16, that gives me an acceptable area of focus between 4.5 and 10 feet.

What that means is that any subject that is between 4.5 to 10 feet from me will be in focus.

If you're using a lens that doesn't have a depth of field scale on it, you have a couple of options for figuring out the range of a particular zone focus setting.

Some cameras, especially mirrorless cameras that use electronic "wire focusing," may give you this information somewhere in the settings menu.

An even more straightforward way is to use a depth of field app, like the one pictured below. They're handy and probably easier to use than trying to dig through a camera menu for the same information.

In the app, you enter your camera, your lens or chosen focal length, your chosen aperture, and the distance you'd like to shoot at. In the example below, I've entered a minimum distance of 8 feet. With the EOS 50mm lens, that distance gives me an acceptable focus range between 6ft and almost 12 ft. So, with those settings, anything I shoot within that range will be in focus!

What is the Focal Plane?

The focal plane is the distance between your camera lens and the perfect point of focus in an image. This area is located a certain distance in front of your camera lens and spans horizontally left to right across your frame. To learn more about the focal plane, check out our article on it!

Practice for Zone Focusing:

Like anything else, using zone focusing takes a bit of practice. What you'll really need to work on is judging distance. Before you begin shooting, try to guess something that's 6 feet away. (Or whatever distance you want to guess.)

Here are a few everyday things you can reference:

  • Your own height.
  • The width of a car is about 6 feet.
  • A standard doorway is about 7 feet tall.

The more you practice judging distance, the more quickly you'll calibrate to it.


What if it's a dark environment?

Dark locations and f/8+ don't play well together. So what can you do about it?

The short answer is to crank up your ISO. Yeah, I know—some folks will see this as borderline sacrilege, but before you write off this option, consider the following points.

First, digital cameras are only getting better and better with higher ISOs. Shooting at 800+ ISO isn't the image-killer it used to be. Give it a try! Try shooting at home with 1600, 3200, or ever 6400 ISO, and see how far you can push it. Since when did a little grain become a bad thing?

Second, if it comes down to getting a great shot with some grain or no shot at all, what's the better option? Push the ISO. Take the shot!

Something else that's sometimes an option in a dark environment is to use a strobe or flash. In fact, zone focusing while using a handheld flash can be a ton of fun!

If you're at a venue, like a wedding reception or something similar, and you can set up a light to bounce off of a wall, this can be a great help! If you've never done this, you should plan for the light to act as a fill light, and rely mostly on the ambient light available. The more you rely on the light from the one flash, the more contrasty your images will be.

Are there other ways that you like to use zone focusing? Let us know in the comments below! You can also share with the Mastin Labs facebook community. If you're not already a member, we'd love for you to join us there!

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