Use Zone focusing to speed up your street photography. Here’s how?

Once upon a time, I was walking down a street with my camera in hand, hoping to do some meaningful street photography(It was before I heard of zone focusing). There were many great photo opportunities that came and went before I could focus the camera or even touch the shutter button. I tried for a few hours. Of course, hard-work certainly pays off. I went home that day with 4-5 usable shots. But the shots I missed were much more in number.

I was then wondering about how to shoot fast as that is the only way for street photography. And a few days later, I got to know about Zone Focusing. And here’s how you can use it.

What is Zone Focusing?

In short, It is pre-focusing the camera to a zone where your subject will be so you don’t have to focus while shooting.

In other words, you pre-focus the camera to a distance where your subject is going to be, so that you can directly shoot and not lose shots because of auto-focus. Why this works is because autofocusing takes time and in the process, you may disrupt the very moment you are trying to capture.

For example, you are shooting with your camera set to f/16 and 1/320 and ISO 1600.
And you know that your potential subjects are going to be at around 1-meter distance from the camera because let’s say that is the general distance you shoot people from.
You turn off the auto-focus and manually focus the camera to 1 meter and just click away!
You won’t have to worry about focus as your subject will be in the Zone of acceptable sharpness or Depth of field.

Also Read:- 4 steps process to improve your photography

What are the gear requirements for Zone focusing?

Just that your lens should have a distance marker and manual focus capability.

Sigma lens with distance marker useful for zone focusing
The distance marker on my lens

However, there is a workaround to make it work with lenses without the distance marker. Which I will discuss later in this article.

The steps:-

  • Choose a wide focal length ( mostly 35mm or less (full-frame equivalent))
  • Set a small aperture( high f-number, f/8 and beyond )
  • Choose center focus point and focus manually to the desired distance using the distance marker
  • Choose rest of the settings as required and you are good to go

In theory, it would work with all focal lengths if your distance is accurate.

But in real life scenarios, you can’t predict the subject to be at an exact distance. Maybe you focused on 2 meters and the subject was at a distance of 2.2 meters. In this case, if you have a larger depth of field, it will still be in the acceptable sharpness zone. Wide focal lengths can produce a larger depth of field.

A word about the depth of field

Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and the farthest point of acceptable sharpness. In short, the zone of acceptable sharpness.

Within that zone of acceptable sharpness, there is a point which is the sharpest, which is your focus point, or the exact distance where you focused. Some area before and after that point has acceptable sharpness.

Therefore for street photography, it makes more sense to have a large depth of field.

Large depth of field is produced by:

  • A small aperture (high f-number)
  • A wide focal length
  • A smaller sensor, APS-C, Micro four-thirds results in a larger depth of field than a full frame sensor
  • The far you focus the larger the depth of field

If you want to read more about depth of field in detail, Check this link.

Also Read:- Can you really learn photography from youtube?

Calculating the depth of field

distance marker on the lens top for zone focusing
The top ring is the aperture, the middle one is the focus ring with distance marked, and the last one shows the depth of field for a given aperture and distance.
Photo Credits: Eric Kim

In the above image you can see, that if you focus at 0.9 meter with f/16 aperture. Your zone of sharpness would be from 0.7m to 1.5 m.

But what if your lens doesn’t have these markings.

Lens without Distance marker where it is difficult to do zone focusing
Lens without distance markings

However, you can still take benefit of this technique using a depth of field calculator.

For this article I am using DOF Simulator.

The process

Using the DOF Simulator, we can identify the total depth of field range.

Firstly, put the camera model, lens, required focal length, aperture, and your desired focus distance.

depth of field calculator to determine zone of focus
Choose your camera, lens, focal length, aperture and distance where you are expecting your subject to be.

After putting in these details, on the bottom you will see a depth of field illustration like the one below.

Depth of field illustration zone focusing
Depth of field is denoted by the darkened area. Also note the “In front of subject” and “Behind Subject” fields.

At 23mm, f/13, and 2 meters focusing distance, the zone of acceptable sharpness starts 95.8cm In front of the subject and till 22.54 meters behind the subject.

After that, the next step is to focus at a particular distance. You can do this by measuring the distance from camera to an object kept at that distance and focus. Most importantly, make sure you turn off the auto-focus at this point.

With enough practice, you will get better at guessing the distance and can use zone focusing on your street photography.

In addition to the above, you can also make a mark on your lens focusing ring for your most used focus distance. So that you can focus with ease.


To sum up, using zone focusing can help you retain more images which would have otherwise been not usable due to focus issues. It also helps you to be quick and stealthy for street photography. However for other candid photography like weddings etc. This technique may not help you. As mostly those occasions call for a shallower depth of field.

Please share in comments how you found this article.

Do you use zone focusing? If yes, then please share about your experience.



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