What is Zone Focus, Plus How and When to Do It

What is Zone Focus, Plus How and When to Do It

2800 1575 James Tocchio

Zone focusing (sometimes called scale focusing) allows a photographer to know what will be in focus without even looking through the viewfinder. It’s an invaluable technique that’s often used in street and other types of photography where speed and spontaneity are factors. It can help us get the shot when autofocus lag or direct manual focusing would otherwise cause us to miss it.

It can sound complicated, but it’s not, as long as you understand depth-of-field (DOF) and how a photographer influences DOF. For those unfamiliar with the concept of depth-of-field, the basics are simple – as a lens aperture is stopped down, the zone of focus of the image increases in depth. Larger apertures (lower F numbers) yield very shallow depth of field, creating images that isolate the subject in focus while blurring the background and foreground into pleasant bokeh. Smaller apertures (higher F numbers) create images in which more of the composition is in focus, perfect for landscapes and photojournalism.

Zone focusing uses this understanding of depth-of-field to allow the shooter to know what parts of the photograph will be in focus by simply looking at the camera lens. Most manual focus lenses and some AF lenses have a distance scale on their focusing ring and barrel to indicate which areas of a composition will be in focus based on the set aperture. By looking at the focus ring in relation to the focus scale, it’s possible to see that when set to F/8, for example, everything that falls between the markers for “8” on the focus scale will be in focus. As you spin the focus ring, the distance scale rotates to show that the area in focus is changing.

Let’s illustrate the point. In the left photo of the lens below, we can see the lens aperture has been set to F/8. Looking at the depth-of-field scale and focusing ring we can see that when set to F/8, the final image will have a zone of focus that spans from infinity to 10 feet away. If we then change the aperture to F/16 we can see that the final image will have a zone of focus that spans from infinity to 4.5 feet away. Within these spans, the image will be acceptably sharp.

Using this technique, the shooter sets the aperture and then simply makes sure the subject is within the marked distances when taking the shot. This allows for rapid and candid shooting, crucial in street photography, or when fast moving subjects negate the possibility of viewfinder composition.

But remember that depth-of-field is a gradual change. The exact point of focus is still whatever distance is directly in the middle of the zone of focus (usually marked on the lens by a straight line projecting from the set value on the aperture ring), and depth-of-field gradually decreases in front of and behind that point of focus. But an area of this zone should be rendered acceptably sharp in the final image. This relates to the classically confusing photographic concept called the Circle of Confusion.

Because of this, it’s still important to be able to accurately estimate your distance to subject and release the shutter at the right moment. Even if your zone focus indicates it will cover subjects from 20 feet to 2 feet away, you’re still best served to shoot when the subject is approximately 10 feet from the camera.

It’s also important to note that lenses of different focal lengths produce intrinsically different depths-of-field. A wide-angle lens, for example, produces greater depth-of-field at numerically identical apertures. See below, where the 50mm set to F/8 produces a focus zone from infinity down to fifteen feet whereas the 18mm lens set to F/8 produces a focus zone from infinity way down to three feet. Because of this, zone focusing is a technique best used with wide or wide-standard lenses (though with practice it can be used effectively with longer focal length lenses).

[The photos below were made with the Rollei 35, a zone focusing camera.]

See? Zone focus is a pretty simple concept once we’ve visualized it. In fact, back in the earlier days of photography there were plenty of cameras that only used zone focus. Just take a look at Zeiss’ beautiful Contina or the amazing Rollei 35. These great cameras certainly aren’t hampered by their being exclusively zone focus machines.

Today, zone focusing is most useful to photographers who are using viewfinder or rangefinder cameras with manual focus lenses, but shooters using SLRs and modern machines can also benefit from this knowledge.

It’s an especially useful technique for when we’re trying to be inconspicuous. That’s why so many street photographers use it. With zone focusing, we don’t even need to hold the camera up to our eye to get the shot. We can shoot from the waist or make snapshots in the run-and-gun style popular with so many modern street shooters. It’s even useful when we do have time to peer through a viewfinder – by zone focusing we can concentrate entirely on composition and framing and forget about focusing. One less thing to worry about.

See more of our Tips and Techniques features here.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
6 comments
  • learning zone focusing can make you faster than some autofocus systems. One reason that I like shooting 28mm and 35 mm is they are really easy to use zone focusing quickly. Also older Hasselblad lenses and Nikonos lenses have a cool feture to help you with zone focusing using little needles that move with the aperture that correspond to the distances. I learned zone focusing using a Nikonos.

    • Yes, those Nikonos lenses are about the best tool for me when I am trying to explain depth-of-field to someone who’s sitting right next to me! And you’re right about this method being faster than some (or a lot of) autofocus systems. I mentioned this in the Contax T review from last year. Using it this way is certainly faster than the AF in the Contax T2 or T3. Almost every shot in that writeup was made with zone focusing.

  • This is a great article! It is so sad that the current technology gives us more and more focus by wire lenses, no scale marks, no aperture. You have to look at the zone focus bar in the electronic viewfinder to figure out what is in focus, the same time you are composing! It is so annoying. With my Nikon FM, I pretty much just do point and shoot with F8 on the street.

  • Perfect teaching ! Very useful for all. Very great. Clear and very well illustrations !
    Love it !
    I use every day. One reason I love my Contax T with green dots positions : everything in focus, perfect for fast street photography if not moving, checking when shooting !

  • Lars Christiansen March 21, 2019 at 4:54 am

    Another good article! I like them. They are very focussed on street photography and cameras with normal to wide angle lenses, though. When you are taking shots of arranged subjects as table tops, depth of field becomes your primary concern. You have to set the aperture based on the area that you want to have sharp in your picture and you may also want to set the area of sharpness (the hyperfocal distance) in a way that the background is slightly out of focus. That helps to stay on the subject. To make a long story short: There is an entire photography genre based on “zone focus” and they are taking it way more serious than looking at the aperture and the dof markings. Again, these really help when you have a wide angle lens and your subject close to infinity. But if you take it serious, there is much more to zone focus.

  • Christopher Brown April 2, 2019 at 5:40 am

    In zone focusing, there’s more in sharp focus behind the focused distance on the scale than in front of it. Can be checked by looking at the focusing markings, but the hyperfocal distance isn’t in the middle of the range of acceptably sharp focus, it’s one third of the way from the front.

    Zone focusing is at the heart of the quote attributed to photojournalist Arthur Fellig on how to take good photographs, “F8 and be there”. It gives enough depth of field for most of the subject to be sharp, most of the time.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio