Street Photography: Focus Techniques

Click to enlarge

Fujinon XF14mm f2.8 - On the lower ring I set my aperture. In this case at 16... On the middle ring I set my distance to my subject which in this case I've set to 1 meter. Above that setting you can see that at f16 my focal range will be from 0.50 meter towards eternity.

Although most people I know use autofocus while shooting the streets, there are two more techniques that are interesting to use: Zone focussing and Range focussing. In this article I will try to explain both techniques and the pro's and con's of using them.

Prior to 1978 when Polaroid released it's SX-70 Sonar OneStep single lens reflex camera, there was no autofocus available and most street photographers used range focus or zone focus to get their images as sharp as possible. While those techniques will never produce the sharpness from using the autofocus, it does give you an "acceptable sharpness" which of course is a bit arbitrary. So why do I use it then? Autofocus tends to be way too slow for focussing on moving objects on the streets. Also if I see a scene evolving right before my eyes, autofocus can be a bit too slow and the moment has passed. By using the zone or range technique, I don't have that problem.

What is zone focussing?

By setting my camera to manual focus and my apperture to a certain setting,
I create a zone where everything will be in focus (approximately 90%). This can be from one meter away towards a maximum of two meters away, or 2 meter away towards a maximum of 4 meters away, etc. This sounds a bit strange, so let me clarify with an example using a DoF calculator (DoFmaster.com) where
I use the Fuji X-Pro 1 which has the same crop factor (1.5) as my own X-T1. And use my Fujinon XF14mm lens which has a zone focus ring where I can set my distance to my subject and my aperture (see image above).

So here you see that with my distance setting at 1 meter and my apperture at f8, I have a focal range of about 4.57 meters. If I'm at about 0.5 meter from my subject,
I can just click without focussing first and everything from that distance all the way up to approximately 5 meters away will be in focus. The wider I set my apperture, the less DoF or range I will have.

If I apply the same settings on my Fujinon XF23mm, I will get a much more narrow range which is much more difficult to use. In order to increase my range, I have to increase my f-stop as shown in the two examples below.

Increasing the distance to my subject on my focus ring will also increase the range as shown in the next example.

So in general, the less wide your lens, the more difficult it is to use this technique. At about 35mm (full frame) is the maximum focal length in which you can use this, but then you would have to take a larger distance from your subject or an f-stop at 16 to get a workable range. Using my 8mm lens which has no autofocus, I just can set my f-stop at whatever I want, because that lens is so wide, everything will be in focus from a distance of 30cm and beyond.

Using this technique with a wide open aperture, you better know how to estimate the correct distance or else everything will be blurry. If you use a 23mm (35mm on my crop of 1.5) and an aperture of 1.4, you'll have a 60cm range which will be in focus, so you'll have to be very close.

Usually I use f8 or higher on my 14mm with 1 meter distance or f16 at my 23mm with 1 meter distance. Just to be on the safe side...

23mm  - f5 - 1/500 - iso 500 | Zone focussing technique | Click to enlarge

23mm  - f16 - 1/400 - iso 3200 | Hyperfocal technique | Click to enlarge

What is range focussing or hyperfocal distance?

When I set my lens distance at eternity, I will have a minimum distance towards my subject from where I can shoot (depending on my apperture setting). In the above examples you can see the hyperfocal distances as well. Basically, from the minimum distance towards infinity will be sharp. This is an ideal way to go on the streets if you don't want a shallow DoF.

Pre-focussing

Sometimes if I see a nice background, I pre-focus. This is fairly easy by focussing (withing the range of my settings) on the background and wait until an interesting subject passes by to take the shot. Just focus on a point where you expect the subject will pass and take the shot as it happens.

14mm  - f16 - 1/400 - iso 2500 | Hyperfocal technique | Click to enlarge

Why use manual techniques?

  • No focus hunting;
  • Much faster in reacting to situations or subjects;
  • In full control;
  • Saves time.

The described techniques take some patience. The first few times I came home with all blurred shots which can be a bit frustrating, but learning without mistakes and error just isn't possible I guess. If you need a DoF calculator because your lens doesn't support a zone focus setting, then visit an app store where there are many available which are easy to use.

Hope to have given you fellow street togs something inspiring or maybe you already knew all this, but still liked to read it just to freshen up a bit.

Feel free to contact me through the contact form, in the comment section below or through Facebook.

Have fun!

Willem