1 Find the right Focus for your Street Photography
When I think back to the beginning of my Street Photography “career” there was nothing more frustrating than seeing a beautiful scene, composing it and overcoming my fear to take pictures, just to get home and notice that the image is not in focus. Finding the right focus technique in photography took me a long time. All the work I put in that moment was in vain and the result absolutely didn’t turn out the way I’d like it to be. Although sharpness is not the most important quality metric in Street Photography, I’d like the camera focus to be where I expect it to be. There are manifold Photography Focus methods, especially in Street Photography that can have a big impact and I want to explain the Zone focusing more in detail.
I am sure you have a plethora of images in your archive where you got a great feeling while shooting, just to be devastated to see the blurry result – just like me.
After years of experience and experimenting with manual focus methods, different autofocus settings, I want to help you out to get the images in focus and sharp with the right photography focus technique.
1.1 Manual Photography Focus Techniques
In general, there are two basic photography focus techniques. The “old-fashioned” manual focus and the digital auto-focus.
The manual photography focus works as you might expect. You twist the front-lens until the image is sharp where you want it to be. There are different manual focus systems that aim to help the photographers out.
For example, there were split screens where you had to adjust two images so that they lined up perfectly. Other systems that I personally tried out worked similar, but instead of two separate images, there were dots in the center of the image that indicated if the image was sharp or not.
Nowadays mirrorless cameras give you additional support by blending in a zoomed image of the focused area. But even with modern cameras, the manual photography focus is a lot of work and needs, even more, the experience of the photographer to get the photography focus where it should be.
If you are just starting out, I would recommend to try out the manual focus just for the fun of it and to get a better understand how the focus planes shift.
For more “serious” Street Photography adjusting the photography focus manually every time can be quite unreliable and too slow.
1.2 Auto Spot Photography Focus with a single Point
Apart from the manual photography focus, the digital focus of today’s cameras work wonders but need to be adjusted accordingly, to satisfy you completely.
The easiest method is the Spot Focus which works much like expected. You choose the spot on your camera which the auto-focus will turn sharp when pressing the shutter-button half-way through. Depending on your camera you can have a different set-up for the AF points.
Canon’s 5D III has 61 focus points to choose from, while my mirrorless Fuji X100F has about 91 points, which I can control via a small Joystick.
In modern cameras, the spot photography focus can also work for the spot metering. Meaning that the point you select doesn’t only decide which point will be sharp, but also exposed accordingly.
When doing Street Photography, the single point auto-focus works really well for me in good light conditions and when the location doesn’t require a “high-speed” photography focus.
As we know from basic compositional teachings, we don’t always want our subject to be in the dead center of the image. To create more variations, there are two options.
Since modern cameras have a lot of focus-pints you can choose a point that is either to the left or the right side before-hand. In reality, this will method will be too slow for Street Photography but can work when you have a lot of time to arrange a scene.
The second method is by leaving the focus point in the center, but turning the camera afterward. So far, the cameras I worked with functioned the same. Press the shutter button half-way through until the auto-focus adjusted the lens, then turn your camera for the final composition and press the shutter button completely to snap the image.
1.3 Multi Spot Photography Focus & Automatic Modes
Apart from the Single spot Auto-Focus, there are other possibilities to control the auto-focus, that I am not personally a fan of but want to present anyway.
In addition to a single spot, you are also able to add multiple spots which give you a small area instead of a single spot that you can work with. In my opinion, the multi-spot AF is kind of unreliable and doesn’t work very well in open spaces with greater differences in distances.
Instead of using a single spot as the decision-maker multiple spots will be used to determine where the photography focus should be. This can result in a difficult “average” conclusion where the clear photography focus will be somewhere else than you were looking for.
Then there are also completely automatic modes, where the camera will make the decision itself where the photography focus should be.
Currently, there are two technologies: Phase Detection & Contrast photography Focus.
Without going too much into detail, the contrast photography focus is cheaper, works well in good light situations, is pretty reliable and mostly used in mirrorless cameras. Phase detection uses a lot of sensors – sometimes more than 50 – to determine which point should be sharp and how to adjust the optics accordingly. It is less reliable but works also in low-light situations.
Personally, I wouldn’t leave the complete control of the focus to the camera alone. I’d rather chose the spot AF and mess up the image myself, than letting it be ruined by the decision-making of my camera. At least then I know that I have to improve my ability to “hit” the target myself, whereas otherwise there is nothing I can do to improve the auto-focus of the camera itself.
1.4 Continuous Mode
Modern cameras also have the option of a so-called continuous mode or ai-servo. Previously I described that you can press the shutter button halfway-through and turn your camera to frame the final image without changing the photography focus.
With the continuous mode on, the photography focus will be steadily adjusted when the shutter button is pressed halfway.
Using this mode, you are able to follow a bike or a car and have it in focus while it moves. You can also use a bit slower shutter speed to create “panning” shots, where the subject is in focus but the background is blurry.
For Street Photography, I don’t usually use the continuous mode since it renders me unable to focus and changing the frame afterward. With the exception of panning shots, I wouldn’t recommend using this mode for Street Photography.
2 Zone Focusing
Now I have presented the typical photography focus types that you probably already know about. For most genres, they work well, but for Street Photography there is another focus method that is superior to them all and it is called zone focusing.
Just think about the time when there wasn’t any auto-focus and Street Photographers had to use the manual focus. Of course, they weren’t focusing individually for every single image they took, yet their success rate was very high.
The secret to their success lies in zone focusing.
Zone focusing profits from optical features as well as the experience and consistency of the photographer.
Before going into detail, zone focusing simply means that you focus on a certain distance and leave the setting like that.
If you just try it out like that and focus with your camera to a fixed distance and hope that every image will be sharp, you might be disappointed by the results.
Zone focusing in Street Photography makes use of an optical characteristic – the hyperfocal distance.
2.1 Focusing Depth of Field
To understand how the pictures can be sharp, without actually changing the focus, you have to comprehend which factors are responsible for the Depth of Field.
The f-number of an optical system such as a camera lens is the ratio of the system’s focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil.
This theoretical description is one of the most important factors when it comes to focusing in Street Photography. The wider the aperture, the smaller your Depth of Field. A simple relation that is. In contrast, when you close your aperture, the Depth of Field gets wider.
If you are near-sighted like me you have used this effect to your advantage before. When you don’t have glasses on, but try to read something from a distance, squinting will actually make your image sharper. The reason for this is, that you narrow down the “aperture” of your eye, thus creating a wider depth of field and if lucky enough you might be able to read the written text again.
The second influence factor is the focal length of your used lens. The larger your lens, the narrower your Depth of Field will be.
Most common in Street Photography are focal lengths from ~28mm to ~50mm. They work very well and have a reasonable depth of field.
With tele-lenses from 100mm and upwards the depth of field will be very narrow based on the focal length alone. Which renders these lenses pretty much useless for zone-focusing and Street Photography anyway.
If you are able to choose from multiple focal lengths and have problems to get the focus right with a 50mm lens, try out the 28mm as the depth of field will increase and it will be easier to get the focus right.
The final factor is the distance to your subject, which determines the distance of your focus point. The closer your subjects gets, the narrower the depth of field and the further away your subject stands, the wider the focus plane will be.
When we are talking about focus distance in Street Photography, we should follow the premise of getting close to capture great images. This means that the subject distance mostly will be in a range from 1 to 4 meters.
2.2 Hyperfocal Distance
We have learned which three factors influence the depth of field individually, but what does this actually have to do with zone focusing and the hyperfocal distance?
Now we are talking everything into consideration and combine every characteristic to calculate the hyperfocal distance of your given settings.
But first, let me explain the connection of the hyperfocal distance and zone focusing.
In zone focusing our goal is to set our focus to a fixed distance that works four our style, allowing us to capture sharp images while we don’t need to change the settings or photography focus for every image individually.
The hyperfocal distance describes the photography focus distance where the depth of field only has a near limitation but has no far limit. This means that everything, beginning at a certain distance will be in-focus.
Considering that in zone-focusing we want to be quick and not think about focusing anymore, focusing to the hyperfocal distance can be a means to get everything in focus.
To calculate the actual hyperfocal distance of your gear and set-up I recommend the DoF calculator from DOFmaster.
Input your camera, your focal length and your usual f/stop and the hyperfocal distance will be given.
For example, I use an X100 with a focal length of 28mm at f/8. The calculator gives me a hyperfocal distance of around 5 meters. This means if I pre-focus my camera to 5 meters, everything beginning from 2 meters will be sharp and in focus.
2.3 Settings for Zone Focusing
So far most of the talk was more theory than practice. Does the knowledge we have no mean that we need to run the calculator each time we change our f-stop?
Knowing the hyperfocal distance is only for getting a hang of the depth of field and focal distances in general. Personally, I don’t even focus every time to the hyperfocal distance because I seldom want everything behind the subject to be sharp as well.
From my own experience, around 95% of my images work with a focus distance from 1.5 meters to 10meter. Therefore I don’t need the hyperfocal distance that badly and get away with a shorter focus distance most of the time.
In reality, I have my Ricoh GR set to 1.5 meters and mostly use f/8. A thorough calculation would mean that anything behind ~3 meters will not be in focus anymore.
Looking at the results I don’t think it makes a huge difference if the subject is at 2.5 or 6, even 10 meters. In Street Photography there are more important aspects than pixel peeping sharpness.
Therefore if you want to try out zone focusing I would try out something like 3 meters as the focus distance at f/8 or f/11. Depending on the focal length you will have an easier or harder time.
In normal light situations I am fine at ISO 100 and a shutter speed around 1/200th of a second to 1/500th of a second. Especially in bright conditions I’d rather underexpose one or two stops and bring it up later in post-processing.
2.4 Pre-Focus Distance
Depending on your style of shooting Street Photography the pre-focusing distance can vary a lot. I like to get close, therefore anything from 1.5 to 3 meters is my ideal photography focus distance. This also results in less leeway when trying to capture a subject that is further away, since my depth of field is more limited.
When your style of Street Photography isn’t up-close and you are more comfortable at a subject distance from 5 to 10 meters then you will have more room to get everything in focus, since the depth of field will be wider.
Nonetheless, one important aspect is to know the distance to your subjects.
Before, you probably haven’t thought about the distance in a clear measurement. Either the subject was sharp or it wasn’t. But now you have to guess if setting the pre-focus distance to 2.5 meters is more beneficial than 5 meters.
Especially in low-light situations where you have to open up the aperture and decrease the depth of field, knowing the distances that you are shooting at becomes increasingly important.
Look at your past portfolio and figure out if you have a certain theme amongst your images with a dominant photography focus distance.
Otherwise, try out different distances and have a look at the results, or estimate the distances while you are on the street and set your photography focus distance for the walk accordingly.
2.5 Shooting from the Hip
Zone focusing helps us to capture images quickly and have them in focus.
Yet I haven’t talked about one of the most beneficial parts of this technique. It makes you able to shoot from the hip.
I have a more in-depth article about shooting from the hip, but to sum it up, you are able to shoot without looking through the viewfinder.
When you are familiar with your camera and use the same focal length most of the time, you don’t really need the viewfinder anymore to frame your images. Through experience, you will already know how the image will turn out.
Obviously, you can’t manually focus without using the viewfinder and the auto-focus is too unreliable and you have no idea if it worked this time or not.
With zone-focusing, you are on the safe side and know that everything at a certain distance will be sharp. If you want more freedom, close the aperture more and in case you have a goal of getting close then you can open up the aperture and set the focus distance at 2 meters.
Without zone-focusing, shooting from the hip would be near impossible.
There are many ways to capture a great image and there isn’t one “true” way. But when it comes to focusing, most masters used the technique of zone focusing and making use of the hyperfocal distance.
Especially in the analog days, zone focusing was the go-to method to capture in-focus images. Street Photographers hadn’t the chance to change the focus manually in just a matter of milliseconds.
Nowadays, the auto-focus works in our favor but isn’t 100% reliable. Although the focus technique is getting better and there is a face or eye recognition built-in in the focus systems, I don’t simply like to hand off the focusing to the electronic system. There is nothing more frustrating to me than realizing that the auto-focus was off and it wasn’t even my fault.
To reduce these failures I pre-focus to a fixed distance and keep the camera that way. This allows me to fully concentrate on the creative part of the image without worrying too much about the photography focus.
Hopefully, you will give zone-focusing a chance in your Street Photography and realize how much fun photography can be if you don’t have to think about those technical terms all the time.
With experience, you will also learn which distances work better for you and which settings you have to use. So don’t give up, just because it didn’t work the first time, it can be a huge advantage in the long run.