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Zone focus for sharper shots

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Tips from Digital Photographer, by Mark White
May 10, 2016

Learn to use this simple technique to achieve sharp shots with Digital Photographer!


Focusing is generally considered to be an essential photographic process that has to be performed before each and every image is captured. For the majority of applications, this does indeed make the most sense as the best means of ensuring sharp photos. However, there is an alternative technique, whereby you focus in advance and then shoot accordingly, assessing your subject’s position in relation to either a specific location or a zone of acceptable sharpness based on the distance you focused on and the aperture you’re using. The former scenario applies well to sports photography, especially when the action moves constantly. You are able to simply wait until your subject or the action reaches the spot you are focused on. Zone focusing is ideal for street photography too, enabling you to capture spontaneous images in different locations – the only proviso is that the main subject must fall into the zone of acceptably sharp focus.

This approach will involve an inevitable degree of hit and miss, but with practice you’ll find that it’s surprisingly successful, with relatively few failed attempts. Though it might sound complicated, the technique is surprisingly simple – it’s really your own personal judgment that matters most, but this can be refined. You can do this with any camera and any lens – all that’s required is equipment that can be set to manual focus mode in order to lock the focus.

1. Use Aperture Priority


You need to have control over the depth of field and you don’t want this to change, so choose Aperture Priority mode and select a moderate f-stop, such as f8 or f11. Don’t use a wide aperture.

2. Set Auto ISO


This enables you to control the shutter speed, ensuring that it remains fast enough to freeze the action that you want to capture by setting a minimum speed. The camera will increase the ISO to compensate.

3. Choose a focal length


This needs to stay the same throughout the whole process, as changes in focal length affect the focus. Choose what will work best for your subject and stick to that when using zone focusing.

4. Focus first


Place your camera into its single-shot autofocus mode, then focus the lens on a distance that’s appropriate for the subject. Consider how close you will be able to get to your subject.

5. Switch to manual


Once you’ve focused your lens, switch the camera or the lens into manual focus. Provided that you don’t nudge the focusing ring on the lens, your lens will remain focused on the same distance.

6. Review the results


Before you start doing some serious shooting, take some test images to assess the zone of sharpness and to practice ensuring that your main subject falls into this zone.

For more photography tips, tricks and techniques, head over to our sister magazine, Digital Photographer! You can also find the team posting on their Facebook and Twitter pages.