Video: How Zone Focusing Differs for Manual and Auto Focus Lenses

Zone focusing isn’t the same for every lens, and it can actually be challenging to do.

Street Photographers love to talk about zone focusing as their primary way of shooting. While some still go for autofocus, zone focusing is by far one of the best ways to shoot. Arguably, it’s faster than autofocus methods. And what lots of folks realize is that it’s different depending on the lens. Zone focusing is best at wide to standard focal lengths. But that performance also differs based on how the lens was designed. Arguably, zone focusing is more difficult with lenses designed for autofocus first. In today’s video tutorial, we explore this a bit.

Why They’re So Different

This has to do with the build and design of the lens. A manual focus lens has a longer focal throw. So by that logic, a 35mm f1.4 designed for Leica M mount and one designed for Sony FE will work fundamentally differently. The same goes for Fujifilm X mount. A manual focus tool is a precision object for you to finely tune. But with autofocus, it’s more about speed and relying on the camera to get the accuracy. So autofocus lenses have a shorter throw. This is also why lots of autofocus lenses don’t bother with putting a zone focusing scale on their lenses, or if there is one, it’s pretty rudimentary. To this day, there is no lens that’s really that great for doing both. With some camera systems, you can zone focus using the depth of field scale on the camera’s screen. But with most, that’s not the case.

What’s Easier to Do?

Well, this is a complicated question. With zone focusing, you set how far away you want to focus, stop the lens down to tell the lens how much of the scene you want in focus at that distance, and then simply walk up to that distance and shoot. If you’re on the move, then zone focusing can be superior in many ways. Everything is preset for you, and you just need to move yourself to get the shot. At that point, you’re just pushing a button, providing that you’ve got your settings already.

With autofocus, you stop the lens down and ideally tell the camera to do something like face detection. Then you ask it to continuously track a subject. Providing that you’ve dialed in your settings, you then press the button, let the camera autofocus, and shoot. To each their own. But if you had to ask me, I still think that my own personal abilities as a human being work better depending on the focal length. Am I always consistent? No. Is the camera always consistent? Yes, if I’ve been cleaning the contacts. My personal best street images have always been with a Leica. However, when it comes to autofocus cameras, I make a persuasive argument for APS-C and Four Thirds sensors.

So here’s everything you have to do when you zone focus:

Set the lens to focus out to an area.

– Set the aperture to get a certain amount of space in focus.

– Lock your aperture and ISO.

– Let the shutter speed adjust itself.

– Keep that specific zone/distance in mind.

– Photograph anything in the scene that comes within the zone that catches your eye.

Tutorial: Zone Focusing With Super Wide Angle Lenses

Why Autofocus Doesn’t Always Work

I’m going to condense why autofocus doesn’t always work into a simple truth: you can’t always trust a machine. Machines and algorithms are very good at doing what you tell them to do and nothing more. And sometimes you need to be uber-specific about that. Not only that but the camera doesn’t know what you want. Combine this with not having enough time to shoot the scene, and you’ll get results that don’t satisfy you. But again, that’s my personal take here.