We absolutely love transferrable skills at PhotoMappers! So in this free guide we're going to help you get more 'in focus keeper' shots with a pro technique called zone focusing.  We'll give you a definition, some suggested applications and explain how we did it for a few previous shoots. Let's dive in...

Zone focusing in short is having an area (zone) in your frame that will be sharp and the rest out of focus. To find out exactly how much of the photo will be sharp of out of focus, many people look to apps or charts called hyperfocal distance. 

Applications for zone pre focus

Sport photography

This is personally my favourite application for zone pre focusing and it's pretty easy to do provided you can anticipate the action. I shoot alot of BMX riders at skateparks so I can ask them to redo the trick if I miss it. So we'll cover the controlled aspect first, then no control (e.g shooting a football game). The difference between control and no control is the ability to move/place the subject at your will. 

Using a BMX shoot as an example, the first thing I will do is ask my subject where their trick will be performed. This could be on a ramp so their airborne over it, jumping a box, down some stairs... you get the idea. 

Then I ask what the trick will be. Knowing the sport helps in this regard. For example, if I ask and the reply is "I'm going to do a 3whip" I know that I can't get super close to my subject because their bike is going to be spinning as to rotate 360 degrees in the air. Whereas a different trick would allow me to get super close without the fear of getting a bike in my face.

Next, we need to know what it looks like. Even if we know what the trick looks like generally, we need to find out which side it will be executed. Some people naturally rotate or trick a certain way and you don't want to miss out on the best angle because you didn't ask. 

After we know these, we can find the best location and angle. It is possible to do this first and have your model adapt, but I don't like doing it this way incase they are a little tentative and are just doing it for the camera. I'd much prefer to have them confident in what they are doing, and looking so doing it.

As you see, alot of this technique is planning and/or knowledge of your subject. Now we have all the information we need, we've found the best location and have chosen our angle, we can put our technique into practice. 

For our BMX example, the model is going to be doing a trick called a tailwhip (the rider holds the handle bars and rotates to bike's back end a full 360 degrees beneath them) over a ramp called a box. The trick will look best when our model's legs are perpendicular to the ground and the bike is the same or either side of their legs. This happens around halfway across the ramp. 

So how are we going to zone pre focus for this? We're going to ask our model to stand half way across to box and stand as tall as possible. With our camera on single point autofocus, we focus on our subject. I would focus one the face out of habit. We are then turning our focus to manual mode. This is either done on the camera or lens. If there's the option to do both, do both. We don't want any broken camera or lenses. We need our camera on a tripod to ensure the most consistent result as moving yourself will move the focus zone. For example, taking three steps forward after focusing, and not adjusting the focus accordingly, will move your focus plane three steps  in the same direction.

If you're not using a tripod, you can mark your shooting spot with a little piece of tape or a coin. Make sure it's at the tip of your toes to make it easier for yourself. This can also be done on your focus spot. A piece of tape could be placed on the floor, focused on, and the camera the put in manual focus mode.

What about shooting with this technique...? It's actually very simple once everything is set. A tripod with a cable release will make for the easiest method. The exposure will be set to suit the scene, and the camera set to a high burst mode. We then ask the model to do their thing and shoot. As the focus plane is pre set, hopefully you will get at least one sharp photo as the model passes through the focus zone. Provided you've taken a photo or some as they pass through...

We asked Gary where he would land, and watched as he done his initial backflip. We then put some tape on the floor, focused, switched to manual focus and removed the tape. The camera was on a tripod which allowed this sequence to be shot.

We asked Gary where he would land, and watched as he done his initial backflip. We then put some tape on the floor, focused, switched to manual focus and removed the tape. The camera was on a tripod which allowed this sequence to be shot.


Above, we looked at a controlled version of zone pre focus. Let's now see how it would work without control.

Even without the ability to control the action, most of the technique remains the same. We are still focusing on an area where we anticipate the action to be, but we may have to wait a while for the action to unfold or pass through our zone. This means we have to be ready or the shot will be missed. Again, knowing the sport you are shooting will be your best friend in these situations. As will patience. Lots of patience...

Just as a brief example of how this technique gets put into practice in the real world, let's be behind a finish line at the London marathon. Provided you don't move your position after focusing you can focus on the finish line ribbon, throw your camera AND lens into manual focus mode and wait. And wait. And hopefully not need the toilet... 

In the example above, the subject(s) will be in focus as they cross the finish line, even if they're the 521st person to cross, and even if the finish ribbon has disappeared. Again, having your camera and lens setup on a tripod with a cable release will show the true benefits of the whole combination through not needing to focus again.


Street photography

Applying our zone pre focus technique to street photography requires a little more skill and knowledge if we're trying to be inconspicuous. Obviously we can use the technique we've just learned, in that we focus on a point, switch to manual focus mode then wait for our opportune moment.

Here's a focus window ringed in purple

Here's a focus window ringed in purple

Another way is we can view the distance scale on our lens focus window, manually focus to a set distance and shoot. This way allows us to shoot from the hip (not bringing the camera to our eye) and draw less attention to ourselves. For this photography technique to work effectively, we're going to need a bigger depth of field. And aperture of f8 for example, should provide us with enough depth of field that we aren't 'missing' so many shots due to a too shallow depth of field (lot's of out of focus bits). Our lens choice and angle of shooting will have a big impact with this method. For example, if the subject is close, and we have the camera at hip level and angled up when shooting, the subject may be distorted. 

wedding photography

We have so many possible applications for our technique in wedding photography that you'll be spoilt for choice. From shooting the ceremony and the couple saying their vows to the first dance and even 'the formals' to an extent. One thing to keep in mind with this though, weddings are fast paced events with constant action and photo opportunities, so keeping your camera on a tripod will generally severely limit your speed and effectiveness to capture those candid photos. 

Saying there are ample opportunities to experiment is one thing, but we'll go the extra step and explain a few and how to go about taking advantage of them.

The first and main consideration with wedding photography is light. Where is it coming from, is it soft or harsh, and is there plenty to shoot in. We're basing it on the assumption that the ceremony at least will shot with natural light as flash can be obtrusive. Not only that, flash is generally disallowed during the ceremony.

We'll take shooting bride and bridesmaid group portraits as our first example. Depending on what the group will be doing, a continuous autofocus may struggle. Imagine the group are all holding a bouquet of flowers with their back to us. We want to get a shot of them spinning around to face the camera and pulling a face, or smelling their flowers. Continuous autofocus may not acquire focus as the back of the groups heads will probably lack contrast. So we're going to ask one of the group to turn around, focus on her face, throw our camera and lens into manual focus mode and have them all get ready for our shot. This way we only have to catch the action and not worry about missing shots because of no focus acquisition.

Another example of zone pre focus. Shot at around f8 and took the photo as they run through the focus area

Another example of zone pre focus. Shot at around f8 and took the photo as they run through the focus area

For our next example, it'll be the bride walking down the aisle. Having prior knowledge on your shooting subject really helps here. What do we mean by this? Well, I've shot enough weddings to know that the bride coming down the aisle will probably be crying, or at least close to tears. Also, the closer they get to their husband to be, the more they smile. Finally, when the couple sees each other for the first time, that'll be one of the most expression filled moments they will share. Not only of their day, but of their life. 

So knowing this, it benefits us by prioritising what we shoot. It is rare for the bride to slowly walk down the aisle, even when asked (I think it's a movie thing...), so again, auto focus may not always be the best option here. Especially if you have a slow focusing lens. Our pre focusing technique can be used here as a kind of two for one. If we plan on shooting a 'first look' shot (where the couple first sees each other) we can pre focus on the groom and throw our camera and lens into manual focus mode, then aim down the aisle. If using the focus window to gauge distances, then take a mental note of the distance (e.g 10ft). As our bride walks down the aisle and crossing our focus zone, we shoot. Then we are able to point at the groom and shoot a few frames before the bride reaches him without refocusing. This also means we are ready for when the couple's first look.

The above example may sound a little confusing at first but all we are essentially doing is focusing on a specific distance for one subject, then using that same distance on another subject within a very short time frame.