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What is Zone Focusing? And Why Is It Still Relevant To Photographers Today?

By Anthony Thurston on September 27th 2014

In this day and age, auto-focus is so quick and accurate that there is little reason to manual focus in most situations. So much so, in fact, that lenses and cameras nowadays hardly even have the features necessary to accurately manual focus even if you wanted to. This has lead to techniques like Zone focusing falling by the wayside.

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So, if modern technology has virtually left manual focusing behind, what is zone focusing and why is it still relevant today? Well, to oversimplify it, zone focusing is using the distance and depth of field scales on your lens, in combination with the aperture, to quickly and easily nail focus on a subject. The problem with many (most) modern lenses, is that they no longer have these features on the lens – so how is zone focusing still relevant?

If you are like me, and like using old vintage manual focus lenses, either on your SLR  or mirrorless camera, zone focusing is a technique that can help you nail focus quickly, and fairly accurately without relying on the LCD to try and tell if you are in focus or not. Specifically with mirrorless cameras, since there is no optical viewfinder, you must rely on an LCD to try and tell what is in focus when using old vintage lenses. Some cameras have handy 100% zoom features in live view that can help, but even with those, it can be difficult to nail focus quickly. That is where zone focusing comes in.

Using the markings on the lens, with the approximate distance to your subject in mind, you can quickly and accurately nail sharp focus in no time. The video below is a great overview of zone focusing using Fuji‘s system (but is applicable to to any lens with the correct markings).

This has helped me a great deal since moving to using almost exclusively vintage manual focus lenses on my mirrorless EOS-M camera bodies. Using this system, in conjunction with zooming to 100% in live view, has really helped improve the speed with which I can nail focus on these tiny mirrorless bodies.

I highly recommend practicing it and giving it a try if you are into using old vintage lenses.

Terms: #Manual Focus

Anthony Thurston is a photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area specializing in Boudoir. He recently started a new project, Fiercely Boudoir to help support the growing boudoir community. Find him over on Instagram. You may also connect with him via Email.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Graham Curran

    The lead photo brought back memories of all my Zuiko OM lenses.

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  2. Scott Pacaldo

    zone focusing is a street photographer’s friend. nice article!

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  3. Derek Schwartz

    Isn’t it funny that just because the technology behind photography has changed dramatically in the last 15 years or so, that time-proven techniques like zone focusing would no longer be relevant?
    I’m as guilty as anyone of doing that. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I find I’m increasingly drawn to older tech?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Yep, for some reason I actually ENJOY going out to shoot landscapes with my old Nikkor AIS manual focus lenses moreso than any of the new-age high-tech stuff. Even if the newest lenses are sharper, the tools and technique themselves are part of the craft, part of the art. The whole reason we practice photography is because it brings us happiness. Why not do whatever allows us to enjoy the whole process, from start to finish, even if it’s quirky or “oldschool” or whatever? :-)

      =Matt=

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  4. Matthew Saville

    This is exactly what I do for 90% of my wedding reception dance floor shooting, when shooting with my ultra-wide lenses. Works amazingly!

    =Matt=

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  5. Austin Swenson

    I have an old zeiss ikon rangefinder that I’m gonna have to dust off and practice this with…

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  6. Clark Linehan

    Use to use the technique all the time when I was using primarily single focal length lenses on medium format cameras, all of which had depth of field scales on them. Now, just about never as there are far fewer single focal length lenses, especially wide to moderately wide, or any lenses that have DOF scales on them.

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  7. Kim Farrelly

    Love my old lenses on my dslr, the lack of focusing screen gets me though, I’m a viewfinder kind of guy. So I still find myself using distance scale when setting up the shot. I guess thats why I loved shooting with the X-T1 so much.

    On another note Anthony, have you tried Magic Lantern on your M?

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  8. Chuck Eggen

    Still relevant for my Zeiss 100mm F2

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  9. Peter McWade

    I will be practicing that for sure.

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  10. John Cavan

    Lots of really good manual focus lenses still being made, usually for wider angles mind you. So, even in the era of modern AF systems there remains a place for the dinosaur in us. ;)

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    • Anthony Thurston

      Yeah John, lots of good manual focus lenses being made still. My point was just that the majority of AF lenses coming out now have manual focusing as an afterthought.

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  11. Eric Sharpe

    I use zone focusing on my d5100. Since it doesn’t have a focus motor built-in, some of my lenses are manual only, on that camera. It works great. It’s one less thing to worry about when composing a shot.

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