If you study the street photography work of Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand you will notice that their images have a soft dreamy quality most of the time. A unique low-contrast look in b&w that is the holy grail of street photography and loved by everyone – even if they don’t realize why.
How this look is achieved is simply the consequence of the technique of zone-focusing.
When you set the camera for a particular zone of focus, you get acceptability sharp images – within your chosen area, and outside this zone – a look which is slightly soft – which makes for that dreamy quality especially with film.
But even if you shoot digital with zone-focus you still get that same look, of course the light is very important, as it is with any photo..
But what is “zone-focus”?
Here’s a pretty good explanation, from the people over at WikiPedia…
The term “zone focus” is used, particularly in North America, to describe the technique of setting a fixed focal distance (turning off auto-focus), and often fixed aperture, hence fixing the depth of field, and then taking photographs at that distance; the DOF can be read off of the DOF scale on the focus ring, hence the term “zone”. This is particularly used in street photography, to allow rapid and candid “shooting from the hip” (shooting without composing in the viewfinder) and avoiding auto-focus lag.
In the image above, focus was manually set at a point of 1.4 meters. At the currently set aperture (f/11), everything from 1 to 3 meters will be in acceptable focus, everything outside of that range will be “blurred” (the greater the distance – in front or behind – the greater the blurred effect).
Okay… But how does that help with my street photography?
Using this technique, you are able to free yourself from the time delay of your auto-focus system, enabling you to raise your camera immediately and capture what you intend. You can also use this technique to “shoot from the hip”, which helps you get REALLY candid shots.
Suppose we had been photographing a rapidly changing street scene – or perhaps we were out trying to photograph a bunch of kids playing a pick-up neighborhood basketball game. Trying to critically focus on a particular subject would end up wasting a lot of time, and lots of blurry photographs. Street photography has to be quick, and opportunistic, and thus is a perfect application of this technique.
But… My lens does not have a DOF scale.
Unfortunately, most modern – inexpensive – lenses may not offer this feature. But there is another way around this problem. There are any number of DOF calculators out there, free to download for your home computer or smart phone. Utilizing one of these you can specify all the parameters present on a mechanical lens, and it will calculate the settings for you. Careful though, you need to know the actual sensor size in you particular camera to get accurate results.
Despite all the mind-numbing theory we just covered, in actual practice, using zone-focus couldn’t be easier. But, it’s best when used with a moderate wide-angle or normal lens. Zoom lens? Forget about it. But, IMO, you really shouldn’t be using a zoom for street scenes anyway. It’s much better to use a good fixed prime – and get close. Let your legs be your “zoom”.
I hope you found this information useful. We covered a lot here, so if you have questions, leave them in the comments section of this post, and I will do my best to answer them.