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Hello there, friends! I’m mixing it up today: I decided to record a video rather than my usual typing! I had a lot of fun making this, and I hope it’s helpful.
In the video below, I talk about how to zone focus on manual-focus lenses.
Psst! If you’re working on your manual focus, you might want to check out my post and video on how to use focusing screens, too.
We’ll cover what zone focusing is, how to use it on your manual lens & camera, what kinds of photography situations it’s great for—and when it’s not so great.
(Also, you get to see the Minolta X-700 film camera I love to travel with—its first appearance after I finally got it fixed!)
An important note: zone focusing itself is an easy technique to use, but it is not for camera beginners.
Depending on where you are in your photography journey, zone focusing could be a game changer, or it could seem totally arcane to you. To get the most out of it, you need to understand how aperture works first—which means you need to know how manual mode on your camera works!
If that’s you and you want to up your manual focus game, then watch away!
P.S. I’ve gotten a few questions about whether you can use zone focusing with autofocus lenses, too.
You totally can! It does take more work, though.
Here’s the thing: manual-focus lenses have both an aperture dial AND a focus dial, plus the handy guide to your zones etched right between them, which zone focusing is pretty quick and easy. That’s what I’m talking about here, and it’s the fastest way to get the hang of zone focusing.
Most modern-day autofocus lenses don’t have that aperture dial anymore, and most don’t have those handy zone markings, either. At most they’ll have one or two: the older the lens is, the better your chances that it will have markings you can actually use.
Check out the difference between my autofocus lenses and my manual-only lenses:
To the furthest left on the left-hand image is my present-day 35mm Nikkor lens. It has no aperture ring and only one zone marking for F/16. I never even look at those marks, since the distance they cover isn’t really clear. Even when one end is at the infinity mark, the other end doesn’t quitteee make it to the next marking, which makes it next to useless. Plus I never shoot at F/16 anyway!
For comparison, next to the 35mm is my older autofocus 85mm lens, which actually does still have an aperture ring (the newest versions don’t). It has more useful markings for zone focusing—but still only two. I find F/11 more useful than F/16, and I appreciate that you can see more focus distances than on the 35mm lens. Even so, I don’t find myself using it much.
Plus, both of these lenses have great autofocus, and honestly I love me some good autofocus a lot of the time!
Now, compare that to allllllllllllll those markings on the two manual-focus lenses on the right. You just get so. much. more. information there! Which makes zone focusing with these a LOT easier.
Psst! Wondering why I have so many lenses, and what kind of impact different focal lengths make? I have a post for you here!
All that said, there is a formula you can use if you want to do zone-focusing with an autofocus lens, even if it doesn’t have markings.
You need to start with this information:
- What kind of camera do you have? And/or, what kind of sensor does it have? (eg. full-frame, APS-C, etc)
- What focal distance are you shooting at? (Prime lenses make this part easier in action, but if you pay attention to how zoomed-in you are, you can make this work on a zoom. It’s more complicated, though.)
Then, you can plug it in to something like this table from PhotoPills I’m including below.
I’d recommend choosing “DoF Near/Far Plane” for the Calculate option rather than the “Total DoF” default. (DoF stands for depth of field.) And of course, pick whatever units of measurement make the most sense for you!
All that’s left to do is scroll until you find an F stop you’d like to shoot at, or a distance you’d like to shoot at! If you’re looking at the “Near/Far Plane” numbers, the top number in each box is the closest your camera will get good focus, and the number underneath it is the furthest.
And voilà—easy as that! Write down a couple of your favorites and try them out in the field!
If you try zone focusing after watching this, or if you’ve tried it before, how did it go? Let me know in the comments!