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April 1, 2013
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Have you ever cursed your camera for missing that special moment in the streets? Do you ever struggle to get the subject quickly in focus before the fleeting moment is lost forever in the aether? Well then why not try manual focus? Below is a brief guide to a few key manual focus techniques that can help you capture the decisive moment.

Prime Lenses

Before we can look at the benefits of manual focus, we first have to discuss the use of prime lenses. The reason prime lenses have become a staple of street photographers is simple: speed. Without the need to select a focal length, and forcing yourself to work with one field of view (FOV) you can drastically reduce the time necessary for framing the subject. Of course, the single focal length puts a constraint on what the photographer can do. It also forces us to use our feet. You might think this can slow things down, and zooming would allow you to change perspective more quickly. However, by practicing with the constraint in place, proper positioning becomes second nature. As with the rest of the techniques described in this article, the goal is to make the technique automatic, and therefore, fast.

I don't feel it's necessary to go on with the upsides of prime lenses, since most of you are already converts, or even started out on single focus lenses. So on to manual focusing!

Manual focus, zone focusing, and hyper-focal distance

Manual focus might seem like a daunting prospect, but it is not as difficult as it sounds and it can really open up many possibilities when it comes to street photography. The main advantage of manual focusing over autofocus is speed. Yes, it can be faster to manually focus rather than letting the camera seek focus automatically, regardless of whether you're shooting with a high grade camera body or not (sports photography, certain wildlife photography, etc. are exceptions due to the erratic motion of the subjects). This is especially true in good light because it allows shooting at f/8 or f/11. At small apertures the Depth of Field, or DOF, becomes large. With sharp lenses, one does not need to nail focus exactly on the subject. Even if focus is slightly off, the subject will be sharp due to the large DOF. When using auto-focus, the camera will search for perfect sharpness and then release the shutter.

With practice, one can very quickly guess the approximate best focus with great speed an accuracy. In addition, depending on the auto-focus settings (matrix, spot, etc.) the camera might not focus on the desired point in the frame. The photographer has more control over what should be in focus, and most importantly can make the decision more quickly with manual focus. There's no need to mess around with focus select points and little joysticks on the back of the camera body. Selecting the focus point happens instantly in your mind.

But this isn't the real advantage of using manual focus. Modern AF systems have come a long way, and can nail focus on eyes and faces even in extreme conditions. The real advantage comes with having the focus already setting before you even know what your subject is. Then there is no need to focus at all.

To achieve this, we can use a technique known as zone focusing. We can select a 'zone' between various focus ranges, say between 3 meters and 5 meters. Then you position yourself in such a way as to keep the subject in that range. You can also take advantage of the large DOF at high apertures, such as f/8, and maximize it to the point that no focusing is necessary beyond a certain range.

This is how it's done: all manual focus lenses have a gauge depicting the DOF at small apertures. It will look something like this: 16 — 11 – 8 - | - 8 – 11 — 16. On the focusing ring, the focal distance is depicted in meters (and feet) like this: 5m 3m 2m 1m .5m .3m. Focus at infinity is marked by ∞. So together the two scales look like this:

Focusing01 by burningmonk

For example, at f/8 we can set the focus to place 5m at the left '8' mark, like this:

Focusing02 by burningmonk

This gives us a focus zone between 5 meters and 3 meters. That's a pretty big area in which everything will be in sharp focus. You might think it's difficult to consistently place subjects within this range, but you'd be surprised how quickly you can learn the effective focus range of a particular favorite lens. This is also where prime lenses become a key to the techniques. It can be done with a zoom lens, but the varying POV makes it difficult to instantaneously frame the subject as desired, which mitigates the speed advantage of zone focusing.

We can also take this one step further. Say we set the aperture to f/11 and set the focus to place infinity at the left '11' mark, like this:

Focusing03 by burningmonk

Now everything from infinity down to ~2 meters will be in focus at f/11. So, as long as we keep the subject more than ~2 meters away from the camera, the subject will always be in focus. In fact, everything beyond ~2m will be in focus. In this way, we have entirely eliminated the need for focusing in bright lightning conditions! This is known as 'hyper-focal distance.'

Of course, we don't always shoot in bright light. Sometimes we need to stop down to f/2 or less. In this case, hyper-focal distance is not a viable option, but zone focusing is still effective. Say you set you focus to 5m at f/2. The zone has become quite small, being only approximately 5 meters. However, by consistently practicing with the same prime lens, you can even learn to shoot from the hip with this technique and get razor sharp results.

Shooting from the hip and quick draw

Once you take advantage of zone focus and hyper-focal distance you can easily draw the viewfinder to your eye, compose, and release the shutter, without taking any time to focus. In addition to this, you can even shoot 'from the hip', that is, without looking through the viewfinder. At first, this might look like a way of simply getting lucky. However, with the assumption that a prime lens is being used, you can learn that particular lens' field of view. With practice, you can predict what will be in the frame without even looking through the viewfinder. This is very difficult to master, and I don't suggest that anyone relies on this technique exclusively. But, I believe it can be a useful tool in your photographic toolbox. Finally, being forced to memorize the lens' field of view, allows for very fast composition and subject placement. In conjunction with zone focusing, this technique allows split second decision making: crucial when capturing the decisive moment!

And this of course is the crux of it all: you want to be absolutely ready to capture the moment without hesitation when it happens. The above techniques, with a lot of targeted practice, can help you do so.

Here are some photos that I took by using these methods. In fact, I feel that I would not have been able to get these these shots had I not used manual focus.

L O S T by burningmonk 1 9 6 9 by burningmonk L E A D E R by burningmonk K I S S by burningmonk X X I by burningmonk Y E L L O W by burningmonk

Of course, I understand that manual focus is not for everyone, and not for every situation. But it can be a very useful skill as well as a fun new way to shoot in the streets.

Add a Comment:
Salemik Featured By Owner Nov 25, 2013
Nice work. I am trying to have a go at this with my D300s and a Nikon 50mm 1:1.8.… but just can't get results anything like yours. I see many of your images are ISO 3200, are you fixing it there? or are you using Auto iSO?. I also have issues with PS CS6 ignoring any "Picture controls" I set in camera such as "Vivid". I end up having to save images as "Tiff" within Nikon software then import into PS. Got any tips? :) I read your text on shooting "Street" and would like to be able to shoot people but as a lifelong misanthrope I find shooting people close up on the street or on a train a bit intimidating. I realise your probably busy but any shooting tips would be great.
burningmonk Featured By Owner Nov 25, 2013   Photographer
I use auto ISO with 3200 set as the cap and the shutter speed set to a minimum of 1/250. So as the scene gets darker, the camera lowers the shutter speed until it hits 1/250, then it starts raising ISO until it hits 3200, then it continues to lower shutter speed. I believe this setting exits in the D300s as well. As a result, a lot of photos end up at 3200 ISO.

As for picture controls. I set Vivid in camera as it makes my RAWs look better when I'm sorting them in ViewNX. But when I go to edit in Photoshop I don't use picture controls. I feel that starting with a neutral RAW file is best. If you do want to use picture controls in Adobe Camera Raw, then you can set them in "Camera Calibration" (third tab from the right) and then select Vivid in one of the drop down menus.

As far as shooting manually, if you're using that 50mm on a crop sensor, you're at two disadvantages. The first is that it's an equivelant 75mm. I'm not sure about the technical reason for this, but I find zone focusing and hip shooting to be a lot harder with longer focal lengths. The second issue is that the lens is optimized for Auto Focus. Specifically, the throw on the focus rings is very short. This means the camera doesn't have to turn the lens very far when focusing. In addition, the focus ring is very loose and even has a bit of wiggle. This results in faster AF. However, it reduces accuracy and consistency in manual focusing, which makes the zone focusing techniques, that I write about above, much more difficult.

They key to hip shooting with zone focus is a consistent focus setting that allows you to practice. If the lens is focused differently for each shot, it's nearly impossible to memorize the appropriate range for each focus setting, particularly if you're shooting wide open.

If you're serious about manual focus techniques, I highly recommend a dedicated manual lens, such as this one:… or the one I use:…

All the technical points aside, getting a certain look depends very much on the light in the shooting environment. I spent years shooting in Tokyo with poor results until I started paying close attention to light and how it affects the subjects. The techniques I use are a result of that sensitivity to the lighting conditions. But this is a another article that I'm intending to write some day.

Finally, regarding shooting people. I still get a bit scared and nervous at time. It's not easy and it only comes with lots and lots of practice. You just have to keep on the edge of your comfort zone and keep pushing it further.

Hope that helps! If you have any other questions, please ask! :D
Salemik Featured By Owner Nov 26, 2013

Thanks for the reply. I'll have a go at setting the camera as you suggest. You are of course totally right about my lens not being the right one and I'm always forgetting about the x1.5 crop factor. I was originally after 50mm-f1.4 but somehow ended up buying the wrong one. The voigtlander 40mm looks good.

I live in the countryside so I'll probably have to go to London to have another go and maybe have a bit more success than last time. Hopefully the noise will be good cover :) I've tried it around my home town but It's too shady. I'm so envious of you being able to shoot in Japan, it looks so colourful.

Thanks again for the reply.

burningmonk Featured By Owner Dec 3, 2013   Photographer
No worries. Good shooting! :D
souk1501 Featured By Owner May 1, 2013
Thank you for sharing this tip. I am excited to give it a try.
burningmonk Featured By Owner May 6, 2013   Photographer
It's a pleasure! Thanks for reading! :D
Art2mys Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2013
:thumbsup: :clap:
burningmonk Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2013   Photographer
Glad you like it! :D
Pierre-Lagarde Featured By Owner Apr 3, 2013
Thanks so much, you're the best :thumbsup:
burningmonk Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2013   Photographer
Glad you like the article! :D
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