One of the perks of working at B&H is that sometimes you get to play around with high-end gear that you would never be able to afford yourself. That’s been the case for me during the past six weeks, since Leica let me borrow the incredible Leica 10-P and Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH. lens while I worked on a promotion with the company. This was my first experience spending quality time with a Leica rangefinder, and with all the mystique that comes along with it.
The beauty of the Leica rangefinder system is in its simplicity. It’s laid out ergonomically, and everything is where you would expect it to be. Each physical control on the camera has an essential purpose, like shutter speed and aperture. No fiddling around to change the ISO in the dark on the M10-P, as with some cameras I know (yes, Sony, I’m talking to you).
While most modern camera systems challenge you to harness their complexities, the Leica M system challenges you to forgo the modern safety nets that we all take for granted, like autofocus and image stabilization. In other words, the Leica rangefinder is an easy camera to learn, but a tough camera to master. One thing that provided temporary relief from my mild-to-moderate autofocus-withdrawal symptoms is a technique commonly referred to as zone focusing.
Sworn by Leica rangefinder-wielding street photographers near and far, zone focusing is a manual focusing technique that allows you to pre-focus the camera to a set range, making it easier to shoot scenes that have a lot of fast action, like a busy New York street corner or my daughter running around in our backyard catching fireflies. It takes some getting used to, and understanding the “exposure triangle,” or the relationship between aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, is definitely a prerequisite, but once you get a feel for it, it can be very effective.
How Zone Focusing Works
Ever wonder what those cryptic etchings on your manual focus lens actually mean? Let’s take a look at the Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 pictured above. While the location of these controls may vary, on this lens, the ring at the top, closest to the front element, allows you to set your aperture, which I have set to f/8. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably aware that the smaller the aperture to which the lens is set, the higher the f-stop value and the greater the depth of field. Now, just below the aperture ring is the focus ring, which allows you to set the distance of the focal point. In this example, I have the focal point set to 5 feet, as indicated by the small upside down “T” symbol on the scale directly below the focus ring that’s pointing to the “5” (in yellow).
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. If you take a close look at this scale, you’ll notice that each aperture value that the lens can be set to is represented as a range, or zone. You’ll notice that an aperture value of f/1.4 has a very small zone, or shallow depth of field, and in this example, the scale shows that if you’re set to f/1.4, your subject needs to be at exactly 5 feet to be in focus. Now let’s take a look at the other apertures depicted on the scale. For instance, if you set the lens to f/8, as it is in this picture, you’ll see that the scale shows a focal range between about 4 and 7 feet away from the lens. This means that anyone or anything that comes within that 3-foot zone, from a minimum of 4 feet away and a maximum of 7 feet away, will be in focus.
f/8 and Be There
The example above shows a fairly shallow 3-foot depth of field, which is great for close-range shots where you don’t mind if your photo has a blurry background, but if you’re shooting candid photos on a busy street corner, or in the backyard chasing your kids around, it’s going to be relatively difficult to get your subjects in focus.
In the picture below, I kept the aperture setting exactly as it was in the first example, but I’ve set the point of focus to 15 feet. Now, if you take a look at f/8 on the scale, you’ll see that we have a focus zone ranging from 8 feet to infinity. As you can imagine, it’s far easier to get a decent-looking candid street photo with this setting than it would be using our previous setting, which only had a 3-foot zone of acceptable focus.
I say “acceptable focus” because the focal point, in this case 15 feet, will always be the sharpest point in the frame, technically speaking. However, anything between 8 feet and infinity should appear in a state that most people would describe as “in focus.” Sharpness is subjective, and tastes vary, but as a general rule of thumb, everything in your zone of focus will be relatively sharp.
Another thing I should point out is that the lens settings and resulting focus zones discussed above only apply to lenses with a focal length of 35mm. The longer the focal length, the narrower the depth of field at any given aperture, while the wider the focal length, the wider the depth of field at any given aperture. However, zone focusing works best with lenses that have a focal length of 35mm or wider, because these focal lengths will give you more depth of field to work with at lower aperture settings.
One thing I’ll say about using zone focusing versus using autofocus, is that when you get the shot, it feels even more gratifying. When you shoot this way, you’re doing the work, not the camera, and there’s really a sense of “I got it right” when you nail it.
Thanks for reading this beginners guide to zone focusing. I encourage you to ask any questions you may have in the Comments section, below.