Those are the two key words you need to know about focusing with a Leica. If you’ve used a rangefinder before, you already know this; if you haven’t, then read on.
Leica cameras don’t focus like the DSLRs, ILC (Interchangeable Lens Compacts like the Olympus E-P2), or point-and-shoot digitals that we’re all used to. For one, Leica lenses are all manual-focus lenses. For another, unlike most other digital cameras today, you’re not focusing through the lens (TTL). You’re actually using a separate viewfinder to do the framing and focusing for you.
Take a look at the image below. It’s a bit hard to capture the view through a Leica’s viewfinder, but see that slightly bright rectangle near the top-left of the circle? That’s your focusing aid. Now, see how the part of the poster that’s in that rectangle is doubled? Well, on a Leica, you adjust the focus ring of the lens till the two images merge into one.
That’s the first way to focus a Leica, and when you’re at a wide-open aperture like f/2.5, it’s the surest way to gain critical focus. But that’s not how zone focusing works.
Google defines zone focusing as “A way to focus that utilizes the depth of field scale rather than the actual distance from camera to subject. Zone focusing is most useful for candid, street photography.” To understand this, let’s take a look at the lens barrel of a Leica.
In the image below, you’ll see that there are a number of markings on the barrel. First, closest to the business end of the lens, is the aperture adjustment. In this case, we see that it’s set to f/11.
Next is the focus ring, and this is where that whole zone focusing thing comes in. Using the tab shown in the image below, you adjust that ring to match the markings at the very base of the lens barrel. Those markings, you’ll notice, are marked with the numbers 4, 8, 11, 16. These are aperture markings, and are arranged so that the get progressively higher in number as they move out from the center of the scale.
In the image shown, I’ve arranged the focus ring so that the infinity mark on the lens rests over the f/11 marker. Looking at the other side of the scale, we see that the 3-meter mark on the focus scale is right over the f/11 marker.
That means that the lens is now focused in a way that all objects between 3 meters and infinity will be acceptably sharp, as long as the aperture remains at f/11.
That’s zone focusing for you. You determine your zone of coverage, the range within which all subjects will be acceptably sharp, then use the markings and the focus ring to set it. If I changed the aperture to f/8, for example, I would get a range of something like just over 3 meters to somewhere short of infinity.
Is this system precise? No, not if you’re trying to get critical focus on a specific object at a close distance, or if you’re trying to shoot at wide-open apertures. But if you’re a landscape or street photographer, zone focus is your friend. It allows you to quickly raise your camera to your eye and snap off a shot without having to wait till you manually focus your Leica. Set that thing to f/11 and everything from about 10 feet to infinity is acceptably sharp.
Focusing with the Leica was perhaps one of my challenges. All too often, I was unsure whether I really was getting images that were sharp enough; it took a while to get used to trusting the zone focus system, and even longer to get to a point where I wasn’t constantly peering through the viewfinder and adjusting the focus ring to zero onto a subject, completely changing the focus range I’d set moments ago.
Yet once I got used to it, the use of the Leica as a street shooter’s dream camera started to make more sense. When you use zone focus, it’s just lift, frame, shoot. Assuming you’re not horrible at estimating distances, there’s a pretty good chance that your shot will be spot-on. In the image below, taken in Sausalito, CA, I fixed the aperture at f/16, marked it off so that I had a range of between 2 meters and infinity, and shot away. As you can see, he and the background elements are all in sharp focus.
As DSLR shooters, we’ve gotten used to isolating our subjects by shooting with the aperture wide open and blurring the background. Zone focusing doesn’t truly lend itself to shooting wide open, which is why you have to get better at framing your subjects so that even sharp background objects don’t distract from your main subject. I included the photo above precisely because it’s an example of bad framing; the background objects do distract from the main subject.
In the end, focusing with the Leica takes a bit of getting used to. What I found most remarkable was that zone focus was a fantastic aid when shooting landscapes. While shooting at Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands, I don’t think I touched the focus ring once after I set zone focus.
Zone focus was one of those things that was an “Aha!” moment, as are a lot of things about this camera system. Things that initially don’t make sense suddenly do, and preconceptions that I had going into this project often got broken to pieces, leading to a lot of frustration and angst.
Next up, The Leica Diary, Part IV – An Unexpected Thing or Two.