Manual focus technique


The main characteristic of rangefinder cameras like the Leica M’s is that they are manual focus. It might sound awkward as autofocus is nowadays a basic feature of even the cheapest compact cameras, yet manual focus does bring some clear advantage in my opinion.

First and above all, manual focus means that you are in full control. You can’t blame the camera for an out of focus shot, it is only about your skills and interpretation of a scene. I often feel a sense of accomplishment when I nail perfect focus on a complex scene. It does bring a lot of frustration too as focusing accurately and consistently a rangefinder is not easy. There, only practice and experience will help. Another advantage of manual focusing, especially with M rangefinders, is the ability to use the zone focus technique easily. Indeed, with the detailed distance scale and aperture ring located on the lens, you can prepare your shot without actually looking at a screen or bringing the camera to your eye. That turns out to be extremely useful in these situations where stealth is needed to get a candid shot. Finally, manual focusing will often be more precise than most auto-focus systems in low light environments. The limits here are the quality of your vision, not technology.

As said above, some skills are needed to focus a rangefinder quickly and consistently, especially wide open as the sharpness plane will be very thin. This series will therefore will cover the main focusing techniques I use while in the street with my lens wide open. Let’s start today by the most common one :

Focus through the viewfinder

Skill : basic
In focus rate : 99%
Shot style : static subjects, landscapes, portraits

The standard way of focusing a rangefinder. Bring the camera to your eyes, have the rangefinder patch coincide with the whole picture and hit the trigger. This way of focusing is perfect for static objects or landscapes. You have plenty time and you can fine tune your focus. Therefore it should result in a perfect focus in all instances. Nonetheless, do not forget that a slight re-framing after setting the focus will often result in the focus point moving slightly (indeed as the lens moves, so does the focus distance), so you’ll need to compensate with a slight move of your body.


Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at F2, 1/350, ISO160

Zone focus

Skill : normal
In focus rate : 90%
Picture style : candids

Zone focus is a very effective way to shoot with a rangefinder. Indeed, you manually chose the plane that want in focus by setting the distance and aperture on your lens. For example, set your 35mm lens (on full format camera) on 3 meters and an aperture of 5.6 and you’ll know by looking at the distance scale that the plane between 2 meters and 5 meters will be in focus (often referred to as the depth of field). So where does it lead us to ? To the point that you can set the focus by estimating the distance to your subject before actually bringing the camera to your eyes. No more need to focus in the viewfinder and a very valuable gain of time to take your shot, especially useful if you are after candids. Actually, you could spend a whole day without any need to focus your camera by setting the focus ring on 3 meters and the aperture on F11. Then everything between 1.8 and 7 meters would be in focus and would cover about any situations you will encounter in street photography. Easy isn’t it ? Apart from the loss of speed that would happen at F11, it also gets more complex when you like to shoot wide open as I do (with large apertures such a F1.4). Inded, the focus plane becomes very thin. For example, take the same 35mm lens at 3 meters with an aperture of F1.4 and your plane of focus now only ranges from 2.7 to 3.3 meters. This will create great blur effects in the background nevertheless your focus zone will be of only 60 centimeters and a wrong estimation of distance will fatally lead to a misfocused picture. Therefore if you are going to use zone focus with wide open lenses, you better learn to estimate distances very accurately.

Enough theory and here are two shots taken today to illustrate this technique. The first one portrays a young man in a relaxed position enjoying the sun in Rue St-Honoré. I wanted to get a candid shot and knew I would have to be quick before he reacted to my presence. Thus I mentally pre-framed the picture and located where I would position myself. I then estimated the distance that would separate him from me, that is 3 meters, and set the aperture to F2.8. Given there was no background and no blur opportunity, F2.8 would give me a plane of sharpness of 1 meter in a static situation, safe enough. Then all I had to do was to go to the postion I had previously identified, kneel down, frame and hit the trigger. By zone focusing, I gained a lot of time by not having to focus in the viewfinder. The man did see me, yet he did not have time to adjust his behaviour to my presence. The definition of a candid shot. (click on picture to enlarge)


Leica M8 with 35mm Summilux at F2.8, 1/4000, ISO160

The second shot shows a man smoking in front of a large fashion ad a bit further on Rue St-Honoré. This was a bit trickier since closing the lens to a smaller aperture would have meant a significant loss of speed and a risk of blurred shot. I therefore left the aperture at F1.4, positioned myself at 3 meters, quickly rose the camera to my eye and triggered. Again, the man did see me but did not have time to alter his expression and gesture. Another candid shot even if not fully in focus. 2.5 meters would probably have been a better distance estimate, yet I would say it did not impact too much on the shot. (click on picture to enlarge)


Leica M8 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/1000, ISO160

Focus by anticipation
Skill : advanced
In focus rate : 80%
Shot style : Moving subjects, preset compositions

Yesterday I wrote about how to preset your focus and then move into position to frame and trigger. Today’s focus technique is a variation of zone focus, yet in this case you will first position yourself, set the focus then wait for your subject to enter your frame. This method is most useful when facing fast moving subjects (bikes, cars, joggers… ) or whenever you have identified a specific background and wait for a subject to enter it. But let’s go directly to the pictures to illustrate that method.In the first picture taken on a bridge of the Canal St-Martin, I spotted this lady on her bike as she was stopped at a traffic light on the other side of the Canal. I therefore quickly identified the best composition possible from my position as moving around was not an option due to the imminence of her arrival. I then set the focus on one of the white stains on the ground (chewing gum residue I suppose) where I expected her to ride by. As she progressed towards me, I had to slightly modify my focus point as her path was different from the one I had expected initially. Yet as she entered my viewfinder, I was ready and only had to click. As you can tell from her dress, she was riding quite fast so a manual focus as she moved in the viewfinder would have resulted impossible, especially since my lens was wide open at F1.4. (click on picture to enlarge)


Leica M8 with 50mm Summilux asph at F1.4, 1/1000, ISO160

The second picture illustrates a variation of this technique, more adapted to situations where the subject will enter your frame close to you. Indeed in this case, it is less effective to pre-focus on a ground pattern since you will always re-frame significantly afterwards, which will in turn result in an overshoot of the real focus point (as stated by the laws of geometry). In this situation, it is best to simply estimate the distance at which your subject will be located in your composition and adjust the focus distance on your lens accordingly. In the picture below, I spotted this musician at a pedestrian crossing in front of the Saint-Augustin Church. I identified a potential composition with the church in the background and estimated that the boy would be in focus about 2 meters in front of me. I therefore set the focus distance on my lens and kept the aperture at F1.4 for a strong out of focus effect in the background. As this young musician finally entered my viewfinder, all I had to do was to remain steady and click. Obviously, this technique is not always successful as it relies a lot on your capacity to guess the path of your subjects. And often, your subjects will actually alter their paths unexpectedly and get out of your in focus zone resulting in a misfocused shot. Obviously, you could stop down your lens (smaller aperture such as F8) for a longer zone of focus, but remember that this series is all about wide open shots! (click on picture to enlarge)


Leica M8 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/350, ISO160

Collision path focusSkill : advanced
In focus rate : 50%
Picture style : subjects walking towards you

As you walk in a street, many of your potential subjects will be headed in your direction and pass by very close. That is especially true in towns with narrow sidewalks or tiny streets like one often encounters in Europe. With that method, you will set the focus on your lens at a given distance depending on how close you anticipate/want to get to your subject. Almost on a collision path, reason for the new found name for this technique. In my case, I usually set my 35mm lens at 2 meters and the 60mm at 3 meters. When I spot a potential subject coming towards me, I then raise the camera to my eyes in advance and aim the rangefinder center patch toward the face of the person. Then I let the subject near (on a collision path … reason for the name of this technique) until the two images are about to coincide in the viewfinder. At that moment, I’ll quickly reframe to the wanted composition and hit the trigger. Now make no mistake, and remember that this series is about focusing lenses at full aperture, this technique is not a very reliable one and one does need to practice a lot to get a good timing. Nevertheless, I find it a bit more effective then trying to estimate the distance to your subjects while both of you are moving. As a side note, one could argue that this technique will get you spotted easily by subjects. It is true in some cases, yet most people don’t really understand what is about to happen as you raise your camera. Therefore if your timing is good, you’ll still get a high rate of candids.

The picture below was taken next to the Mouling Rouge. I saw that girl in the distance coming towards me and also spotted the red color of the Moulin Rouge in the back. As she came close to me, I raised my camera and aimed the rangefinder patch towards her face until the images were about to coincide. At that point I slightly reframed to the right and hit the trigger. The focus ended up not 100% accurate nevertheless I believe it did not impact too negatively on the overall feel of the picture. Also notice the out of focus background, result of the lens opened at F1.2. (click on picture to enlarge)


Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.2, 1/4000, ISO640

Hailmary focus
Skill : for gamblers only
Hit rate : 20%
Picture style : Out of focus mainly …

I always liked the term Hail Mary pass commonly used in American Football. It refers to a long forward pass as an attempt to win the game as time expires. Success rate is less than 5%, but at least the losing team gives it a try. Same happens in street photography when a great potential scene suddenly unfolds quickly in front of you. Unluckily, your focus ring will often be in the wrong position. Therefore, in a desperate attempt to get the shot, rotate the focus ring blindly and … pray for the best. With time and practice, you’ll get a feel of which direction to turn the focus ring to and get some success now and then. To help in that matter, I do recommend lenses with a lever since it will give you a feel of where you focus is and where you are repositioning it to.

The shot below was taken on Place Clichy in front of a movie theater. I was looking at the “Be Bad” movie poster and had focused on it in search of a shot. Suddenly two girls appeared on my right. I had no time to pre-set my focus so went for my Hail Mary focus technique. I just pulled blindly on the lever with the intend to bring the focus distance to 1 meter. And obviously in this instance, I failed. Indeed the girls were not in focus as the ring actually ended up on 1.2 meters. I still like the shot, but it does illustrate the very low hit rate of such a technique. (click on picture to enlarge)


Leica M8 with 35mm Summicron IV at F2, 1/1000, ISO160

  16 Responses to “Manual focus technique”

  1. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this manual focus technique. Much appreciated. Now I should start practicing it too. Enjoy the rest of your round-the-world trip.

  2. Hey, this was an enjoyable read. Learnt a little bit as well. Thanks.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for sharing! ;)

  4. very good reading, Still as a 40 yer plus M shooter, I would add yet another technique: Focusing by body movement: You pre focus by feel & using the depth of field knowledge of your lens & aperture combo ” pre-set” the distance. without actually rising the camera to your eye, wait for the “right moment” ( I hate the HCB “decisive moment” blah blah). Fire the shutter and at the same time check if you were right in your guess of focus, then just move your body slightly to correct the distance or framing. very simple.

    • Hi Jukka, this is correct, thanks. This is especially effective for close up shots and portraits.
      Cheers, Yanick

      • …And one thing more: If you move the focus (lever) from infinity to closer, the “split image”-in small window- moves from left to right. Usually it is enough to get close enough, to fire in the right moment. when you back up with your body, the split image moves also to right. It is good to get “into your spine” the feel where the focus is. Truly “instant autofocus” by mind!

  5. I am curious as to why you state the advantage of "manual zone focussing" is especially evident with M Rangefinders ?  What does an "M Rangefinder" have to enhance manual zone focussing over a non-M rangefinder or over a manual focus SLR such as a Nikon F2 ?

    • Damen, as I wrote below, it is the detailed distance scale on the lenses that make a difference. I shoot mainly at f1.4 and zone focus at this aperture. I need to be able to set the lens precisely to 1.8m, 2.5m for example. 99% of current cameras have either no distance markings or they are very limited (1, 3 and infinity). Not that it is impossible, but not as easy. Obviously if one zone focuses at F8, it will be easier with any camera.
      Cheers, Yanick

  6. One of the most informative pieces I have read on using a rangefinder camera effectively. Thank you!

  7. Very nice article and tips. I am new to the rangefinder and now I am using a Leica M8. How do I do metering with one of these techniques?

    • Hi Fisto, I wrote a similar article called “manual exposure technique”. In case you haven’t read it, it might answer your question. Metering is completely independant from focusing. It always comes before since I shoot in manual mode. I look at the scene, chose exposure setting, then do the focusing. The lightmeter can be a good option to learn. Cheers, Yanick

  8. Your site and photos are inspiring and your sharing of information is  truely generous.  I have spent so much time here today and have improved my approach to taking photographs.  I appreciate that you may not want to share your colour technique necessarily but do you have any advice.  I currently use Lightroom 3. Regards Patrick

  9. Thanks for sharing these techniques. I am new to Leica and have learnt so much from this page that I have bookmarked it to read over again and again.

  10. Great stuff here, thank you.  I had been on SLR's for the last 30 years and just switched to a Rangefinder (Leica).  This is really going to help me out with new techniques.

  11. Very well written article. I’m really enjoying your site. Its obvious you have passion for photography. Regards from Montevideo.