Convenience and spontaneity of zone-focusing.

All the images included in this article are protected by copyright on behalf of each respective author.

Many thanks to Gillian Bowman, who reviewed this article.

When turning the pages of a photography volume, whether it is by Yosef Koudelka, Lee Friedlander or Alex Webb, one can immediately identify how these photographers have made sapient use of the two major technical elements of photography itself: focal apertura and the effect that it has on depth of field.

Although I am fascinated by the expert use of a shallow depth of field to isolate the portrayed subject, every situation requires a careful evaluation of the specific technical settings that might harm the final outcome. The presence of several elements in focus predispose the viewer to interprete the space within the bidimensional medium in which it is located, enabling the imagination to expand the dimensions of such space beyond the physical limits of the real world: the subject is plunged in and absorbed by the background, embedding itself within in and enriching it. The eye is not fooled, but the perspective is only secondary to the narrative function of that is portrayed.

© Photography by John Upton
Fig.1 – © “Photography” by John Upton: the increase in focal aperture corresponds to the decrease in depth of field. This example shows how, at constant ISO (i.e. the sensitivity to light of the photographic medium), the variation of the focal aperture is directly proportional to the shutter speed (or inversely proportional to the exposure time): all the still elements (e.g. the pavement) in the first photograph are in focus, while the birds are blurred as they moved during the long exposure; the exposure time in the third photograph was much shorter, therefore the birds are in sharp focus even though they are moving. At the same time the background is blurred, as the depth of field is reduced by the larger aperture.

On the technical standpoint, the increase in focal aperture corresponds to a decrease in depth of field (Fig.1): once the aperture is at its maximum, the most light flows through the lens, but it does with several different inclinations such that only what is close to the optical plane of focus is sharp; while if the aperture is reduce, the angles with which the light flows in are similar in more planes of depth – therefore there is more depth of field (Fig.2).
Fig.2 – © Coinimaging: the increase in focal aperture corresponds to the decrease in depth of field, usually divided in 1/3 in the foreground and 2/3 in the background.

Regarding convenience and spontaneity in terms of being productive and shooting, more depth of field allows one to avoid concentrating on the actual focusing. The whole process becomes more fluid and instinctive – more observant of the artistic aspects that influence the final outcome, such as composition, understanding of the light distribution and emotional perceptiveness to what is seen through the lens hopefully impressing both the film and the observer.

If a certain focal aperture is set – and one entrusts a constant ISO and a semi-automatic mode to regulate the shutter speed in accordance to the focal aperture — the shooter can forget about any technical aspect and concentrate on his own voice.

An example of that is the lens in Fig.3, which, at focal aperture ƒ/16, allows sharp focusing from a distance of 0.6m to the optical infinite, The photographic process can therefore regress to a state of cognitive innocence. The technical aspects will always remain immensely important in photography, but ignoring them canallow the photographer to shoot without limits – other than not getting closer than 0.6m from the subject.

NCM_3260_2 (Web)
Fig.3 – The white box shows the extension of the hyper-focal (i.e. area of sharp focusing) at f/16 for the Leitz 21mm ƒ/4 lens: from 0.5m to 5m.

The choice to use a higher depth of field is not limited solely to matters of convenience and of spontaneity, but it is also bound to artistic experession.. As opposed to the isolation of the subject that is often used in portraits – where the subject is rendered as such as that his visual consistency is different from that of what, therefore, does not really surround him – street photography and reportage “do not allow” out-of-focus elements, since all that is accorded to be in the picture frame is key in supporting the content of the photograph.

© Josef Koudelka
Fig.4 – © Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka wrote two major masterpieces: Gitans/Gypsies and Exiles. Both of them are the result of many years of work (i.e. 10+) – years that were marked by the photographer’s to the cause, to the point that, in order to photograph the country (i.e. Czechoslovakia) where he was born, he spent all his energy to live side by side to the subject of his photography projects. He ended up spending many pleasant days throughout a period of ten years in Rom camps and sleeping more than once in the Magnum Photos offices.

Koudelka’s photographs usually take advantage of the great depth of field to create context around the portrayed subject, whereas the context is a means for sentiment and closeness (Fig.4): if the background was not there, the man would not be so lonely, the hand would not be part of the history of Prague and the kids would appear to be too dominant to avoid being laughable.

© Lee Friedlander
Fig.5 – © Lee Friedlander

Comparably to Koudelka, Lee Friedlander is well-known for his timeless dedication – mostly let out through never-ending trips around the US territory and constant experimentation. From the 50s to nowadays, he engraved America on his skin and on the film, by capturing its people and its places.

Friedlander’s use of the depth of field is focused on creating a context that can result in enriching both the photograph and the reality that is portrayed. Without such context, the street sign would not be able to take advantage of ubiquity on several dimensional layers and Friedlander would not be able to dive into one of the several less-reknowned realities that were slowly “abandoned” – although metaphorically – by America (Fig.5).

© Alex Webb
Fig.6 – © Alex Webb

Martin Parr sets himself apart from many others as he uses depth of field to place his many subjects on different layers of the same photograph, instead of creating an actual context for the main subject. Although there are intermediate choices, Parr is extremely strict regarding the above mentioned topic and always attempts to give the same importance to all the subjects in one of his pictures: there is never any predominance among them, as the spatial dimension takes the lead over the context surrounding the subjects on the final result (Fig.6). What now seems to be just an exercise in style, also is an expression of the interpretation of photography as narrative.

Compared to Koudelka that used to tell the history of Czechoslovakia and of its people, and to Friedlander that used to sing of his American, Parr is storyteller and narrates about what the observer can see in his photographs.

All the aspects that have been described above are present in each of any of all the above mentioned photographers’ pictures, but, based on analytical purposes, some have been partially set aside in order to focus on those that are more preponderant in each of the photographers’ production: Koudelka, Friedlander and Parr are examples among many artists that dedicated their strength to give voice to their thoughts and to those of the viewers of their images. Zone-focusing is just an easy trick that can be helpful to ease and speed up a practice that – as any other kind of artistic mean – has the praiseworthy gift of making tactile what is intangible, and abstract what is bound to the weight of reality. Photography does not aspire to be above any other art, nor does it claim to make history. It is just what can tone a voice, and give it depth, context and form.

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