tips for learning to judge distance

Discussion in 'Leica and Rangefinders' started by brambor, Apr 13, 2005.

  1. I'm lousy at judging distance, thus lousy at prefocusing. I'm looking at some tips that would help me improve this technique (aside from the obvious one)
  2. I use footsteps... each footstep being about one yard. Guesstimate how many steps there are to your subject.

    Also you can pick out something that is about the same distance away from you as your intended subject and focus on it.

    Hope this helps... I know these are kinda obvious.

  3. Rene,

    Can you tell us in what specific circumstances you would want to estimate distance and what sort of lenses you might want to use?

    With lens of about 35mm and wider, prefocusing is fairly easy if you stop down to about f16. At that f-stop and 35mm lens will give you adequate focus from infinity to 1.2 meters /4 feet.

    When I am doing street photography the 35mm lens (usually a 'cron 35/2 Asph) is ideal with 800 ISO color film. I usually set it between 30 meters and just past 1.4 meters.

    On trains in Japan, when sitting opposite people, I'll set the lens (usually 35mm or 50mm) to about 8 feet since this length is uniform.

    If you are in the habit of shooting in familiar circumstances, you might use your camera + lens to guage distances between various places and then record the distances and memorize them.
  4. awahlster

    awahlster Moderator

    Rene, Hunter use vertical marks in their scopes to just the size of a know object. If a deer is 3.5' tall at the shoulder in the scope it looks 1/2 that size then they have a referance to judge distance. You might be able to use the size of your frame lines in the viewfinder to do this once you do a few trial and error test to see what distance appears how in your viewfinder. You might be able to do the same thing by some trial and error. Pick out a subject that is 10' away 20' away and 30' away look at them either side by side (from your perspective) to see how the same size object appear to get samller. Some thing as simple as three yard or meter sticks or even a long fence you could just make off where the various distances are along the fence. Then when it comes time to judge the distance to a subject with your camera you would have some referance and experiance. for subjects closer you might want to do a method we used in Boy scouts for some game. Stand straight up and then imagine where your face would hit the ground if you were to fall forward. This then based on your hieght would give you a distance referance. Since most of use have a very good idea of reach when it comes to our own bodies. this is pretty easy to do. Once you have this distance continue looking at the ground multipling the place you think your face would hit. This is harder to explain then to show I made a couple of simple drawings to help If you need farther explanation let me know I stop back by the thread.
  5. <Stand straight up and then imagine where your face would hit the ground if you were to fall forward. >

    This sounds a lot like what folks do in pubs/bars after a long night of imbibing. Didn't know it has an application to photography too!
  6. I think some little measuring and memorising might help. Find a willing model, and take two or three of your most used primes. Look through the viewfinder, step back and focus a headshot, a full figure and a shot from waist up, holding the camera both horizontal and vertical. Write down the distance for each pose, camera position and focal length, e.g. 50 mm - full figure at 3 meters with camera at portrait orientation. It's just six numbers for each focal length. You can also do the same for couples as well, which is useful at weddings.

    I am quite certain that an excellent photographer like you can previsualise the field of view of her most used primes, which means that all you need to do is to memorise those numbers and you are done. After a couple of weeks, you will be prefocusing the distance automatically for your most used prime, without even thinking about it.

    Hope this helps,

  7. Trevor, the Leica rangefinder has a minimum distance of 50', since most critical camera focussing is done at ranges less than that it's hardly a valuable accessory.
  8. Sorry. I was being light hearted in recommending the Leica distance finding gadget. I will do my research more thoroughly next time :)
  9. The length of a bed is right at 2 meters, a little over 6 feet. Just imagine 1, 2, or 3 bed-lengths. You can even imagine one and a half, etc.
  10. I focus the camera on most things at home - window, cat, legs, butt, kids, TV and take a
    mental note of the distance shown on the lens. Do this often enough and soon you'll be
    able to guesstimate the distance. It's the same with setting exposure - practice.

    Another useful trick is hyperfocal setting. I use this on the pentax 645, shooting
    landscapes when I want foreground to background sharpness.
  11. C'mon, guys. This is not hard to do!!
  12. Honestly Rene, I think the easiest way to get it down is to continue shooting as normal,
    focusing critically on your subjects. Then, once you have taken the shot, leave the lens
    where you focused it and look at the distance marking. Make a mental note of it. If you
    keep doing this, you should learn to judge the distances mentally. The practicing at home
    can be useful will also teach you to focus more quickly and surely.
  13. It is for 2.8 and wider for a 50 and longer, which I do on occassion. I usually focus on an object of similar distance as the subject, away from the subject, but still in the VF, usually outside of the framelines. They think I'm nuts taking a pic. of gum residue or handrail or chair...When something interesting occurs I swing the camera and catch, hopefully, something interesting.
  14. Oh, I do use the fall-flat-on-my-face and 15' basketball free throw line techniques too. Longer distances: 50' small bore target shooting and 60'-6" pitchers mound to plate are much easier, as DOF will take care of any errors with all the lenses I use(d) including the Noct. wide open.
  15. I liken the process of focussing a rangefinder by feel to playing a fretless string instrument. Ask any player how they manage to hit the note time and time again with no effort and they'll probably answer, Practise, Practice, PRACTICE. Do your scales for at least 10 minutes a day and in a few months you'll be a mini Bresson.

    Light readings are the same. I carry the tiny Gossen digisix meter in my pocket at all times. For practice I guess random situations then check the meter which is only ever a few seconds away and it sure beats lugging a Minolta or Sekonic type that requires you to stop, open your bag then fiddle about, often too much effort on the run. The Digisix is one of my best and most indespensable items to date and it uses EV scale which is actually a fantastic system once you get used to it. Highly recommended.

    Composition, well thats another story.

  16. In older neighborhoods, particularly in the midwest and west, the streets were usually laid out on a grid of 330' (1/16 mile) to a city block -- also the length of a football field. Contrary to previous statements, a normal human step is less than three feet -- rather it is closer to 2'-8", three steps to 8'. By experiment determine how much the RF patch subtends at a known distance. By becoming familiar with these relationships, using the DOF scales, and setting on the hyperfocal distance it is not difficult to obtain accurate scale focusing even without a rangefinder. Plenty of fine pictures were taken grandpa or grandma with old fashion cameras using estimated distances.
  17. I learned to judge 2 and 5 meters. While walking in the street, I train and figure what would be 2 meters or 5 meters away (then I check by focusing on the objects.) Being able to judge these two distances, it helps me pre-focusing. If someone seems to be farther than 2 meters away but closer than 5, then it becomes an easier guess work. Then ofcourse, I rely on DOF... ;) However, I might say that since I have been using my camera, I became much faster at focusing, so I do not use this method (at least consciously) a lot.
    Happy shooting.
  18. I used to sit around with the Leica when I first got it and just guess-focus on things at
    different distances in the room, by feel of the tab. I'd then check the focus and adjust as
    necessary, feeling carefully to try to imprint the position of the tab on my sense memory.

    Obviously it'll be different with each lens, and probably with each body. I got so I could
    pretty repeatably focus by feel to within an inch (up close) or four (at the longer end) on
    anything between a meter and six meters distant.

    You get to carry your camera around and twiddle the nice smooth focus (and you can
    exercise your shutter while you're at it). If I'm out on an idle shooting-oriented amble, I'll
    do the same thing with exposure, by the way, to try to train myself to guess what the
    exposure will be. If I'm 'on' I can be within a stop and a half all day (okay, maybe 90% of
    the time), which is close enough for casual shooting on negative film, and about as good
    as I do if I'm using an incident meter anyhow.

    Sadly I no longer have a rangefinder camera of any sort and the focusing skills are pretty
  19. Whew. Lots of good answers. Thank you. Sorry to reply soo late but I was at a playoff hockey gae and did not take my internet phone with me. I did not forget my M3 thouugh ;-) maybe I'll have a decent shot of Sidney Crosby.<P>Now, first to answer Alex's questions. Alex, I think that more than 90% of my shots are wider open at f2 and indoors. I'm pretty much settled on 400ISO films (trix or provia) so I will continue to shoot at f2 or 2.8. <P>At these apertures and indoors judging a distance is more important. Few ties I see a shot and I don't want to put my camera up and focus because that gets too much attention and the right shot is gone. I want to be good at judging the distance, setting the focus with my camera down and then quickly raising it and pressing the shutter. <P>As strange as it might seem I kind of like the idea of where I would smash my chicklets had I fallen to the ground. I'm 6 ft tall and that is a good start. I will also start playing with judging distance, setting the focus and then looking through the viewfinder to check whether I nailed it. <P>I've become pretty good at judging the aperture indoors without a meter.<P>Thanks for the tips everyone.
  20. I try to visualize how many six-foot tall men could lie down end to end to reach
    the subject.

    Speaking of that, Dorothy Parker once said, "If all the coeds who ever went to
    fraternity parties were laid end to end I wouldn't be surprised."

    Tom Deecy//
  21. Sorry for the typos. I think I have worn out some of the keys on my phone, especially the letter M needs more attention.
  22. First thing to do is examine the depth of field charts for the lenses you'll be using.
    Find the apertures and distances you need to be careful with, then practice focusing
    by feel every night for 5 minutes! I'm working on it right now, it's pretty fun.
  23. In case you didn't already know -- and I'm surprised it wasn't already mentioned above -- A 35mm lens is famous for the following: the width of coverage (when shooting as usual in landscape format) equals the distance from you to the subject. Get it? Good! If you don't get it, do some experiments at different distances.
  24. I find I have to do this in feet and inches. I use several gauges. For close stuff (e.g. portraits) I judge whether I could reach the subject with my fingertips, and if not by how much I would fall short. For full-length stuff, I imagine myself lying full length on the ground and estimate how many feet nearer or farther the subject is. These two measures are remarkably easy to get right.

    For more distant subjects, I worked out (for a 50 mm lens) how much of the viewfinder a vertical human will occupy at different distances, and in landscape and portrait mode, and move in until the image is that size.

    Years ago, when doing wildlife survey work, my colleagues and I tested our ability to judge distances of 10m and upwards. There was some variation, but we were all surprisingly good. You don't need estimates of those sort of distances in photography, and nowadays we use a laser rangefinder; but it's encouraging to know that the human eye/brain is good at this sort of thing. BTW, we did comparative trials of rangefinders by both day and night, and much to my amusement the Leica performed the best (most accurate and most repeatable readings) and was by far the simplest to use.
  25. Are three people standing together six feet away ?
  26. Someone on a forum in the last month or two told how to make a shirt pocket rangefinder on a card (credit card size) that depended on your binocular vision. You put a master mark on the left side which you lined up with the subject using your left eye. You then closed the left eye and opened the right eye and saw which calibrated mark on the card the right eye lined up with the subject. This would depend on a steady hand. I thought I bookmarked the site but can't seem to find it.
  27. I just carry a carpenter's "tape measure" in my bag. Using it distracts the subject of my intent to take his picture. "Just doing a survey" is my standard response when asked. ;>)

    Rene, just remember... practice, practice, practice.


  28. What happened to hyperfocal? Yes, it is narrow when shooting wide opened, but no more
    hazardous than guesstimating the distance.
  29. Gup

    Gup Gup

    There are various digital measuring devices available at very reasonable prices that can be used very discreetly. Some are built in to carpenter tapemeasures, some are used for sporting activities. I looked into them when I was learning to focus my Hasselblad 503CW after so many years with autofocus 35mm's.

    When I was younger I learned to measure distances in 'canoes'. I became very proficient at this! My canoe was 15' long and I used it enough that it became my ruler, especially when measuring vertically.
    I tried to teach this method to my two daughters (we canoe as a family) but they found it much easier to calculate distances in Gary's. My friend Gary is 6'3" and the tallest person they have ever met, so ... Gary was blown away the first time he heard a stretch limo described as about '6 1/2 Garys.

    Couldn't resist this thread!

    Keep Smiling,

  30. I'm with Gup. It's easier to visualize something that you see in its entire length and horizontally. I could come closer to visualizing two canoes than five 6 foot citizens end to end. The shorter distances are critical. I visualize a 4'x8' sheet of plywood in either dimension. Rangefinders need prefocus but folders will sharpen your estimates and even help you go metric!
  31. I'm with Gup too. [​IMG]
  32. I drove city bus for a number of years and forty feet is my benchmark. I'm pretty accurate at one, two or three bus lengths. Beyond that you're at infinity for normals and wides.

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