Wide depth of field is especially desirable for landscape photography. This is where understanding hyperfocal distance becomes important. If you are just starting out, it will be important to understand the basics of depth of field, so before you continue reading, you might want to check out that blog post first.
What is hyperfocal distance?
Hyperfocal distance, in a nutshell, is the point in the foreground that is the closest point the camera can focus while still having acceptably sharp image quality throughout the rest of the image to “infinity” (which is the background/horizon in most images) In other words, it is the point of focus that will yield the greatest depth of field.
When composing an image, if the focus is on the foreground, then the background will be blurry. In a portrait shoot, whether for people or animals, the subject can be in focus and the background can be blurry, and that is normally desirable.
If the focus point is changed to focus on the background, then the foreground will be blurry. When capturing a distant mountain at sunset from an overlook, one can focus on the horizon or “infinity” and won’t notice the blurry foreground because there are no objects in it.
Understanding hyperfocal distance is only important when there are objects both far away and close up that need to be in sharp focus. Focusing at a point in between the close and faraway objects becomes necessary. The calculation of where this point is will depend on several factors like the focal length, the “circle of confusion” for the camera sensor, and the aperture (see the depth of field blog post). When we find the hyperfocal distance point, “acceptable sharpness” will be found throughout the image.
Acceptably sharp – what is that?
Imagine a photograph is hanging on the wall. It is an 8”x10” size photo. If a person with good vision (20/20) stood 10 feet away, and the image looks completely in focus to them throughout, then it is “acceptably sharp.”
The hyperfocal distance point does not create an equal amount of focus in front of and behind the focus point. Depth of field is always greater beyond the subject/focus point than in front of the subject. For example, one-third of the distance may be in front of the focus point and two-thirds behind it. There will be areas that are blurred, but the size of the blur is so small the human eye cannot distinguish the blur from a point of light. This is known as the circle of confusion. There are specific calculations for this and it becomes complicated very quickly (see depth of field blog post for an introduction to “circle of confusion”). While there are a lot of scientific and mathematical calculations that can help locate the hyperfocal distance point, some ways are easier than others, and where the best focus point is may depend on the circumstances of each unique landscape and the particular taste, artistic style, and preference of the photographer. So let’s start there…
Which is better to have in focus, foreground or background?
Since it is a given that some area of a photo will always be out of focus (even if it is so small one can’t see it without pixel peeping or blowing the image up to super large sizes), which is better to have in focus? This will depend on the characteristics of the image one is composing and one’s personal tastes.
Expert photographers have discussed and taken opposite positions over the years. On one side, some photographers suggest that faraway objects need crisper focus in order to be recognizable and that the loss of detail is especially noticeable in enlarged prints. They claim our eyes will be more forgiving if objects in the foreground a slightly blurred. To use this in practice, one would focus beyond the hyperfocal distance (maybe even use infinity) and then adjust the aperture (f/stop) smaller and smaller until foreground objects become focused enough.
Other photographers claim the loss of focus on nearer objects is more noticeable and disturbing and that background focus can be less sharp, especially if they are large and easily identified objects like a mountain. In practice, a photographer would focus at hyperfocal distance or in front of the hyperfocal distance, and again make changes to the aperture (f/stop) to get crisper foreground focus.
Gazebo in Autum - Image by FocusEd Camera
How do I find the hyperfocal distance?
With the exception of a few readers who are math wizards, most of us don’t want to have to do hyperfocal distance calculations on the fly while out in the field. Fortunately, there are hyperfocal distance charts and apps like DoF Table, Digital DoF (my favorite), and PhotoPills that can provide a good starting point for reference. Unfortunately, they are not always accurate and are one-size-fits-all, not taking into account the actual scene. Some lenses also include markings on the side of the lens barrel that give you these calculations, but the easiest method is to use the approximation method of “double the distance.”
How do I use “double the distance?”
A very simplistic way to achieve equal sharpness in the foreground and background is to use a method called “double the distance.” Find the closest object or element in your composition and determine (approximately – exact accuracy is not necessary) how far away it is from the camera sensor (not the end of the lens). Then double that distance and focus at that point. Use live view if available on the camera and use it zoomed in. This method does require some practice at estimating distances, but can be quite effective and efficient once one gets the hang of it.
Keep in mind that depth of field increases with smaller apertures, so if the closest object is not in focus at a certain aperture, then one may have to adjust the aperture. For example, if the camera is set up using a 35mm lens and the closest object that needs to be in focus is 8 feet away and f/8 is not working, increase the f/stop to f/11 or f/16 to bring the focus closer (increased depth of field). Other adjustments may then be required to shutter speed and ISO, so an understanding of the exposure triangle is also essential to achieving the desired outcome.
Should I use a hyperfocal distance chart?
As I stated before, a chart can be a great starting reference point. Find the focal length of the lens being used and the aperture settings, and it provides the closest point for focus where the background will still be “acceptably sharp.” A quick online search of hyperfocal distance charts will give you many options, but a quick look at the options also will demonstrate the inaccuracies I describe. One will find that the numbers don’t match from chart to chart. For example, I pulled up three charts and looked for the focus point if I was using a 24mm lens at f/2.8. The charts told me: 22.3 feet, 22.6 feet, and 21.1 feet. Now since most of us aren’t going to be pulling out a measuring tape to measure off 21 or 22 feet from our camera’s sensor, these numbers are close enough to give us a starting point. We would pick a point of focus that is approximately 22 feet from our camera’s position.
The apps for smartphones do these same calculations and are often a little more exact and definitely more convenient than carrying around paper charts. Unfortunately, these apps, depending on who made the app, can also be very inaccurate. Of the apps available, I prefer Digital DoF, which is free and often gives me good results to start with.
Do I need to know how hyperfocal distance works?
If one plans to take landscape photos, yes. Having an understanding of how hyperfocal distance works and changes with focal length and aperture will allow adjustments in the field that will improve image quality.
Hyperfocal distance moves closer to the camera sensor as smaller apertures are used. Remember smaller apertures make greater depth of field therefore the range of what is in focus moves closer and closer to the camera. The farthest reaches of the focus range are also getting larger, allowing the focus point to move closer (away from the horizon or infinity) while keeping the level of acceptably sharp focus both in front of and behind the focus point.
As the focal length on a lens gets longer, the hyperfocal distance moves farther away. This does not mean, for example on an 85mm lens at f/11 and a hyperfocal distance of 70 feet, that everything closer than 70 feet will be out of focus. On the contrary, the image will be sharp from halfway to 70 feet (35 ft) all the way to infinity. Anything 35 feet or closer will start to lose focus. Remember, double the distance? This is that same principle in reverse.
If you only use a chart, you will be constrained by the limitations of the chart. Going back to “acceptably sharp” focus for a moment, we come across the first limitation of a hyperfocal distance chart. They rely solely on the math calculations that include the “circle of confusion” (which I have also already explained is quite complicated and an internet rabbit hole all its own should you choose to go down it). The problem is that in camera-land long ago and far away, the circle of confusion was set at .03mm to create those charts. For technical folks, that .03mm is the size of the out-of-focus tiny points of light on your camera sensor and they are roughly circular. That .03mm standard is too large for today’s high resolution prints, computer monitors, and cameras, so the charts can’t be the “end all” tool you use.
The second problem, is that the charts (and many of the apps) are one-size-fits-all solutions for all lenses and in the field that does not take into consideration the vast array of possible landscape situations one may find oneself in. Where you should focus should change depending on the scene in front of you!
Let’s look at this this way – we have two very different scenes and for both compositions we are using our 35mm on our full frame camera at f/8.
According to the chart, for both of these should be focused at 17 feet in front of where the camera is standing. Using the chart we would have acceptably sharp focus for both images, but all that means is that both images will have the exact same amount of blur (0.03mm for each pinpoint of light to be exact).
Does that even make sense if we think about it logically? Of course not, the focus point should depend on the scene! For image 2 with the hot air balloon, if there is no foreground why would we want to focus at 17 feet in front of the camera? We wouldn’t, we should focus out at the horizon at “infinity.”
So the takeaway is to start with a reference point, either from a chart, app, or double the distance method, then know how to adjust the hyperfocal distance point and lens focal length and/or aperture to get the best overall sharpness for all images, not just acceptable sharpness for some of them.
Why can’t my camera just calculate the hyperfocal distance and tell me what it is?
Let’s say we are shooting a meadow with a tree off in the distance and even farther away is a mountain range. Let’s also assume the camera can give us a readout to tell us what the hyperfocal distance would be, say its 237 feet. How would we be able to put that into practice? Would we pull out a 237 foot measuring tape or cart around a measuring wheel with us on our shoots? What if there was a lake between us and the mountain and 237 feet puts us into the water? In practice, getting a readout on a camera would be no more accurate than using a focal distance chart or app (taking into account the camera sensor’s circle of confusion and lens focal length/aperture). That readout wouldn’t help that much more than just using the “double the distance” method, although I expect cameras will be adding more features like split screen focus, focus peaking, and live view modes that will make the process of finding hyperfocal distance easier.
So if Double the Distance is easy and works well, how would I use it in practice?
Let’s go back to the example I gave above of a bike rider in the city. The first step in our approach would be to determine if there are any foreground objects nearby – like a fire hydrant or a parked car. Whichever object is closest to the camera that we want to be in focus, we approximate that distance and then double that number. Our focus would be at that distance.
Let’s look at this sample image. If we assume the dog and the rocks around him are approximately 15 feet away, then the focus point should be double that distance, which is about 30 feet away. Voila!
The best part about this method is that it doesn’t matter which camera or aperture setting or lens focal length is being used; it works for all landscapes. Now this isn’t to say that camera settings are not still critical. They are! For landscape photography we use smaller apertures like f/11. If we did set the aperture to f/4 and use the double the distance method and focus 20 feet away, it will still give us the most sharpness in the scene, but it is probably not going to give us the image we would want.
It is important to also know the limits of the lens being used. Lenses are not their sharpest at either end of their range. For example a lens that will shoot at apertures from f/1.8 up to f/22 will not be at its sharpest at either extreme. And understand focal lengths. When trying to capture landscapes, an 85 mm or 200 mm are not the best lens choices, one will want a wider angle lens and even more so if using it on a crop sensor camera body. See my blog about lens focal lengths here.
To be completely honest, even if you learn all the background information and understand the concepts, no technique for hyperfocal distance will be perfect even with adjustments in the field. Chasing “perfect” sharpness is like chasing the end of the rainbow.
If you are glutton for punishment, and just can’t get enough about hyperfocal distance, then check out our next blog post about other hyperfocal distance calculation methods and trouble-shooting hyperfocal distance while on the go. Additionally we will discuss ways to work around the limitations of lens focus depths by using focus stacking and bracketing to make composite images.
If this is enough information for you, then let me leave you with one final thought, remember that for almost all images you compose and shoot, that “good enough” is better not taking the shot at all.