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How to Find and Use Hyperfocal Distance for Sharp Backgrounds

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You are out photographing a landscape. You have a nice foreground and background in the frame, and you want as much as possible in focus. You set a small aperture to get a nice wide depth of field. But still, you know that not everything in your frame will be sharp.

The fact is that lenses just cannot keep everything – from what is right in front of you all the way to the horizon – acceptably sharp at the same time. You can focus on something very close at the risk of blurring the background. Or you can focus on something far away and risk blurring your foreground elements.

So where should you focus? More particularly, how close can you can focus while still keeping the background sharp?

Connemara

That is a question that many, especially landscape photographers, face quite often. A concept called “hyperfocal distance” tells you that point. It is not as complicated as the name makes it sound. Hyperfocal distance is just the closest point at which you can focus and still keep the furthest edge of your background acceptably sharp.

In this article you’ll learn how to calculate it and how to use it.

What Factors Determine Hyperfocal Distance?

Before we get to the actual distances involved, let’s talk about the concept in general. Hyperfocal distance depends on three factors. These are the same three factors that determine depth of field, so this might sound familiar to you.

  1. Aperture: The first factor, as you might expect, is your aperture setting. A wider depth of field means that you can focus closer and still keep the background sharp. So the smaller the aperture you use, the closer the hyperfocal distance.
  2. Focal length: The second factor is your focal length. The smaller the focal length – meaning the wider the angle of view – the closer the hyperfocal distance.
  3. Sensor size: The final factor determining hyperfocal distance is the size of your digital sensor. A larger digital sensor will result in a closer hyperfocal distance.

Picture1-Connemara1

Illustrating Hyperfocal Distance

Older lenses are great for explaining hyperfocal distance, so let’s start by looking at one of them.

Lenses from the film days typically have a scale printed on them that allows you to measure what distances are acceptably sharp at a given aperture setting. For example, take a look at this 50mm lens:

Since this is a prime lens, and assumes a 35 mm camera, the only one of our three factors that can change is the aperture.

Since this is a prime lens, and assumes a 35mm camera, the only one of our three factors that can change is the aperture.

Aperture Determines Hyperfocal Distance

If you want to get the hyperfocal distance on a lens like the one above, you can easily do so without doing any calculations. Just note your aperture setting and line up the infinity focus setting with that aperture. Your point of focus is now set at the hyperfocal distance!

In the example above, if you are using an aperture of f/16, put the infinity symbol above the 16. When you do so, the hyperfocal distance set for you. It is roughly 5 meters, or about 17 feet.

Hyperfocal Distance also Depends on Focal Length

The example above was entirely dependent upon the aperture setting. As mentioned above, however, hyperfocal distance also depends on your focal length. Wide angle lenses will have a much shorter distance than mid-range and telephoto lenses.  To illustrate, let’s repeat the same example we did above with the 50 mm lens, but this time let’s show it on a28 mm lens:

Picture4-28mmLens

In both cases the aperture of the lens were at f/16, so the focus is set with the infinity symbol above the 16. Whereas the hyperfocal distance for the 50mm lens was 5 meters (17 feet), for the 28 mm lens the hyperfocal distance is only 1.5 meters (5 feet)!

It works the opposite way too, and telephoto lenses will have much longer hyperfocal distances. So a telephoto lens is not a good choice if you are trying to keep everything in your frame sharp.

How to Determine Hyperfocal Distance

These days aperture adjustments are not performed on the lens itself, but rather are handled internally by the camera, so the scales printed on lenses appear to be things of the past. But the good news is that there are better ways to determine the hyperfocal distance anyway.

So, let’s move to actually determining the hyperfocal distance. There are a few different ways you can do so without calculating it yourself.

  1. Online Resources

There are a number of free calculators online and apps for your phone. For example, DOFMaster has a chart and calculator and they also have a smartphone app. There are a number of other resources out there as well. You can use these to determine hyperfocal distance either at your computer ahead of time or on your phone as you are out shooting.

  1. Hyperfocal Distance Charts

When you are out shooting, however, you may not have your smartphone and you almost certainly won’t have your computer. So I recommend you print off a chart, fold it up, and keep it in your bag.

Hyperfocal Distance Chart

I have prepared charts for you to use. Since hyperfocal distance is partially a function of the sensor size of your camera, I have prepared different charts depending on the size of your digital sensor. Just pick the right chart for your camera:

To use the charts, just line up the focal length and aperture settings you plan to use. The corresponding figure will be the hyperfocal distance. The top chart is in meters and the bottom chart is in feet.

In any case, no math required!

Focusing Using Hyperfocal Distance

So now you know how to determine hyperfocal distance. What to do about it?

You will now want to set your focus at the hyperfocal distance. There are a few different ways you can do this.

To manually set the focus, first make sure that you have switched your lens into manual focus mode. Then just twist the focus until it reaches the proper distance according to the scale on the top of your lens (if you have such a scale). For example, if you are shooting with a 35mm focal length at f/11 on an APS-C camera, your hyperfocal distance will be about 5.6 meters or 18 feet. The top of your lens should look like this:

TopOfLens

If you don’t have that scale on your lens, you will have to approximate it using the viewfinder. In that case, you would just focus on something approximately 5.6 meters or 18 feet away from you.

You can do the same thing while staying in autofocus. Just focus on something about 18 feet away.

GiantsCauseway

Sometimes the foreground is more important than the background, so you should not worry about the hyperfocal distance.  But when you use an extreme wide angle and a small aperture (like this shot at 14 mm and f/18), your hyperfocal distance might only be a foot away.

When to use Hyperfocal Distance and When not to use it

Hyperfocal distance is most useful when there is no particular part of your image that you want sharper than others. In those cases, it is a handy tool and I recommend using it.

But if there is a particular subject in your photo, forget about hyperfocal distance. Just focus on the subject. That is the most important thing.

If you absolutely need all parts of your picture tack sharp, you can forget about hyperfocal distance as well. You should probably try focus stacking in that case. Hyperfocal distance is all about keeping the background acceptably sharp in one shot.

If you set your focus exactly at the hyperfocal distance, you are putting the most distant parts of your photo at the very furthest edge of what is acceptably sharp. If that part of the picture is particularly important, then the very edge of sharpness might not be good enough. So you might want to focus a little bit further than the hyperfocal distance in some cases.

Finally, when you focus at the hyperfocal distance, you sacrifice foreground sharpness for background sharpness. The whole point of hyperfocal distance is to determine the point at which you can keep the background in focus, and there is no thought to the foreground at all. In many cases, however, it is actually more important that your foreground be sharp than your background. So this is not a tool for all occasions.

Conclusion

Determining the hyperfocal distance can be a great tool for making sure you have the right parts of your picture sharp. It is most useful for landscape photography where you are often concerned with keeping a distant background sharp. In those cases, the hyperfocal distance charts should help you set your focus.

After a while, you will probably develop a feel for the proper settings and where you want to focus. Looking at hyperfocal distances can help you develop that feel as well.  So keep a hyperfocal distance chart handy. Don’t follow it slavishly, but refer to it now and then and I think you’ll find it a handy reference.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, beginning photographers should be sure to check out his new book Getting Started in Photography, now available in the Kindle store!

  • Adam Welch

    Outstanding write-up on an intimidating topic. Thanks for putting in the time to create those charts. They will really come in handy!

  • AlFa

    Great post! With all those sophisticated cameras and lenses it would be great if you could choose “hyperfocal” AF-mode.

  • Thanks! I hope they do. And, it is an intimidating topic isn’t it? It needs a new name. “Hyperfocal distance” makes it sound like it is advanced physics.

  • You know, that is a good point, and one that I never thought of. In addition to that, it would certainly appear that the camera could display the hyperfocal distance for you (if you told it to). The only variables are aperture, focal length, and sensor size, all of which are known to or measured by the camera.

  • AlFa

    I came across this idea when I imagined how I would put into practice what you describe in your article on my Olympus MFT lens. There are no distance scales on the lens. So the camera/lens combination would not only need to calculate the hyperfocal distance but also set the focus accordingly.

  • JoeMillerPhoto

    Good article. I like to autofocus about where I think HFD is. Then, I put my camera on manual focus and check my focus points by pressing the shutter partway while pointing the camera at the nearest object and then the farthest point. If my focus dot comes on both times, I know I’ve got things sharp.

  • Tim Lowe

    It is amazing that you have to tell people what the little numbers on their lenses mean but alas…

  • SB

    Thanks Jim ! a simple and easy to understand article on a complex topic.

  • beautifulfreek

    I’m an absolute beginner so ALL information in tutorials is greatly received. Thanks for taking the time to explain so much. I look forward to putting it into practice.

  • Thanks. I aim for simplicity, so I appreciate the comment.

  • Alan

    How would anyone know if they weren’t told? There was a time for all of us when we knew nothing about photography.

  • PeterH

    Thanks Jim, great article. One question. What effect does the camera crop factor have on the tables (or how the tables are read), considering the crop factor effects both the focal length and the aperture?

  • TravelBug

    Hi Jim, Very Good article but can you include an explanation of the ‘Near Focus Limit’ if you do an update to this article.The DoF calculator ‘Apps’ for tablets and smart phones, etc., include these NFL figures which are as useful to know as the actual Hyperfocal limit – particularly useful for close ups of rocks, etc., as in your pic in this article. For those that are not sure what I am on about – the Near Focus Limit gives you the closest focus point of focus leading from the camera up to the actual Hyperfocal Distance on these charts.

    Anyone downloading one of these apps will soon see that this can be important. Nevertheless, good info and thanks.

  • Brian Palmer

    There is an Android App for calculating hyperfocal distance.

  • Good thought. The reason there are 3 different tables is exactly what you bring up – the effect of sensor size (crop factor) on the calculations. The focal length and the aperture setting are both factors in the formula to determine hyperfocal distance. The other variable is a number for the “circle of confusion” and that depends entirely on sensor size. So,to answer your question directly, there is a variable in the formula for determining hyperfocal distance that is based on the sensor size. Hopefully that didn’t confuse you. Let me know if that doesn’t make sense.

  • Cool. Feel free to share the link.

  • Thanks, and will do. And thanks for providing the additional info.

  • Joe Decker

    Jim,
    Those scales on older cameras which show the zone of acceptable sharpness are something I really miss. What is it about today’s lenses or digital cameras which
    prevent their use?

  • That’s an interesting question. I don’t actually know the answer but my guess is that it was a combination of:

    1. Aperture Controls in Camera: I think the thing that first caused these scales to go away was when the aperture became controlled by the camera, not the lens. Suddenly people aren’t looking at controls on their lens anymore. That didn’t actually necessitate these scales going away, but I think it started the shift.

    2. Zoom lenses: I think it was zoom lenses that really did these scales in. They could not have one single scale on a zoom lens, because the scale changes as focal length changes. So they were out on zoom lenses and I think that just got everybody away from them across the board.

    Just my guess though.

  • Chuck T

    Hyperfocal distance is a very appealing concept but most of my lenses have a huge gap between infinity and the next defined distance (e.g. my Canon EF 17-40L goes from 1 meter to infinity with no stops in between.) Therefore, using the ‘set the lens’ method is problematic. I cringed whenI read “just focus on something approximately 18 feet away”. Maybe I am ‘distance challenged’ but I have a very difficult time estimating distances,particularly the longer they get with longer lenses. I even tried practicing with a tape measure but with limited success. Does anyone know of a distance measuring app for an iPhone? I’ve looked but the only ones I’ve found seem to be made for golfers and are geared to dozens or hundreds of yards rather than a few to dozens of feet.

  • Jubin kaliyathan

    thanks, It is a very good article.

  • Higher_Ground

    you could try a laser tape measure, but they aren’t really all that cheap – ~$80-
    $100

  • Ivan

    Here’s my simplest tip to shoot landscapes using hyperfocal distance: I set my lens to 18 mm, and aperture to f/11. In that conditions, in my camera de HFD is just 1.54 m. Hence, I just pick my camera, focus my feet in automatic mode, turn focus to manual and that’s it: I’ll have in focus between 1.3 m and infinite when I shot my landscape!

  • Sparky

    You know, that’s a neat idea that hadn’t occurred to me. Nice tip.

  • David Worthington

    A general rule I use for a 14-24 is 1/3rd into the focus field. I use primes for everything else in which case I actually push the view button on my camera and look at it.

  • David Worthington

    Is it not advanced physics? We are actually talking about how glass bends light. I do it by feel as I’ve developed that with the glass I’ve owned for a while. I also use that button on the right side of the lens mount of my d-800. Having said that it is a very good article on how to recognize and develop that understanding.

  • Carmen Ray Anderson

    thank you, I will bookmark this for reading again… I am very new to photography and the theory tends to confuse me. thanks for the charts 🙂

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