The Secret to Ultra-Sharp Photos - Digital Photography School

The Secret to Ultra-Sharp Photos


The following post on The Secrets to Ultra-Sharp Photos is by San Francisco based photographer Jim M. Goldstein. Learn more about him at the end of this post.
Sharp-PhotosAs previously noted the best photo tip I ever received had to do with sharpness and up until the time in which I received this tip I had little understanding of how to consistently get sharp photos. I’ll never forget when I was a teenager I borrowed my mothers film SLR and ventured out into Yosemite valley while on a family vacation to photograph flowers, the landscape, etc. A couple weeks later when I got the film back almost all my photos were out of focus. Young and easily frustrated I cast photography to the wind for several years. These days digital cameras simplify not only your ability to see what you’re focusing on, but they also give you an immediate view of your photo enabling you to move on to your next photo or to try again. As great as these features are consistently getting sharp photos can still be a challenge.

Whether you’re using film or digital cameras the optics of lenses hasn’t changed as optics are all about math and physics. Don’t worry I don’t want to talk math or physics any more than you want to read about it, but there is a key principle that every photographer should be aware of and that is hyperfocal distance.

“When the lens is focused on the hyperfocal distance, the depth of field extends from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity.” – Photography, Phil Davis, 1972.

Dof Hyperfocal

The short and sweet tip for those using shorter focal length lenses is to focus 1/3 of the way into your photo with a smaller aperture setting to maximize your depth of field.

Note for longer focal length lenses like telephoto lenses this principle still applies, but it becomes less of a factor for most people given the types of subjects  photographed with these lenses are generally less foreground-centric.

If your eyes haven’t glazed over yet there are more precise ways to calculate hyperfocal distance whether you use a point and shoot or an SLR. The best way to get an idea of what the hyperfocal distance is for your camera at different settings is to make use of a Depth of Field Calculator or chart. If you’re at home and interested in researching this then I recommend the following Depth of Field Calculator that covers a large number of cameras. If you’re looking for such information when in the field you can download a chart via

For most this is enough, but if you’re truly over the top you can purchase a laser rangefinder, do the math in the field and find out exactly how far ahead of your camera things will begin to be in sharp focus. The hyperfocal distance formula (via Wikipedia) is well known :


H is hyperfocal distance
f is focal length
N is f-number
c is the circle of confusion limit

Now that you’re armed with this key information hopefully the next outing you make with your camera will help you yield a greater number of images that are in sharp focus.

This post was written by Jim M. Goldstein. Jim’s landscape, nature, travel and photojournalism photography is featured on his web site, and blog. In addition Jim’s podcast “EXIF and Beyond” features photographer interviews and chronicles the creation of some of his images. In addition Jim can be followed on Twitter and FriendFeed.

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Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

  • Dhiraj Patil

    Please correct me if i am wrong:- if tripod is extended completely, you can not achieve 1/3rd distance to focus on still keeping camera horizontal. you will always keep pointing somewhere in mid air. In order to focus 1/3 (on some kind of subject), Tripod length must be adjusted as well?

  • Dennis M

    If you have focus lock (or an AF button), just aim and auto-focus at a spot at the required distance and lock your focus there.

  • Dennis M

    Note that rather than sweating the numbers, simply understanding this principle and knowing your gear wil get you to 90% of max sharpness without any calculations and other measurebation (I think Ken Rockwell owns the copyright to that term) required…

  • Jim Wolff

    Actual, practical, real life examples would have been appreciated in this article. I was lost from the start, but I think I may have grasped the idea but the single line: “those using shorter focal length lenses, to focus 1/3 of the way into your photo with a smaller aperture setting to maximize
    your depth of field.” But of course, it is not stated what the objective of the picture was. Was this just to take a general landscape picture? or was there an actual subject that was being shot?
    But why use terms like “short focal length lens”, when you could just as easily say a wide angle lens?

    Actually, it would have been nice to start the article with: Turn off your autofocus and prepare to take pictures manually. Then, lets talk about the objective of the type pictures this article is meant to focus on.

Some Older Comments

  • Kokain May 17, 2011 02:49 am

    I want to say the best advice here is from Phil. I got this shitty Panasonic FZ45 and it produce the same quality photos than a cheap point and shoot. After reading your post I bought a tripod, I stopped using F2.8 or F8.0 (F4.0 - F6.4 only), I zoomed a little so no more 24mm wide angle, and the results I got are astonishing every single time. The part that makes me angry is that I wanted purposely a wide angle camera that will make ultra sharp photos of either panoramic view or close objects like parked cars and group of people. Unfortunately the fixed lens on this camera can only produce quality using the steps Phil described above.
    I just hope this is not true at the high end lens photograpy.

  • Claggy July 13, 2008 01:46 am

    Also, keep in mind that using this technique will not always be what you want. For example, if you have a strong foreground subject, you of course want that to be sharp (most likely). If you were to use the hyperfocal distance, that subject may be soft... even with the rest of the photo being sharp. So what a smart thing would be to do would simply be to focus on that subject, since it is in the very front bottom of the frame. Or, you could even focus at the hyperfocal distance, then slowly focus back towards you 'til that foreground subject locks in focus.

    Hope this helps.

  • Claggy July 13, 2008 01:39 am

    First of all, thank you Sonal.

    2nd of all, everyone needs to stop bashing this post, because it's a great post. Too many people have just been saying a tripod is the key to a sharp photo. Well it's the key to a SHARPER photo, I suppose you could say. But using the information given in this post, it'll give you even sharper results.

    If you really think that the author of this post had intended to teach us about hyperfocal distance WITHOUT using a tripod... then whatever. I'm pretty sure he would expect us photographers to already know the newbie stuff. Just because this is Digital Photography School doesn't mean some posts can be about slightly more advanced stuff past "omg use a tripod."

    And I second Sime.. grow up, kids.

    I, for one, found this post very useful and informative. And I had assumed using a tripod would already be covered by the noob knowledge already stuck in my head, and this post gave me even more knowledge as how to obtain a sharper photo, especially in the case of a landscape.

    Thanks, Jim! =)

  • Sahul July 8, 2008 01:00 am

    There are many ways to sharp photography and the above is one of them. And Dave this isn't some clap trap. Thank you for your time and effort, Jim. :)

  • Phil July 7, 2008 03:47 am

    Hi Chuck, from my own experience the IS should definitely be switched off when the camera is tripod mounted.

    As an example, try a night shot (longer exposure) using tripod and leaving IS switched on. You should see swirls on the image due to the gyroscope inside the lens.

  • Chuck Dyer July 6, 2008 04:16 am

    I disagree with some of the comments about turning off the IS when a using a tripod. IS works as closed-loop system - When a camera is mounted on a tripod there is minimal shake and as a result, the IS affects will be minimal to none.

    I agree with people that mention the use of Live-View to achieve optimal focus. I use Live-View with a magnified view of the section of the photo that I want optimal focus - I use manual focus in live-view to adjust the focus - I find that even after I achieve good focus with the viewfinder, the magnified live-view reveals that optimal focus can be improved. This technique is especially useful with macro work.

  • CHThomson July 6, 2008 12:09 am

    Dave Yuhas needs to chill out

  • crusher28 July 5, 2008 01:49 am

    What really need a good lens. OH yes and know how to use your camera's settings (DUH WHATS THAT)

  • sime July 4, 2008 04:56 pm

    Play nice folks... If you're just here to flame people, I'm going to have to get my big admin flavoured stick out... Photography forum, not playground. Grow up.

    Sime (admin pre coffee.. Be warned)

  • aussi-photographer-chikky-babe July 4, 2008 04:26 pm

    i was just reading some of the comments and saw u'rs sonal good going that guy is soooo rude he thinks he owns the world for goodness sakes obviously not oh and i love the word TOOL it says so much about the david dude ha and seriously david should get a life and stop mimikin the words we say coz we r wise and thats right get ova u're self mr david yuhas

  • aussi-photographer-chikky-babe July 4, 2008 04:20 pm

    wow im 13 and i have no idea wat your talkin about i hate tripods i call them cheats thats right cheats i love photography and want a career in it but i hate the terms. anyway gotta fly good article though

  • Sonal July 4, 2008 01:51 pm

    Dave Yuhas, the secret that's really on everyone's mind is if you seem to know so much about photography, why are you here posting denigrating comments about someone's honest effort to help others with their photography? Shouldn't you be running your own forum on NON-digital photography? Seeing as you shoot film (which isn't digital), and if you are using your computer for post processing, why are you mocking post sharpening?

    Also, some minor flaws with your reasoning
    1. unless your using polaroids (which I can assume through your snobbery of anything less than "fine grain film in a medium or large format" you are not), your "6-power optically corrected loupe" CANNOT allow you to instantly review photos (and zoom in to check sharpness)- a DSLR can!
    2. not everyone is rich (or stupid enough) to blow all their money on professional lenses
    3. not everyone is vain enough (or again rich enough) to print out their own photos in 20x20, and put them on their OWN wall
    4. The camera IS a tool, but David Yuhas is a bigger tool

    Sorri to everyone for the vulgar post, but I couldn't resist
    Great article Jim!

  • Tom July 4, 2008 07:11 am


  • Stephen July 4, 2008 06:02 am

    Mmmm sounds interesting but I never like mixing maths with photography :). The tried and true methods of using a sturdy tripod along with a cable release (or wireless even if you want to go that extra mile) should be the starting points for anyone looking for pin sharp photos.

  • anon y. mouse July 4, 2008 03:15 am

    Back in the day, we had the vinyl purists who looked down their noses at the newfangled CD and sniffed. Today we have the large-format film purist who look down their noses at digital cameras and sniff.

    Some folks need to feel superior to make their day. The rest of us will just have to get on with making pictures. If they don't happen to be hyper-sharp, well that's a cross we'll just have to bear.

  • Brian July 4, 2008 01:28 am

    Some of you are completely missing the point of this article. Sure, it could have been explained a little more, but the gist I'm getting is "if you consistently can't get ultra-sharp photos, make sure everything you want sharp is in your DoF". Good advice for the beginner (which this site is geared towards), and a good reminder to everyone else. If you're shooting in lower light, and you open your aperture to decrease shutter time, then you are decreasing your depth of field and increasing your chances of more blur than you want (and if you want your back- or foreground blurred then this article doesn't apply). This just explains how to determine your depth of field without resorting to zooming around on your LCD on the 15 photos it will probably take to get it right (for the beginner mind you). And Dave, quit spouting your blather about film and read the website domain name. If you got a high-end high-megapixel DSLR and actually learned how to use it you'd be blown away, and you'd save enough money to get a life.

  • Dave Yuhas July 3, 2008 02:29 pm

    "Ah, the good old days, when lenses had scales with the different f/stops on them. You could figure out hyperfocal distance in under a second."

    Most people buy zoom lenses. They never had distance scales.

    I use my Rolleiflex 2.8F's hyperfocal distance scale all the time because I know it's accurate. At f/22, I know everything from 6' to infinity will be in focus. I have a 20" by 20" enlargement of a Velvia original on my wall that's so sharp it's scary. This is my only camera whose hyperfocal distance scale I trust. And the planar lens is incredibly sharp.

    Most people who buy less than professional quality lenses and don't use a tripod don't know what a sharp photo looks like.

  • Megapixelicious July 3, 2008 09:08 am

    Shooting at the smallest aperture will NOT give the best sharpness. It will give you the biggest DoF. Best sharpness is reached by eliminating camera shake (tripod or super fast shutter speed), using the optimal F stop (depends of the lens) and following these few advices:

    If you dont want to think about it, just shoot between f8 - f11 and you are probably going to be fine. These tends to be the sharpest points of a lot of lenses and cover a DoF deep enough to put most of your picture in focus.

  • Harry Neary July 3, 2008 08:38 am

    "Well, you can if your camera has a zoom-in feature on the display. Most modern DSLRs do."

    That's not necessarily true. My Canon 40D only shows a relatively low res image on the LCD and zooming in on it doesn't give a clear indication of final sharpness.

    True that Live View does allow you to zoom and really nail the focus, but the post exposure screenshot on this camera and many others, is not enough to judge sharpness on.

  • Dave Yuhas July 3, 2008 05:42 am

    "it would help us struggling learners a lot by adding some examples, such as where is this practical and a few samples how to apply for different situations and different lenses."

    The author probably didn't provide examples because hyperfocal distance has little to do with "ultra-sharp photos."

    You must have missed my post in which I presented a couple of situations where hyperfocal distance is useful.

  • Dave Yuhas July 3, 2008 05:40 am

    "I am sure this article is interesting, but I don’t get it. I am a DSLR newbie,"

    We were all newbies at one time. The difference today is people with little to no experience in photography buy DSLR's and expect perfection. The camera is a tool. You're going to have to take the time and make the effort to learn how to use the tool properly and to its fullest potential.

    Hyperfocal distance is not restricted to DSLR's, btw. You may have noticed that the zoom lens that's attached to your DSLR has no distance scale.

  • Dave Yuhas July 3, 2008 05:33 am

    "Well, you can if your camera has a zoom-in feature on the display. Most modern DSLRs do."

    I'll take my 6-power optically corrected loupe over any zoomed in 3" LCD screen.

    If your goal is "ultra-sharp photos" why would you use a DSLR which produces a file that must be sharpened in post?

  • phil July 3, 2008 03:36 am

    You cannot determine from looking at the 3″ LCD screen if small details in the image will be sharp in a 16×20 enlargement

    Well, you can if your camera has a zoom-in feature on the display. Most modern DSLRs do.

  • linn July 3, 2008 03:36 am

    I am sure this article is interesting, but I don't get it. I am a DSLR newbie, and it would help us struggling learners a lot by adding some examples, such as where is this practical and a few samples how to apply for different situations and different lenses.

  • Dave Yuhas July 3, 2008 02:11 am

    "when you shoot a landscape, don’t you usually focus at infinity? does this article imply that you should focus somewhere other then infinity?"

    You could learn something by reading John Shaw's "The Nature Photographer's Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques."

  • Jakob July 3, 2008 02:09 am

    Interesting read. Thanks.

  • Dave Yuhas July 3, 2008 02:03 am

    The 1/3 foreground and 2/3 background in focus at hyperfocal distance is a myth. It only applies in certain circumstances.

    Another secret: most distance scales on lenses are inaccurate. Using your lens' distance scale to get "ultra-sharp photos" is a waste of time if you haven't verified the accuracy of the scale.

    Hyperfocal focusing is valuable in situations like photojournalism or street shooting when you're shooting moving objects and don't have time to refocus. But to claim it's the "secret" to ultra-sharp photos is a stretch.

    "These days digital cameras simplify not only your ability to see what you’re focusing on, but they also give you an immediate view of your photo enabling you to move on to your next photo or to try again."

    Another myth. You cannot determine from looking at the 3" LCD screen if small details in the image will be sharp in a 16x20 enlargement.

    Another secret: there ain't no shortcuts (like hyperfocal distance) to quality. I get ultra-sharp photos by shooting fine grain film in a medium or large format camera mounted on a tripod. I have the film drum scanned and professionally printed.

    It's simply amazing (and depressing) that a "photography school" would allow this claptrap to be printed under its imprimatur.

    Another secret: don't believe everything you read on the internet.

  • Arturo July 3, 2008 01:20 am

    Ah, the good old days, when lenses had scales with the different f/stops on them. You could figure out hyperfocal distance in under a second.

  • phil July 3, 2008 01:06 am

    How to get tack-sharp photos:

    (1) Use a solid tripod.

    (2) Turn off any image stabilization. (The tripod will take care of stabilizing the camera. In this situation, the stabilization would continue to work, trying to stabilize something that is already stable. This will degrade the image a bit.)

    (3) Set your apeture further than one or two stops away from the limits. Example: if your lens goes to f/22, don't go any further than f/16. Similarly, if your lens goes to f/2.8, don't get any wider than f/4.

    (4) If you're using a zoom lens, don't rack it all the way out.

    (5) Remember that, while you're trying to get the subject sharp, you don't need to get EVERYTHING sharp front to back. Bokeh can be an important part of a good photo.

  • Chris Bergman July 3, 2008 12:14 am

    Dangit, I started taking photos to get out of math! What is this trickery? Great article.

  • Tom July 2, 2008 06:31 pm

    I am always discouraged to use the DoF concept (I mean, a range of object which suppose to be sharp) because it relies on an assumption, that some object are "sharp enough" (the "circle of confusion" concept). It means, that they are still blurred, but not very much. It turns out, that the more sharpness you demand and the bigger prints you do, the shorter DoF actually is.

    To get an ultimately sharp picture I'd rather use a good lens, decent tripod and optimal (f/8-f/11) aperture or simply a flash, if the situation allows it.

    Happy shooting!

  • Fish July 2, 2008 03:05 pm

    Oh my.. a math formula...

  • Igor July 2, 2008 02:58 pm

    Sometimes it's easy to look at diaphragm marks on lens distance scale. They note the sharp DOF depending on the aperture.
    Certainly, if your lens have the distance scale.
    I'm I right?..

  • Johan Swanepoel July 2, 2008 10:00 am

    Excellent tip, very interesting.

    I always used to focus on the foreground and hope that the DOF will be long enough. This is much better.


  • Dave Yuhas July 2, 2008 09:53 am

    The SECRET to "ultra-sharp" photos is: use a freaking tripod.

    Depth of field (DOF) does not equal sharpness. A hand-held shot with DOF from the tip of my nose to infinity will be noticeably less sharp than if I had used a tripod.

  • AC July 2, 2008 09:47 am

    Interesting tip :) Never brought math into my photography. Looks like a fun thing to try!

  • grantmichaels July 2, 2008 07:12 am

    i think it should be added that while this is all true, the real secret to "ultra-sharp" photos is to best stabilize the camera - a tripod ...


  • Pete Langlois July 2, 2008 05:47 am

    Great tip!


  • drazin July 2, 2008 05:39 am

    when you shoot a landscape, don't you usually focus at infinity? does this article imply that you should focus somewhere other then infinity? if so, i did not get that from it.

  • Alex July 2, 2008 05:22 am

    So, if I were to focus on a subject 30 feet away from me, everything from 15 feet to infinity would in focus? Supposing that 30 feet is the hyperfocal distance?

  • Sime July 2, 2008 02:09 am

    Something I thought was a gimic in terms of "sharp focus" was the recently introduced "Live View" Into the Canon DSLR (My experience is with the Canons) ...A friend and I were across the bridge from St. Pauls Cathedral in London, It was getting dark... He set his 1Ds Mk III up on the tripod, stuck the 50mm on the front and turned on the live view. It allowed him to zoom right in on a brick in the wall of St. Pauls and really get a pin sharp focus, With very impressive results.

    Now, where did I leave that laser range finder?!... ;)

    Great Article, thanks.


  • GuilleGB July 2, 2008 02:05 am

    Dont you think the title is a little misleading? Hypefocal distances is mostly useful just for landscapes...

  • Nick Watts July 2, 2008 01:28 am

    Good advice. I'd like to add that certain lenses - especially zooms - have "sweet spots" that will give you the most sharpness from the lens. I use a Sigma 10-20mm a lot. At f/8 it's pin-sharp, but much less so at f/4 or f/22.

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