Getting Landscapes Sharp: Hyperfocal Distances and Aperture Selection

Getting Landscapes Sharp: Hyperfocal Distances and Aperture Selection

An important element of landscape photography is ensuring that all of the key elements within your composition are sharp.  This can often include foreground objects that are a matter of meters from your camera as well as background elements that can be kilometres away.  Therefore, to achieve this, you need to ensure your depth of field is large enough to render everything of interest, suitably sharp.

Sunrise over the limestone pavement

In this scene it was important to capture everything from the frozen puddle in the foreground, to the hills in the background, in sharp focus

When you focus on an individual point within your landscape, you are in fact creating a plane of focus that lies parallel to the sensor.  Everything in front of, and behind, that plane is technically not in focus, however there is a region within which objects will appear acceptably sharp – that is the depth of field.  For instance, in the scene below the camera has been focussed on a rock.  Therefore, the plane of focus lies parallel to the sensor across that rock and the limits of acceptable sharpness, that form the bounds of the depth of field, lie in front of, and behind, that plane.

Hyperfocal Distance Diagram 1

A theoretical example showing the depth of field for a given focal length, aperture and point of focus. The depth of field will always extend one third of the distance in front of the focal plane, and two thirds of the distance behind it.

In the diagram above, the depth of field is not sufficient to capture all of the trees within the range of acceptable sharpness, i.e. they will appear out of focus.  However, the depth of field can be easily manipulated to extend as far as you wish as it is controlled by a number of factors, namely: focal length, aperture and distance to the focal point. (I’m not going to include sensor size here as, after the purchase of your camera, it is not subject to user control; however it does not hurt to appreciate that the depth of field is inversely proportional to sensor size meaning that different cameras have different capabilities with respect to achievable depth of field).  The relationship that these factors have with depth of field is given below:

  • Focal length: Up first is focal length as, typically, your focal length will be determined by your composition.  Changing your focal length will alter your field of view and therefore your composition, meaning that you don’t often adjust your focal length to alter your depth of field but generally manipulate the other factors at your chosen focal length.  A short focal length, i.e. wide-angle, will give you a greater depth of field than a long focal length, i.e. telephoto.
  • Aperture: Probably the most obvious factor in depth of field control is aperture. A narrower aperture, i.e. larger f/ number, gives you a greater depth of field and vice-versa.  It is important to select the smallest, diffraction-limited aperture so to obtain the maximum depth of field without suffering from image degradation.
  • Distance to focal point: In combination with a given focal length and aperture, deciding where to place that plane of focus will impact the resulting depth of field.  The depth of field increases as the distance to the focal point from the camera increases.  Therefore, once a focal length has been chosen, it is generally the combination of the selected aperture and distance to the focal point that controls the depth of field.

Hyperfocal Distance

One way to ensure that the entire frame is in focus (well, ‘acceptably sharp’) is to ensure that the depth of field extends from the foreground to infinity.  To do this, you need to focus at the ‘hyperfocal distance’: for a given focal length and aperture, there will be a distance where setting your point of focus will result in the entire scene being within the depth of field.

Hyperfocal Distance Diagram 2

By focussing at the hyperfocal distance, the entire scene (and more beyond) will fall within the depth of field

So theoretically, by selecting the correct aperture and moving the point of focus to the hyperfocal distance (assuming the composition and therefore focal length remain unchanged) it would be possible to render the entire scene in focus.  A point worth noting is that when focussing at the hyperfocal distance, the near acceptable limit is always half of the hyperfocal distance.

The calculation to determine the hyperfocal distance isn’t trivial, so there are numerous sites or apps to help you when out in the field.  However by frequent application, it isn’t long until you gain an appreciation of where to set your point of focus, for a given aperture at your commonly used focal lengths.

Aperture Selection

For any focal plane, the depth of field extends 1/3rd in front and 2/3rd behind the point of focus.  Therefore, an easy, but potentially flawed, application of hyperfocal focussing is to select a very small aperture, e.g. f/22 or f/18, and to focus 1/3rd of the way into the scene from the bottom of the frame.  It’s not a bad assumption, as often you will achieve the desired depth of field, however in choosing such a small aperture, you may well be losing any benefits of infinite focus due to decreased image sharpness as a result of diffraction.

For example, the image below shows a comparison of the same scene, shot at f/8 (left) and f/16 (right).

Hyperfocal distance aperture selection 1

The frosty fern leaf in the centre of the frame at the bottom of the image, was an important part of the foreground interest here.  Even though both images look perfectly sharp, the 100% zoom for each image below shows the difference in sharpness for between using f/8 and f/16, even though both apertures result in a depth of field that extends from before the fern leaf to infinity:

Hyperfocal distance aperture selection 2

The sharpness of the fern leaf at f/8 (left) vs. f/16 (right). Even though the lens was stopped down from f/22 to f/16, the resulting image could still be captured with greater sharpness throughout, by using a wider aperture of f/8, and focussing at the hyperfocal distance

Diffraction becomes an issue all lenses as the aperture gets smaller, especially at the edges of the image, and will be more pronounced on inexpensive lenses.  Typically, the sweet spot, in terms of lens performance, will be somewhere between f/8 and f/11.  Therefore, use of the smallest  ‘diffraction limited’ aperture that can still achieve the required depth of field becomes important.

So, hopefully, you will see that it is worth being aware of the hyperfocal distance for your commonly used focal lengths, especially for the apertures that result in optimum lens performance.  With the tools available to us today, it isn’t difficult to work it out, even when out in the field, so why not give it a go the next time you are out photographing landscapes.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Elliot Hook is a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Hertfordshire, UK. Elliot loves being outdoors with his camera, and is always looking to improve his own photography and share what he has learnt with others. Elliot also can be found at his website, on Twitter, Flickr and 500px.

Some Older Comments

  • J. Schmidt March 11, 2013 03:59 am

    Very nice article on hyperfocal distance, especially the illustrations! However, sensor size does not affect depth of field! The job of focus is for the lens, not the sensor or piece of film. There is no “inversely proportional” anything going on! The three bullet points following the sensor size statement are correct and do not mention anywhere about sensor size……as they should not.

    If you take a full frame DSLR and physically put tape around the edges of the sensor to mimic a cropped sensor, the lens and depth of field does not suddenly change.

    Another example using a classic view camera; if you focus an 8x10 view camera to the desired point, but place a 4x5 sheet of film in the back, this act does not cause the focusing rails of the view camera to suddenly change thus making your depth of field different. A "cropped" sensor is no different.

    What should be understood is that, if using a particular lens on a crop sensor body, you have to physically move the camera-to-subject distance to maintain the same "field of view," then it is THIS change in the laws of physics that modified the "depth of field"! Not the camera or lens.

    For proof of these laws of physics, please watch the following videos:

    From Kevin Ritchie on Vimeo

    From Matt Granger on YouTube

  • Kevin ryan March 8, 2013 09:58 am

    Thank you.
    I actually have come to my own conclusions about it and am relatively happy with my understanding of it.
    Got a bit of a bee in my bonnet trying to find the answers when in fact, it is the principle of the method that counts.
    Good discussion though, once again I learn from dps, and all the good people who contribute to it.

  • Jake March 8, 2013 04:48 am

    Kevin. I think we can get too wrapped up in rules and physics, which can sometimes stifle the artistic side of us. Of course, it does matter, but I gave up on the rigidity of this dictum a long time ago. If you have a full frame camera with a wide angle lens fitted, (something in the range of 16/17mm) and set up the shot of the scene you want, I find a good policy is to pick something to include in the foreground ( a large rock or something). Position your camera at a point where you can literally touch that object (important!), set your aperture at f8/f11 and focus on that close object. The depth of field would be pretty impressive and things at a far horizon would be within an acceptable sharpness range. An old mentor of mine always used to say: 'Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the strict adherence of fools'. I try to stay away from the second category. That's all I need to excuse experimentation. :-)

  • Kevin ryan March 8, 2013 03:54 am

    Thanks for the response.
    I have been reading as much as I can and I understand the concept pretty well.
    But what would people say was the place in the photo in the article that they would chose as the focal distance from which to calculate hyperfocal distance. Would it be the aforementioned fern, the tree?
    It seems to me that if you want everything acceptably sharp then what you pick as "point of interst" has a massive effect on the calculation.
    Therefore isn't it important what you pick as the starting point for your calculation, and not just picking something at random.

    I don't mean to come across as pedantic, I am usually not ;-) , but it is taken as a pretty scientific exercise yet one of the elements used for calculation is entirely at the photographer discretion.

  • Roger March 7, 2013 03:23 am

    @ Kevin

    You take the first point of interest and where you want best sharpness, i.e. pebbles on a beach or wherever the main focal point is and then take a reading slightly beyond that. If you don't have any means of measuring then step it out or just estimate approximate distance. If you then set a stop of f11 everything should be in "acceptable" focus depending on your lens. If you require ABSOLUTE sharpness throughout the whole scene then multiple focus stacking is probably the way.

    There are many questions regarding this and many answers. Suggest you read all about the hyperfocal technique here.

  • Kevin ryan March 5, 2013 03:20 am

    While I understand the concept of depth of field/hyper focal distance pretty well.
    My problem with the whole calculating it bit is this, when using a hyperfocal distance calculator of some sort like an app or whatever, it asks for fstop focal length, no problem there.

    Then it asks for distance to object. My question is what object? Is it the object nearest you in the frame the one a third of the way in? Or an object that lines up roughly with what's in the center or your frame. Sometimes there is no obvious object,
    Like say a beach scene with lots of pebbles and the waves washing over.

    In a funny way isn't askiing you for a distance to an object kinda what your hoping to get from the distance calculator in the first place.

    The diagram above kinda illustrates the problem perfectly in that the camera isn't pointed at any thing in particular, it's just pointing straight on.

    I realise this might be a pretty stupid or obvious question.
    But if there are no obvious object, or worse still, several.
    What distance do I enter into the hyfo calculator?

  • Ward March 3, 2013 07:23 pm

    Always makes me laugh when someone just HAS to try and prove the author wrong.

  • kenp March 3, 2013 08:59 am

    @Elliot, agreed about the noise of older 4/3rd sensors. However, Higbee f-stops are noisier but smaller sensor allows you to shot at half the aperture for same amount of depth of field. I had an E510 and I could get away with sufficient depth for landscapes at f8.

  • Roger March 3, 2013 03:19 am

    .... and not forgetting focus stacking over several exposures can help when not sure where to focus exactly and you want everything to be in acceptable sharpness.

  • Elliot Hook March 3, 2013 02:47 am

    Thanks for all of the comments, a lot of good discussion here!

    af - there was some chromatic aberration visible on both images, though much more pronounced on the f/16 image. I generally remove CA as one of my first processing steps after import, using LR4.

    a.i.r- focal length does have a huge influence on the depth of field. You can see this for yourself by focussing on the same point (say a few metres away) with a wide angle lens at say 12mm, and then a telephoto lens at say 300mm. Even with the same aperture, the resulting depth of fields will be vastly different. You can even see if by inputting the values into one of the online calculators and seeing the results.

    kenp - yes, you're right, and I enjoy that benefit as an Olympus E-3 user, however, the smaller sensor size does have a number of limitations for landscape photography (noise, dynamic range) that are only now starting to be overcome with the newer m4/3 sensors.

    mike - yes, i find that a challenge also. I am quite good at approximating distances, but obviously something as fine as the difference between 183 or 192 cm would be virtually impossible to get right without some kind of measure. In those instances I tend to err on the side of caution and stop down that little bit further just to make sure.

  • Ionut March 2, 2013 11:23 pm

    Thank you for the article. Very interesting.
    I was reading through the comments and I agree that the 1/3 2/3 is just a rule of thumb. The application suggested in the post shows that pretty clearly:
    An example on
    Canon 7D 1.6 crop factor
    Focal length: 55mm
    Aperture: f/1.4
    Subject distance: 10 ft
    Depth of field
    Near limit 9.74 ft
    Far limit 10.3 ft
    Total 0.53 ft

    In front of subject 0.26 ft (49%)
    Behind subject 0.27 ft (51%)

    Same setting with an aperture of f/45 you get:

    In front of subject 4.6 ft (7%)
    Behind subject 57 ft (93%)

  • Jake March 2, 2013 08:05 am

    'full frame' dslr.

  • Jake March 2, 2013 08:04 am

    Mike. Good point. The 'focus puller' on a film set sometimes actually does use a tape measure. I understand that most of the time they use 'stand-in' actors positioned on set, then check focus on them through the camera. They then place 'china-graph' pencil marks as reference on the lens. They also place tape marks on the set floor to position the real actors at the correct point of focus. I suppose still photographers measuring distance with a tape is at the opposite end of 'point and shoot' photography. There can't be much fun and satisfaction in 'point and shoot' for serious photographers. For me, I enjoyed landscape photography when using a large format camera and all that entails. I still take my time with my full 35mm dslr. I get a lot more satisfaction from that than quick 'grab shots'. That doesn't appeal to me.

  • Jake March 2, 2013 07:41 am

    af. I see your point. Don't want to argue about this. Better scholars than I have failed to define it to everyone's satisfaction. The fact is when we talk about 'in focus' and 'sharp', in the context of hyper-focal distance we mean 'acceptably sharp'. Now something that's 'acceptably sharp' up to 1/3rd in front of the object of focus and 2/3rds. behind demonstrates that. I was taught that at infinity in an image, things are so indiscernible that the eye cannot compare the sharpness there to points closer to the lens. Fortunately, things at the furthest distance don't draw the eye's interest and scrutiny as much as things closer. Which brings into consideration the 'circle of confusion', which takes into account the eye's ability to discern detail. It always has and always will interest me. There have been many definitions of hyper-focal distance which in some cases contradict each other. I don't know who's right.

  • Bram March 2, 2013 05:56 am

    Thank you for taking the time to publish. As a visual learner and newbie to landscape photography I only wish the examples would have contained where actual focus point was and the corresponding aperture.

  • Mike March 2, 2013 04:41 am

    A good article - whenever hyperfocal distance is talked about no one seems to explain actually how to focus on something at 183cm or 192cm...or whatever my very precise app seems to come up with! Do I need to take a tape measure...

  • Roger March 1, 2013 11:00 pm

    Very interesting that you recommend F8 aperture as ideal. I have always used F16 but will give it a try and check the difference.

    Anyone interested in more info regarding the hyperfocal technique please have a look at my dedicated group on Flickr.

  • marius2die4 March 1, 2013 10:30 pm

    Yes great tips. I use usualy f8 because at Olympus with f11 start the difractions.

  • Yvonne March 1, 2013 07:59 pm

    Thank you for a very insightful article ;D

  • af March 1, 2013 06:38 pm

    Jake: 1/3 - 2/3 is not always true, it's a rule of thumb. There is a hyperfocal distance at which the distance behind the focus distance is infinite, but the distance in front is not.

  • kenp March 1, 2013 11:34 am

    Thanks for the additional link, maureen.

    Now, time to get my Olympus OM-D ready and shoot some landscapes using the tips in this article :)

  • Duke March 1, 2013 10:27 am

    Congrats Darren,

    You really dealt with this complex issue to where I could finally grasp the concept and how to use it.

  • Maureen Spagnolo March 1, 2013 09:33 am

    Yes, true, kenp. and (bonus!) you can/need to shoot with a wider aperture to achieve the results you want.

  • kenp March 1, 2013 08:12 am

    So for landscapes, the micro 4/3rd format easily wins in depth of field .... because dof is inversely proportional to sensor size.

    Thanks for this tip, among others.

  • Jake March 1, 2013 06:42 am

    Seems a few of the above are trying to change the laws of physics with the 1/3 in front/ 2/3 behind dictum. It's a fact, so get used to it. Maybe in another dimension, place and time, but in this universe, that's the way it is.

  • A.I.R. March 1, 2013 05:06 am

    Elliot: This is purely technical, but I do not believe a WA lens gives greater DOF. It may seem that DOF changes with focal length changes, and I know it is a popular belief, but it is really not true. All focal lengths produce the same DOF if the F-stop is the same. Please correct me if I am wrong. Bill.

    "A short focal length, i.e. wide-angle, will give you a greater depth of field than a long focal length, i.e. telephoto."

  • Edgar Arias February 28, 2013 12:26 pm

    Excellent article.
    I had been blindly stopping all the way down on landscapes before I heard about diffraction.
    Among all the stuff I read on the subject of DOF, Hyperfocal distance and diffraction, this is the easiest article to understand of the lot. Thanks to Elliot and DPS for sharing this so brilliantly!!

  • Bernie the Landscape Photographer :) February 28, 2013 11:00 am

    I'm glad articles like this are being published -- I wish all photographers would make an effort to capture images that are as sharp and technically well-produced, and this article presents some good info on one way to go about that! :)

    Us fussy landscape photographers are always looking to get maximum sharpness and DoF throughout an image, especially when there's foreground interest mixed with a distant background -- juggling these elements can be tricky, and even with the application of the hyperfocal distance approach the article presents, it is often just not good enough.

    This presents a fantastic use-case for the application of tilt/shift lenses (Canon's TS-e and Nikon's PC-e models, for example). In addition to applying hyperfocal distances, you also have another tool in the toolkit -- tilt!

    By modifying the way the DoF falls upon a scene, you can achieve a very deep DoF without the need to use a smaller aperture. This does not mean that we can shoot wide open and have everything sharp, but it does mean that larger, more open apertures can be used to avoid diffraction, while still achieving effective DoF from near to very far.

    Sadly, T/S lenses aren't cheap... and it's a complicated subject (Scheimpflug Principle)... But if you want some extra info, feel free to check out:

  • Scottc February 27, 2013 12:13 pm

    I've also found that f8 seems to work best with most lenses on landscapes, but this article has me thinking.....

  • af February 27, 2013 09:44 am

    Well presented article.
    I'm surprised that there is no apparent color fringing on the diffraction example. Was that dealt with in PS, and is this what you get even after such treatment?

  • Eric February 27, 2013 06:28 am

    Maybe a bit pedantic, but isn't it just a rule of thumb that the focal plane is 1/3 of the way between the near and far boundaries of the region of acceptable focus? The actual fractions in front and behind the focus plane will vary with the distance the focal plane is set to (for any given focal length and aperture).

  • satesh February 27, 2013 03:31 am

    wow. this is very interesting. Will have to try this. Thank you.

  • JvW February 27, 2013 03:17 am

    In the caption under the first diagram you state "The depth of field will always extend one third of the distance in front of the focal plane, and two thirds of the distance behind it."

    That is not true: as this table shows, it depends on distance, lens focal length and aperture, and runs from roughly one-third in front / two-thirds behind to one to one in front and behind.

  • Mridula February 27, 2013 02:43 am

    I knew that to get everything in focus I need F18 or so but then it needs a tripod in sunset conditions as well. But this focusing at 1/3 is something new for me I am going to give it a try.

  • Deron February 27, 2013 02:28 am


    I've always used F8 on the basis it's the sharpest aperture for my lens, and just checked the nearest point and furthest point using liveview.

    In this picture where should i have been focussing? (using samyang manual lens)