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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.