Hyperfocal Distance - Photographer's Friend

Hyperfocal Distance – Photographer’s Friend

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Maybe.

However, in photography of the digital kind, there’s an equivalent function that, used properly, can be of enormous help in capturing subjects with degrees of sharpness that may surprise the less informed photographer.

For some unknown reason you won’t find much about hyperfocal distance in recent digital photography books. Why? I suspect many writers on the subject try to avoid talking about the long established principles of photography to give the impression that digital photography is all about the pleasure of the craft and not to frighten people with the techy bits, all the historic paraphernalia of f stops, circles of confusion etc.


Anyhow … I sometimes look longingly at my unused film camera gear and especially at the lenses and then notice something I see on very few current digital SLR lenses — a scale displaying a zone of focus. This shows the function of lens aperture and distance setting; with a zoom lens there is info on the lens barrel that helps you to calculate the effect of changing the lens aperture, focus setting and focal length.

Hyperfocal distance — call it a zone of focus — is a useful feature that is the function of the lens aperture (f stop), distance and focal length.

When you focus your lens there will be a zone that is in focus and areas that are out of focus. The area that is in focus is called the focal plane of acceptable sharpness.

Footbridge - Freepixels.jpg

The interesting thing about this focal plane is that, when you focus on a subject, one third of the distance closest between subject and camera is in focus; secondly, two thirds of the zone that stretches out from and behind the subject is also in focus.

Here’s one way you can use it: when shooting landscapes it’s an easy chore to focus at infinity. A more intelligent and productive approach is to focus at a point just short of infinity. That way you will get an additional area in front of distant subject matter that is also in focus. You then get the greatest range of focus from the camera out to infinity.

An easy approach to ascertain and maximise a deep focus range is to use the depth of field preview button on your camera. Try it.

Pool - Freepixels.jpg

Set your camera on a tripod; set it to manual focus. Aim at a scene. Focus on a point about a third the distance between you and the subject. Now, preview the depth of field with a press of the button. See how this depth will vary as you change the lens aperture. Open the lens, say to f2.8 … little depth of field. Stop down to f11 … much more depth of field.

There are all sorts of tables and calculations to help assess hyperfocal distance but, in these digital days, they effectively mean nothing due to varying image sensor sizes and inkjet printing methods.

But it’s still a trick worth knowing.

Read more from our category

Barrie Smith is an experienced writer/photographer currently published in Australian Macworld, Auscam and other magazines in Australia and overseas.

Some Older Comments

  • Donn Cook June 5, 2013 01:50 am

    Why must you be so complicated about "Hyperfocal distance"? the true definition is "the nearest point of usable sharpness, when focused on infinity at a given F/stop" ... and what does that mean? How close can you be at a particular f/stop.. simple

  • Jason December 12, 2011 03:33 am

    This is interesting article but bit unclear on how to calculate hyper focal distance. I found another post which explains with formula. Very undressing article and well explained. I recommend to check following link.


  • jim giner July 9, 2011 12:24 am

    I found this article to be not very informative. I now know no more about hf distances and their usefulness. Disappointing offering.

    Another thing that helped to come to this opinion was the quick jump to another little-used feature of many cameras - the dof preview button. I've known about my button since day 1, but find it to be impractical. Pressing that button is supposed to stop down the lens so I can get a feel for what will be in focus. I must be doing something wrong then, because in practice all it does on my Canon 50d (and my Rebel before that) is make the image in the viewfinder so dim that I can't tell if anything(!) is in focus, let alone the range that is supposed to be in focus.

  • Michelle True January 29, 2011 04:22 pm

    I don't think I have a dof preview button on my camera. I have never heard of that on mine. I have a Nikon D90

  • wade February 20, 2010 01:13 pm

    Thats all well and good if your camera has a depth of field button. I don't have that option so I use the viewfider and stop down to get the greatest depth of feid. I also rely on the depth of field setting on the 35mm auto focus lens. I wish they still put those guide lines on the new digital lens.

  • GX67 July 7, 2009 12:05 pm

    There's actually a new iTouch/iPhone app that's useful for calculating hyperfocal distance. I believe it's called Field Tools, and it's FREE.

    It was gone over in an article at the diyphotography.net website.


    Link, if you're interested.

  • Wayan Suadnyana July 7, 2009 12:28 am

    great article...i never knew about it...

  • Lennard July 5, 2009 12:10 pm

    Best infos I found in the net about Hyperfocal Distance are the both podcasts from Martin Bailey
    "#065 Understanding Hyperfocal distance"->
    and "#132 DOF Explained"->
    And the pdf-file to the "DOF Explained"podcast, click->
    Really every KB is worth to download. Get a bit more in "depth".


  • Nick July 4, 2009 01:59 am

    My D50 and your D50 has a depth of field preview button. You can check the book or look for the black button on the left side below your lens. check it out.
    I’m not sure about the D40 but I would check the book

    Read more: https://digital-photography-school.com/hyperfocal-distance-photographers-friend#ixzz0KDDyOHIo&C

    The D40/x/D60/D5000 lack a DOF preview button. However, since they're digital, you can always just take a test shot and zoom in on the LCD to see which areas are in focus. I much prefer this to using DOF preview on 35mm cameras. I find DOF preview both more useful and more necessary on my RB67, because DOF is trickier with 6x7 format, and because the gigantic viewfinder means it's possible to make out detail easily even when the lens is stopped down.

    But for those who want to do scale focus work on a Nikon, my suggestion is just to buy a nice old lens with DOF markings. (And, if your camera is DX, use the markings for one stop wider than what you're shooting at.)

    A 28mm f/3.5 H can be found for under $50 easily, it's a great lens for landscape, infrared, and street, and quite easy to scale focus. It won't meter on the consumer bodies, but that's no big deal with digital, anyway.

  • bob gardner July 4, 2009 01:38 am

    My D50 and your D50 has a depth of field preview button. You can check the book or look for the black button on the left side below your lens. check it out.
    I'm not sure about the D40 but I would check the book

  • Turo Jantunen July 3, 2009 02:21 pm

    You can calculate exact hyperfocal charts with http://www.dofmaster.com/doftable.html. Choose your camera body and lens combination and then also sensor size is correctly taking care of those calculations.

  • Bridget Casas July 3, 2009 12:33 pm

    I found this interesting and I need to do some more research. I have shot digital for so long I forgot about this! or did I ever know?

    Thank you for the information.

  • af July 3, 2009 08:58 am

    Wherever you focus your lens, there will be a range in acceptable focus extending closer and further than the focused-upon point. The precise range depends upon pixel size, but I won't go into that.

    The range will extend twice as far outward as it will closer to the camera. that is, you will be focused on a point one third of the way into the focused range.

    The extent of the range depends upon 1) the f-stop: smaller aperture, greater range; 2) the distance: further away, greater range.

    For a nice depth of field table, look here: http://www.dofmaster.com/doftable.html

    For most landscape shots, I shoot f11 and focus on something, even the ground, part of the way into the range of depths I want to have in focus. Eyeballing it works fine, most of the time.

  • Nathan July 3, 2009 03:29 am

    I'm with Eddy and Peter. The comments have been helpful, but I'm still going to have to do some of my own research. I probably would have anyhow, but it would have been nice if the article provided some of the calculations or summary of some of the basic concepts. I've got some older lenses, but have yet to learn about how to use the barrel markings, since my digital lenses don't have them.

  • Irene Mcc July 3, 2009 02:46 am

    I found this a very disappointing article which left me more confused than before! I've been shooting since the early 80's and still have my Nikon film camera and lenses. Nowadays, with AF lenses calculating focus, it is far harder to ascertain hyperfocal distance and to manually achieve it, especially with lenses that don't carry the markings on the barrel.

    I doubt very much that a beginner could make any real sense out of reading this article and apply it with success.

  • Joost July 3, 2009 01:06 am

    one third of the distance closest between subject and camera is in focus; secondly, two thirds of the zone that stretches out from and behind the subject is also in focus.
    Not. Play around with dofmaster or similar tools to find out the truth about this urban myth. Not to mention, what if the far limit of the focal plane is infinity?

  • WarDog July 3, 2009 12:20 am

    I feel that one reason people don't talk about this much now-a-days is that you'll increasingly find less and less lenses on the market with distance markings on the camera and thus less of a need to explain concepts like this. Years ago the photography crowd was smaller, but now, with the age of affordable digital SLRs, you have a market ever more inclined to provide more automated, user-friendly lenses.

    Look at the guilded lenses, the only marking you have on these is the focal length. No F stops, no distance markings. The only really practical method for determining hyperfocal distance is pretty much trial and error by selecting your near and far points and focusing about a third between them and then adjusting the fstop accordingly where as with a lens with distance markings it's easier to set up the shot before you even put your eye to the viewfinder (albeit you'll probably still need to make adjustments).

    Hyperfocal distance is a very good tool in the photographer's arsenal and is one of those things that you just need to practice with if you want to take advantage of it. It's also one of those things that you just can't easily fix in photoshop. As a matter of fact, understanding hyperfocal distance will help you with better portraiture.

    For example, if you've invested in a fast lens and have tried to shoot a small group (2-3 people) that the faces in the front or the back are blurry while maybe one person's face is tack sharp. Knowing your lens and camera and taking advantage of the hyperfocal distance can bring everything into focus while blurring out everything else you don't want.

    With practice you can find yourself automatically determining your fstop and focal point so you can get the exact mount of DoF just by seeing how far your subject is away from you.

  • Johnny July 3, 2009 12:12 am

    This is an excellent discussion ....

    I'm middle-aged and my first SLR was film, manual focus ... well, pretty much manual "everything" except for a fairly primitive through-the-lens light meter. The first thing I noticed on my first DSLR lens was the missing zone of focus scale.

    So I'm older and lazier now and rely on autofocus and non-manual exposure a lot. For landscapes like you mention, where you have a little extra time, switching to manual focus and taking your time working out the depth of field works wonders.

  • Peter July 2, 2009 10:50 pm

    I wish we could add up all of the instructive comments above and rewrite this article because with all the feedback provided we can definitely have a very balanced and informative production. It's nice to know we have very capable commentors on this site...

    The article was written nicely, but we definitely need a little more detail. Thank you Nick for the detailed approach, and Klaus for the dirty trick...

  • bl1nk July 2, 2009 09:47 pm

    Useful overview. The thing with zoom lenses, sensor sizes etc is that:
    Depth of field is inversely proportional to the physical aperture.

    So for any given lens (whether it is a 12" lens for 10x8 or a 3.5mm lens on a phone cam) a bigger f number gives a smaller physical aperture and therefore more depth of field. So set your zoom to 55mm and f16 gives more depth of field than f5.6.

    But equally for any f number depth of field will decrease as the focal length increases - this is because the physical aperture increases. So f8 at 18mm gives a lot of depth of field but f8 at 200mm does not.

    However, as long as you use the actual focal length of the lens you use and not the "35mm equivalent" then DoF tables work - because you get the same depth of field using a 200mm lens at f8 whether you are using it as a wide angle on 10x8, a mid length tele on 35mm/'full frame', a nice long lens on 4/3 or a massive super-zoom on your iphone (or 110 though I don't think Pentax made one that long). The final result - and therefore what is considered acceptably sharp when enlarged - will vary, but it will vary according to many other attributes as well, not just DoF.

    And remember - when you get a really tiny physical aperture you lose more through diffraction than you may gain through DoF, so those little tiny lenses on campacts will get worse at f-numbers greater than 8 whereas you can easily set a 12" Dagor to f90.

  • Klaus July 2, 2009 06:34 pm

    Quick and Dirty trick for 18-55 kit lens users:

    - Put the zoom at its shortest
    - Close your lens (F/8 if you're more than 6 feet tall, F/10 if you're 5 something)
    - Stand still
    - Autofocus on the pavement between your feet
    - Lock focus
    - Here you are.

    Another widely used trick is just focus on infinite and go.

  • Eddy July 2, 2009 04:22 pm

    Indeed, I didn't feel like I know how to use this hyperfocale thing after reading your post. I knew a little about the idea of it, but what I'd like to know is how to calculate it.
    Even with the different size of censor, you could have expliained an example with full format censor.

    Sorry to write this, but I've really been disappointed while reading this short explanation.

  • michael July 2, 2009 04:00 pm

    Sorry, I meant what do inkjet printing methods have on hyperfocal distance?

  • michael July 2, 2009 03:59 pm

    You say that hyperfocal charts mean nothing these days. Yes, sensor size has an effect. The tiny sensors on point and shoots do throw the calculations off, but for the very common APC sensor and even more so on full frame SLRs they're still very helpful. I can't imagine anybody but a serious photographer bothering and they generally have the larger sensors if they can afford them.

    I don't understand what effect different papers have on hyperfocal distance. Please explain.

  • ilyanep July 2, 2009 10:47 am

    When getting my first lens for my D50, I got the 18-70 AF-S partially because it had the focal length meter on it. Unfortunately, my camera doesn't have a DOF preview button :(

  • Nick July 2, 2009 10:46 am

    tk - Well, I don't have any memorized because almost all of the lenses I use regularly have DOF scales.

    However, I would say you probably just need to look up the hyperfocal distances for f/8, f/11. and f/16 for one or two of your favorite moderate wide angle focal lengths. (24mm, say.)

    Hyperfocal shooting is most practical in those apertures because wider than f/8 and you may not have enough DOF, and smaller than f/16, you'll likely run into problems with diffraction softening the image.

    For wider lenses, where DOF will be greater, it might be more like f/5.6, f/8, and f/11. And you could get just get by with two or even one, especially on digital, since you'll probably have enough leeway with ISO and shutter speed to adjust any of these apertures to most lighting circumstances, except for low-light handheld shooting. (As the saying goes, "F/8 and be there.")

    I know that my 2.8cm f/3.5 Nikkor-H, which is a lens I mainly use for scale focus shooting, I am shooting at f/8 or f/11 the vast majority of the time.

    You can of course also just carry a DOF table with you all the time. I know someone who does exactly that when he goes street shooting.

  • af July 2, 2009 10:43 am

    Nice photos, poor explanation. Can't figure out if you're being glib, don't really know what you're talking about (see lennard's comment), or are simply illiterate.

  • TK July 2, 2009 10:06 am

    Sorry to ask dumb questions, but if I were to assume that the distance from my camera to the subject is X, then does "one third of the distance closest between subject and camera" and "two thirds of the zone that stretches out from and behind the subject" mean that the area in focus is from [X - (1/3)*X] to [X + (2/3)*X], near to far respectively? If so, as aperture value should affect the area of focus, how does this takes account of aperture value?

    Also, is the "depth of field preview button" a feature on higher end DSLR only? There doesn't seem to be this designated "depth of field preview button" on my D40. (If there is, please let me know how to use it)

    @Nick: Can you please share some examples of the situations you mentioned with some numerical examples?

  • Paurian July 2, 2009 09:40 am

    Cambridge In Colour also has a calculator and shows an excellent example of it in use.

    Vivid Light has some downloadable PDFs and spreadsheets.

  • GP July 2, 2009 09:33 am

    This needs to be a slightly longer discussion - as Barrie noted, hyperfocal distance and DOF use the concept of plane of acceptable sharpness. The problem is that the depth of that plane depends on some assumptions about the resolving ability of the human eye and the size of the print being viewed.

    Put another way, if you're printing in a large format (I believe the assumption is historically 4x6) like 11x14 or larger, then that plane is actually a lot shallower than you think, or is calculated by popular calculators. The reality is that the plane of focus is the only one that is universally defined as "sharp" and everything else depends on your assumptions about the viewer and the format. The upshot is that you may need to stop down more than calculated if you "need" a certain DOF.

  • Lennard July 2, 2009 09:14 am

    "There are all sorts of tables and calculations to help assess hyperfocal distance but, in these digital days, they effectively mean nothing due to varying image sensor sizes and inkjet printing methods."

    If you had read them carefully, you hadn´t thrown out sentences like: "Aim at a scene. Focus on a point about a third the distance between you and the subject."
    Because this is not really a good rule of thumb. If you always focus on a "third the distance", you will always have photos that are NOT really in focus. That is because the proportion is not fixed. It varies with the distance of the camera to the subject!

  • Nick July 2, 2009 08:36 am

    There are all sorts of tables and calculations to help assess hyperfocal distance but, in these digital days, they effectively mean nothing due to varying image sensor sizes and inkjet printing methods.

    Dofmaster.com has some great tools -- the online DOF calculator and DOF table generator will both help greatly for digital shooters. You probably only need to remember or write down a handful of aperture/distance/focal length combinations in order to use hyperfocal distance effectively in many situations.

    Also, you can often make use of the DOF markers on older lenses with some modifications. For example, on Nikon cameras, using the DOF markings for one stop wider than you're shooting will usually put you in the right ballpark.

    This lets you shoot very quickly, especially for street shooting or for long night exposures, where messing around with the focus can be either onerous.

  • Danny Cahill July 2, 2009 08:08 am

    I was just trying to explain this to a fellow photographer the other day.
    I will now direct him to this article very well explained.
    This concept used can make the difference between a shot and a great shot.