Landscape Photography and Hyperfocal Distance

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Salinas Grandes, Argentina

I can remember when autofocus was relatively new and many photographers distrusted it. Now it’s the other way around – autofocus has become so good and so ubiquitous that manual focus lenses are a rarity. It’s easy to forget that sometimes it’s better to turn it off and use manual focus instead.

A good example of this is when you use a wide-angle lens to take a landscape photo. In this situation, you probably want to record the entire scene as sharply as possible. But how do you do this when the nearest part of the scene may be only centimetres (less than an inch) from your camera?

The answer is that you need to understand depth of field and be willing to take control and decide exactly where you want to focus the lens, rather than leave it up to the camera.

What is depth of field?

Depth of field is the area either side of the point of focus that appears to be sharp. The amount of depth of field depends partly on camera settings (the focal length of the lens and the aperture) and partly upon other factors such as the size of the photo and the eye of viewer. Sharpness is subjective – what might appear to be sharp to one person may not appear so to another. Keep this point in mind as we progress through the article.

Hyperfocal distance diagram

This diagram shows the depth of field when you focus on infinity. You can see that most of the zone of sharpness (another term used to describe the areas that are in focus) extends beyond the point of focus and is effectively wasted.

Depth of field in action

The best way to understand how depth of field works is with a practical example. Imagine that you are using a 24mm lens (or a zoom lens set to 24mm) on an APS-C camera focused on a point exactly one metre (3.3′) from the camera. You want a nice sharp image so you have set the aperture to f/11 (the sharpest aperture settings on most lenses are f/8 and f/11). In this case everything between around 73cm (28.75″) and 157cm (5’1″) will be sharp.

Hyperfocal distance diagram

This is what happens if you focus too closely to the camera. You will get the area around the point of focus sharp, but anything close to the horizon will not be sharp.

In reality, what is happening is that anything one metre (3.3′) from the camera (the point the lens is focused on) is sharp, and then everything either side gradually becomes less so until it reaches the point where it no longer appears to be in focus to the human eye.

Where did I get the above figures from? I used the depth of field calculator at DOF Master and selected EOS 7D as the camera. The camera is important as depth of field as affected by sensor size, as well as lens focal length and aperture.

We have already seen that focusing on infinity effectively wastes depth hyof field. You’ll get a better result using the hyperfocal distance.

What is hyperfocal distance?

The depth of field calculator throws up another figure – the hyperfocal distance. This is the closest point at which you can focus the lens at this focal length and aperture settings, and still keep everything from the focusing point to infinity in focus.

In this example the hyperfocal distance is 2.7m (8’11”). Focus on this point and everything from 1.34 metres (4’5″) to infinity is in focus. That maximizes depth of field and helps you get the entire scene sharp.

Hyperfocal distance diagram

This diagram shows what happens when you focus on the hyperfocal distance. Depth-of-field is maximised, helping you to create a sharp image.

Note that the near focus point (1.34 metres or 4’5″) is half the hyperfocal distance of 2.7 metres (8’11”). This ratio holds true no matter the hyperfocal distance of your lens, aperture and sensor size combination.

Hyperfocal distance in action

The easiest way to use the hyperfocal distance is to print out or photocopy some hyperfocal distance tables to take with you on a shoot (the DOF Master website has tables you can print out here).

Alternatively, there are several smartphone apps that will perform the calculations for you such as these (do a search for DOF or hyperfocal distance, there are plenty of others)

Once you have the information, you need a lens with a depth of field scale on the barrel to tell you the distance at which the lens is focused. Many lenses have these, but some don’t (including lots of kit and pancake lenses). Distance scales aren’t precise, so be prepared to work with approximate measurements.

Canon lens with distance scale

An example of a lens with a distance scale.

Canon lens without distance scale

A lens without a distance scale.

If your lens doesn’t have a distance scale, your only option is to guess the distance (or use a tape measure!). Luckily, it’s not hard to guess distances. In the above example, you would know that focussing on a point around 3 metres (approx. 10′) from the camera will maximize depth of field, so it’s not that hard to make a guess.

After you have taken a photo you can double check sharpness by playing it back on the camera’s LCD screen and enlarging it as much as you can. The usefulness of this depends on the clarity and size of your LCD screen, but you should be able to tell if the parts of the scene closest to you are unsharp. You will only really know for sure once you get home and look at the photo on your monitor, but checking the LCD screen reveals any major errors in your calculations.

Given all the variables and potential for mistakes, one way to apply hyperfocal distance is to use the calculations for one aperture setting (e.g. f/8) but set the camera to a smaller aperture (such as f/11). This gives you margin for error.

Notes on using hyperfocal distance

A couple of things to be aware of:

First, the depth of field calculations in this article are based on something called the circle of confusion. This is the maximum size at which an out of focus dot appears to be sharp to the human eye. Circles of confusion are necessary because they form the basis of depth of field calculations. Each camera and lens manufacturer makes its own judgement as to which size circle of confusion they will use for their calculations. That means the figures in depth of field calculations and hyperfocal distance tables vary according to the circle of confusion size the figures are based on.

If you didn’t understand that, don’t worry. This video explains it perfectly:

Second, you will often read that depth of field extends 1/3 in front and 2/3 behind the point being focused on. This isn’t true. Focus on something close to the camera and the split is closer to 50/50. Focus on something far away from the camera and the split may be 10/90. Advice that you should focus 1/3 of the way into the scene to maximize depth of field is well intended, but inaccurate.

More reading on this topic at Getting Landscapes Sharp: Hyperfocal Distances and Aperture Selection


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Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. He’s written over 25 popular photography ebooks and is the creator of the Lightroom Secrets Email Course.

  • Pixily Frame

    Such in depth & helpful tips!

  • Malinda

    Nice article thanks for this

  • Elrey

    Andrew, I don’t know if I will ever understand the technicalities of depth of field as well as you; But reading tips like yours reminds me to always pay attention, in my landscape photography, to aperture. So thank you. Sometimes that attention seems to pay off:

  • ian Rhodes

    Harold M. Merklinger has an alternative view. His reasoning is that some thing far away being tiny will lose more detail than a closer object. He argues that the focus should be on that object and at f22 close objects will still be acceptably sharp.
    http://www.zen20934.zen.co.uk/photography/dof/dof_Merklinger.htm

  • Mandie Davies

    Thank you thaty made it so easy to understand x

  • Mandie Davies

    I took this one after reading your kindle Stutter Speed Book. Thank you once again.

  • Thebob

    Back in the day, lenses used to have depth of field brackets so you could quickly “see” what all would be in focus. I miss that

  • John Howard

    Given the following quote – “Note that the near focus point (1.34 metres or 4’5?) is half the hyperfocal distance of 2.7 metres (8’11?). This ratio holds true no matter the hyperfocal distance of your lens, aperture and sensor size combination.”
    Does this mean that if the nearest thing you want to be in focus is say, 5 feet, you can always put the focal point at twice that distance, say 10 feet, and everything from the near point to infinity will be in focus. Maybe I don’t understand the quote, but this sounds strange given the variations due to aperture, etc.
    Thanks,
    JH

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    To John Howard: It is NOT true that you can focus on twice the subject distance and everything from there to infinity will be in focus. Instead, for everything to be in focus to infinity, you need to focus on the Hyperfocal distance relative to the aperture you have chosen. This may mean that you cannot have a sharp background with something in focus only 5 feet from the lens. For example, if you are using, say f5.6, you might find the hyperfocal distance is 12 feet, so will have to be at least 6 feet away from your subject to have it and the background appear to be sharp.

  • aRTy

    Thank you! That was a great easy to understand explanation.

  • Geoff

    I am still a little confused. I have downloaded the DOF Master app for my iPhone and want to make the calculation for the following example. I wish to use Hyperfocal Distance on my 24-70mm lens with the lens zoomed to 24mm. The way I read the instructions from this tutorial is that I should enter 70mm in the Lens field. Is this correct or should I in fact be entering 24mm?

  • Hi Geoff, enter the focal length you intend to use. In this case, 24mm.

  • Hi John, Bob (see above) summed it up perfectly. The hypefocal distance depends (amongst other things) on the aperture. The wider the aperture, the less depth-of-field you have and the closer the hyperfocal distance is to infinity.

    Using the hyperfocal distance point is about maximising depth-of-field at any given aperture, it is not a way of creating extra depth-of-field where it didn’t exist in the first place. Hope that makes sense.

  • Nice. Good job!

  • Hi Ian, that’s a very interesting article, thank you for the link.

  • Geoff

    Hi Andrew, thanks for your reply mate, that makes so much more sense. I was not able to watch the youtube tutorial as I am currently in China and youtube is blocked by the Chinese Government here, however will have a look at it when back in Australia. Now after trying for so long to understand how to achieve Hyperfocal Distance I think I finally have it. You can have something explained a dozen different ways but sometimes a further slightly different explanation makes all the difference. You have made that difference for me and for that I am extremely grateful!

  • Hi Geoff, glad it helped. Hyperfocal distance is one of those things which can be difficult to explain properly but is actually surprisingly simple. The YouTube video really helps, it’s a shame the creator hasn’t made more as it’s a really high quality production.

  • Mandie Davies

    Thank you.x

  • dantefrizzoli

    Awesome!

  • dantefrizzoli

    Thank you for sharing this it is wonderful!

  • Mandie Davies

    Thanks

  • Ashkan

    What if I told you that not all people use iPhones?!

  • Derek Wilson

    I’m just curious, but wouldn’t the plane of focus be curved?

  • Marinus H.B. Vesseur

    Very understandable and helpful. Thank you!

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