There are certain techniques that can take your photography to the next level. Often a simple fix can make your images just bit more appealing… like putting a cherry on top of a cake. The cake isn’t flawed without the cherry. But with it, the pastry feels like a completed product. In the photography world, this cherry is hyperfocal distance.
What Is Hyperfocal Distance?
It is the distance at which you need to focus your camera in order to maximize the depth of field in your photo with your current aperture and focal length. Interestingly, the actual depth that will be in focus starts half way between your camera and the hyperfocal distance.
Let me explain that with an example. If your hyperfocal distance is found to be 20 meters, you will have to focus your lens on an object at 20 meters – simple enough. The result would make everything from 10 meters (half of your hyperfocal distance) to infinity (beyond the lighthouse and the horizon) in sharp focus!
When Should I Be Using Hyperfocal Distance?
Imagine you have several interesting rocks in the lower part of a seascape and a lighthouse closer to the horizon. You would like to have both elements in sharp focus. Simply focusing on one of the two objects, the lighthouse, for instance, will leave the rocks out of focus, and visa versa. This is where hyperfocal distance comes into play. It allows you to compose an image in which both objects are equally sharp and in focus.
At this point, it is also important to note that hyperfocal distance is not useful for every landscape. There are times when it just doesn’t suit. Like when you really want the focus to be on one specific element in the shot. In these situations, using it may simply detract from your image rather than enhancing it.
Factors That Affect Hyperfocal Distance
Before we go into the exact details of calculating your hyperfocal distance, it’s a good idea to understand that these three elements make up your value. Similar to the depth of field, changing any of these factors results in a change to your hyperfocal distance.
Aperture – As you may have guessed, your aperture is key to hyperfocal distance. Generally, as you move it from wide (f2.8) to narrow (f30), the hyperfocal distance will get closer to the camera.
Focal Length – Again, quite obvious. Smaller focal distances mean that you have a wider angle of view. This leads to a closer hyperfocal distance.
Sensor Size – Not really an element you can change in the field unless you are changing between bodies. But a larger sensor compared to a smaller one will bring the hyperfocal distance closer to the camera.
Calculating the Hyperfocal Distance
So, to the details. Hyperfocal distance is calculated using the following equation:
A quick breakdown of the equation shows that we require 3 pieces of information. These are the focal length of the lens, the aperture (f-stop) value we are using, and the circle of confusion.
The value that probably stands out as unfamiliar is the circle of confusion. This value lives up to the name it has been given and can often cause a lot of, well… confusion. From a purely numerical view, your circle of confusion (CoC) is directly related to your camera. It will usually be around 0.02 or 0.03 for crop sensors and full-frame DSLRs respectively. If you wish to know the detailed workings behind those values, take a look at this video.
So, we will now put the three known values into our equation.
Let’s take a look at an easy example. If we are shooting with a 50mm focal distance on a crop sensor DSLR at f/10, your calculation would be:
This gives us a hyperfocal distance of 12500mm or 12.5m (always be careful with your units!).
So, if we focus our lens at a distance of 12.5m, we will, in fact, get everything from 6.25m (half our hyperfocal distance) to infinity in sharp focus!
Calculating Hyperfocal Distance In The Field
In reality, there is no need for a photographer to sit on location and physically calculate the hyperfocal distance using this equation. Perhaps years ago, this was a necessity. But with pre-location preparation and technological advances, you now have a range of ways for acquiring your values. Here are a few of the best and easiest ways to your values in the field:
Hyperfocal Distance Charts
Great if you tend to regularly use the same set up for your landscape photography. You can buy or download pre-prepared charts that show aperture vs focal length. Keep them in your equipment bag for a quick way to find your distances. The Below chart shows Hyperfocal Distances for various aperture and focal lengths (crop sensor camera):
Focusing Scales on Lens
Requires your lens to have a focusing scale and can be a little less accurate than other methods. To use it, decide upon your desired aperture for your photograph. Use the scale to line up one of the two dashes with the infinity (∞) sign. The other dash indicates your depth of field limit, which is essentially the hyperfocal distance.
Educated Guessing (Double distance method)
The downside to this method is the required ability to correctly estimate distances. If you aren’t so good at it, perhaps give it a miss. Otherwise, in your scene, find the nearest object you want to appear sharp and estimate its distance. Double this distance (remembering hyperfocal distance is everything from half its distance to infinity) to give you your hyperfocal distance. Focus at your hyperfocal distance. Then, stop down your apertures until you find your resulting photo is sharp from your desired object to infinity.
Personally, I use a Hyperfocal Distance App, which is super quick and easy.
Conclusion On Hyperfocal Distance
In my opinion, if you read this without being confident in fundamental elements of landscape photography such as composition, tripod use, and white balance, I would recommend you master these elements before worrying about hyperfocal distance.
As previously mentioned, it’s a great way to finish off a well-composed, well-lit, level photograph. It’s not a way to make a great one by itself.
As for in-field application, I would always recommend measuring your distance and focus just a little bit beyond where you think that distance is. Without accurate measuring devices and a lot of time, it is often difficult and impractical to physically measure distances within your frame. By focusing a little further from your estimated point, you will nearly guarantee that everything from half that point to infinity will, in fact, be sharp. In the previous example using a hyperfocal distance of 12.5m, focusing at 13m would have ensured hyperfocal success. Whereas accidentally focusing under 12.5m would cause the distant elements in the picture to become blurred and out of focus.
Most people constantly shoot with the same body and lenses. A personally written table with your commonly used distances can be a real time saver. Keep your table in your bag so you don’t have to waste time using the equation every time – until you know the values by heart!
We would love to hear your experiences using Hyperfocal Distance in your photography. If you have a photo to share, please upload them with your comment below. We talked about a lot of technical terms in this article. If anything is not clear, please feel free to ask questions.
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