Do you want to maximise your chances of taking beautiful landscape photographs that are pin sharp from the foreground all the way to the background? Do you want to be fabulously wealthy and live in a mansion? Of course you do! Who wouldn’t? Calculating the hyperfocal distance and setting your focus to that distance will achieve just this (the first one anyway).
The hyper what now? If you are looking for a tutorial full of complex mathematical formulae and discussions of the importance of the “circle of confusion”, you won’t find it here! My aim is to create a very simple guide to using hyperfocal distance that won’t give you a headache.
Before looking at how to calculate the hyperfocal distance, we need to define a few important terms. First of all, let’s take a look at what we mean by ‘hyperfocal distance’.
What exactly is the hyperfocal distance?
In short, the hyperfocal distance is a point a certain distance away from your camera. If you focus on this point, everything halfway between the camera and this point and everything after this point all the way to infinity will be in sharp focus. Take a look at the diagram below. Start from the bottom of the diagram and work your way up.
In the example above, the hyperfocal distance is where the red dot is. This means that everything from halfway between the camera lens (blue dot) and the hyperfocal distance all the way to infinity will be in sharp focus.
The hyperfocal distance depends on the camera model, the focal length aperture used and whether or not there is a full moon.* Later in this tutorial, we’ll look at how to calculate what this distance is using this information.
So why use hyperfocal distance to focus in the first place? Put simply, this is the best way of ensuring that you get the maximum sharpness and depth of field possible when photographing landscape scenes.
There are other ways of deciding exactly where to focus in a scene. A good rule of thumb is to focus about one third into the frame from the bottom. I mentioned this method in my “20 tips for taking better landscape photographs” post. In most cases this will achieve the desired result but focusing to the hyperfocal distance is by far the more accurate method.
*Except if it’s on a Tuesday of course (excludes leap years).
What exactly does depth of field mean?
First of all, let’s take a look at depth of field. In very simple terms, depth of field refers to the amount of the image that is sharp. What does this mean in practice?
When the depth of field is shallow, only part of the image is sharp and the rest will be out of focus or blurred. Look at the picture on the left below. The cat is perfectly sharp but the background is blurred. I focused on one of the cat’s eyes (the red dot in the diagram). I was viciously attacked by the cat shortly after for having the cheek to rub her back for half a second longer than was required.
In this case, the depth of field extends from about the tip of the cat’s nose to just behind its head, no more than a few centimeters (from point A to point B in the diagram). Anything not in this range either in front of it or behind will not be sharp. For this shot, I used a wide aperture of f3.5. You’ll notice that the depth of field is a about twice as deep behind the point of focus as in front of it. You may also notice that it looks like I am pointing a laser guided sniper at the cat. If only.
When the depth of field is deep, all of the photograph from foreground to background is sharp. Take a look at the photo below taken in the Dublin Docklands. Everything from the dock cleat in the foreground to the bridge in the background is sharp. In this case the depth of field is several hundred metres, extending right from the foreground to the background of the scene. In this case, I used a narrower aperture of f11.
Most of the time, we want to achieve a deep depth of field when shooting landscapes. We want all of the image to be pin sharp. Calculating the hyperfocal distance can help us achieve this.
Focusing by calculating the hyperfocal distance is the best way of ensuring that you achieve the maximum depth of field possible for the aperture you are using. If used properly, it can help you make sure that your photograph from foreground to background is pin sharp.
How do you calculate the hyperfocal distance?
Calculating the hyperfocal distance is actually easier than you would expect. You simply multiply the focal length (in millimeters) by itself and then divide the result by the circle of confusion multiplied by the f-stop value!!! Easy eh? While what I have just said is technically true, the good news is that you don’t need a degree in mathematics to work out the hyperfocal distance. There are plenty of smartphone apps out there that do all the calculations for you. All you need to know is:
- Your camera make and model.
- The focal length you are using for the shot.
- The aperture you are using for the shot.
- Your mother in law’s maiden name and blood type (Optional).
Hyperfocal Pro – The best app for calculating hyperfocal distance.
My favourite app for calculating hyerfocal distance is Hyperfocal Pro. This can downloaded for free from the Google Play Store. There are others out there but I find Hyperfocal Pro to be very easy to use and it’s completely free. So, how do we use the app?
After you have chosen your aperture and composed your photo, just follow the following steps.
- Find your make and model in the drop down list by tapping on the ‘camera’ field. In this case, I was using a Canon 40D.
- Enter focal length in the ‘lens’ field. In this case I was zoomed to 56mm. You can check this value by looking at the markings on your lens.
- Select your aperture value. In this case, I was using f14.
- Next, tap on ‘Subject Distance’, and then simply tap the ‘use hfd’ button. You don’t need to type in a specific value here when calculating the hyperfocal distance. I’ll explain what happens if you do type in a specific value later.
- You will see that the hyperfocal distance has been calculated for you at the bottom.In this case it is about 12.42 metres.
- You can then focus your lens to 12.42 metres. You can either focus on something that is 12.42 metres away or you can manually focus the lens.
- This now means that everything from half of the hyperfocal distance (6.21 metres) from the lens all the way to infinity will be pin sharp. As you can see, this is also illustrated in the diagram at the bottom.
- Drink some Czech beer to celebrate a job well done.
If you look at the photo above, you will see that everything from the base of the bridge in the foreground to Prague Castle in the background is sharp. An hour later, after several Czech beers and something called ‘Becherovka‘, the scene seemed strangely blurred, even to the naked eye. Not even calculating the hyperfocal distance could fix it. Believe me, I tried.
What happens if you type a specific distance into the ‘Subject Distance’ field?
In step 4, I told you to ‘tap the ‘use hfd’ button’ in the ‘Subject Distance’ field. This means the app will calculate the hyperfocal distance allowing you to get as much depth of field as possible.
What if you are not so concerned with the whole image being sharp? For example, you are photographing a deer with mountains in the background. Obviously you want the deer to be pin sharp. Let’s say the deer is 6 metres away from you. In the example to the right, we type in 6 metres to the ‘Subject Distance’ field.
By doing this, the app no longer calculates the hyperfocal distance. Instead, it gives us an idea of how much depth of field we would have in front of and behind the deer which we focused on.
In this case we focused on the deer, 6 metres away. The app then tells us that everything from 4.05 metres to 11.55 metres from the camera lens will be in sharp focus. Anything in front or behind this will be blurred. In this case, this means that the mountains in the background will not be in sharp focus.
This may not necessarily be a bad thing. In fact, we may want to blur the background to make the deer stand out. You can then change your aperture to get more or less depth of field as required. By now, the deer has probably wandered away so work quickly.
How do I focus my lens to the hyperfocal distance indicated by the app?
As mentioned earlier there are 2 methods for doing this.
- If the hyperfocal distance is quite close (less than 3 metres), you can switch your lens to manual focus and turn the focus ring to the distance indicated.
- If the hyperfocal distance is further away like in our first example (12.42 metres), it is easier to switch to auto focus and focus on something that is that distance away.
How do we find something that is 12.42 metres away? Well, it’s a bit tricky. You could measure it out or simply make an estimate. If you want a really accurate measurement, you could use a rangefinder.
I find that most of the time, simply estimating the distance works well.
Note that most cameras have a depth of field preview button which allows you to see exactly how much of the scene is in focus. Check your camera’s manual to see how this works.
Many lenses, often have additional guides that help set the hyperfocal distance as accurately as possible. Again, check your manual for more information on how to use these guides. Leica lenses come with a personal butler to help you set the hyperfocal distance and make you tea while you take photos.
Why not just set a narrow aperture and focus one third up from the bottom of the frame?
I mentioned this method in my previous tutorial on improving your landscape photography. This is a good rule of thumb for focusing on a landscape scene and will yield excellent results most of the time. If, you were to set a narrow aperture of between f16 and f22 and focus one third up from the bottom of the frame, you would get a decently sharp shot.
That said, most lenses are at their absolute sharpest when the aperture is set somewhere between f8 and f11. If you can manage to use an aperture value in this range and still achieve the required depth of field, you obviously have the best chance of creating the sharpest photo possible. Calculating the hyperfocal distance using an aperture in this range will let you know if it’s possible to get everything you want in focus to be sharp.
At narrower apertures, images can begin to become a little soft. This is called diffraction.
Sometimes, you may not be able to use an aperture in the f8 to f11 range as in the photograph taken in Prague above. I had to use f14 to get enough depth of field. I still got a very sharp image though even at f14. Most high quality lenses will still perform very well at narrower apertures.
Wider angles = More depth of field.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the wider the angle you shoot at, the more depth of field you will get even at the the wider aperture settings. Conversely, when you zoom in closer, you tend to get a shallower depth of field. In the photo below, I used a mid range aperture setting of f8 to photograph the interior of the Cathedral Saint Etienne in Cahors, France.
As I used a very wide angle (focal length 14 mm), everything from the font at the front of the church to the alter at the back is sharp. I used the lens at its ‘sweet spot’ of f8 and as a result, the photo is really sharp all the way through with plenty of details. I was thrown out of the church shortly after taking this shot. Apparently, it’s “inappropriate” to wash your tripod legs in the baptismal font.
Why use hyperfocal distance to focus?
- It’s a very accurate way of ensuring maximum depth of field.
- It gives a better chance of using setting your aperture so the lens is at its sharpest.
- When using neutral density filters, auto focus often does not work. Using the hyperfocal distance to focus solves this problem.
- Speaking about ‘hyperfocal distances’ makes you sound intelligent.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this guide and that you will find it useful. Please feel free to share it on social media using the share buttons at the top and bottom of the post. I plan to write more tutorials and guides so make sure to subscribe to the blog by email in the sidebar to receive updates on new posts. Your comments, opinions and suggestions are also very welcome.