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The Ultimate Guide to Learning Photography: Hyperfocal Distance

A Beginner’s Guide to Hyperfocal Distance and Focusing a Landscape Photo

If you're trying to take a good landscape image, it's usually hard to get both the foreground and background to appear sharp. That's when an understanding of hyperfocal distance becomes important. The basic definition is setting up the focus distance to give you the best depth of field. In other words, if you want to keep everything relatively sharp, you'll need to learn how to focus on a point that is between the foreground and background. And that's hyperfocal distance! In this article you'll learn:

  • How to maximize depth of field using hyperfocal distance
  • When to use hyperfocal distance
  • 3 best ways to use hyperfocal distance

What is hyperfocal distance?

— Photo: Chris Burkard

In this sense of the word, hyperfocal means using every bit of the image’s focal range to your advantage.

If you understand depth of field, you are probably familiar with the idea that any given photograph has a range of distance where the objects will appear sharp, not just one exact spot. If you’re shooting at f/1.8, you have a few millimeters before and after your focal point that will still appear sharp, while if you’re shooting at f/11, you may have a few feet before and after the actual focal point that will still appear sharp. Using aperture, then, you can you can take a photograph where multiple objects at different distances still appear sharp.

Hyperfocal distance is simply a technique that allows photographers to use every bit of that focus range to their advantage for a sharp image with a wide depth of field. The focal point that you use for autofocus — or the distance you set in manual focus — has space both before and after that point that can still appear acceptably sharp.

To truly take advantage of the entire range, you must use both the distance before the focal point and after. Say you are taking a group photo with three rows of people. Ideally, you should place the focal point on someone in that middle row. If you focus instead on the first row, half that focal range will be wasted on empty space in front of the group. By focusing on the middle, the closest part of that range hits the front row while the farthest part of that range still catches the back row, resulting in three rows of faces that are all still sharp.

Hyperfocal distance follows a similar concept, only instead of focusing on the middle object, the focus is set so that the farthest end of that range sits at infinity. Remember, focusing at infinity captures a sharp background. So, when you place the farthest end of the focus range at infinity, you get a sharp background but you still get to use the rest of that range to keep other details sharp.

Since hyperfocal distance uses up every bit of the camera’s focal range, it’s a popular technique for maximizing sharpness in landscape photos, but in can be used for any image where you want both the background and other objects in the photograph to be sharp.

Hyperfocal distance allows you to get the most from from the focal range that your aperture produces. That means getting incredibly sharp landscape photos at f/11, or getting the most from a low light landscape when you don’t have a tripod handy and need to use a more narrow setting.

When to use hyperfocal distance

Hyperfocal distance is a technique for getting the background and as much of the rest of the image as sharp as possible. That means the technique is ideal for any image where you’d like a sharp background — but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal for any photo where you would like the largest range of possible sharpness.

Before using the hyperfocal distance technique, make sure the background really needs to be sharp. Placing the edge of the focal range on the background means that the foreground won’t be sharp. In many cases, that’s fine, but if the foreground includes more important details than the background, hyperfocal distance isn’t the right method.

Sometimes, if you are shooting where the atmosphere is a bit hazy, the background won’t be perfectly sharp anyways, which means you’re wasting some of that sharpness if a range of mountains is softened by fog anyways.

Hyperfocal distance can be a useful tool — just know it’s not best in 100 percent of all landscape photos and can also come in handy outside the landscape genre.

How to use hyperfocal distance

There are three methods for using hyperfocal distance in your photographs: one that works similarly but isn’t the true definition of the technique; an easy, less precise method; and a more complex, math-involved option that wastes absolutely zilch of that focal range.

Let’s start with the simplest option. Many photographers use a generalized concept that’s based on hyperfocal distance but isn’t exactly hyperfocal distance. This sort of “rule of thumb” suggests that, on any scene where you want most of the image to be sharp, to focus on something that’s 1/3 of the way into the image. Think of it as the Rule of Thirds for hyperfocal distance, only instead of dividing the frame into threes, you’re diving the distance into threes.

Of course, as a generalized idea, focusing a third of the way into the scene isn’t perfect. This method often leaves the most important parts of an image sharp, but the background is often still soft, which means that this method isn’t the true definition of hyperfocal distance. Still, if you find the concept of hyperfocal distance a bit dizzying, this is a good spot to work in until you’re ready to dig deeper.

The second option still isn’t perfectly precise, but is a more true hyperfocal distance method since the background is still sharp. Start by switching over to manual focus and moving the focus ring to infinity. Then, slowly pull the focus back while watching the background. Once you see the background start to fuzz, stop, move the focus back just a bit until the background is sharp again, and shoot.

This option is essentially eyeballing the hyperfocal distance without any complex calculations. It’s a good option for getting sharp landscape shots without digging into the numbers. Of course, since you’re working by eye, it isn’t quite as precise as actually calculating the hyperfocal distance. Focus too far, and you’re wasting some of that distance, too close, and the background is soft.

When every inch counts, calculating the hyperfocal distance will precisely use up as much of the focal range as possible. Calculating the hyperfocal distance, however, is more than a simple 2+ 2 equation. The hyperfocal distance varies based on every aspect that also adjusts your depth of filed: aperture, focal length and even the size of the sensor in your camera. Since there are so many variables, it’s simplest to use a hyperfocal distance calculator. Cambridge in Colour has a nice free calculator online, and there are a number of apps that will also calculate hyperfocal distance for you, like HyperFocal Pro or Simple DoF Calculator.

Once you’ve calculated the hyperfocal distance, you can manually set the camera’s focus to that distance, allowing you to get the most sharpness from the aperture you’ve selected.

Hyperfocal distance makes the most of the entire range of your depth of field and answers a common beginner question, where do I focus in a landscape photo? By putting the farthest edge of an image’s depth of field on the background, you can get the optimal range of sharpness in landscapes and other images requiring a sharp background.