One of the most difficult concepts for new photographers to master when starting out is how to nail focus — particularly when shooting landscapes. One way to make your photos as sharp as they can be is to calculate the hyperfocal distance. What is hyperfocal distance and how can you use it to achieve maximum depth of field?
This article will explain hyperfocal distance; go over several ways to calculate it; describe how to use a hyperfocal distance chart; and help you learn how to achieve the sharpest photographs possible.
What is hyperfocal distance?
In its simplest definition, hyperfocal distance is the point in your scene you’d focus on that will give your photo the greatest depth of field, resulting in the sharpest image. This is especially useful in landscape photography where you’d want the entire scene from foreground to background to be in focus.
Imagine you’re shooting a landscape photo. If you were to focus on a point in the foreground, your background would appear blurry. Likewise, if you focus somewhere in the far distance, objects up front would be out of focus. So, how do you ensure your entire scene is acceptably in focus? By focusing on a point between the background and foreground — the hyperfocal distance.
The hyperfocal distance will vary depending on a few different factors:
- Your lens’ focal length;
- The size of your camera’s sensor;
- Your aperture setting.
You’ll use each of those factors to calculate your hyperfocal distance. And, once you have that value, you’ll know that everything from half that distance (in the foreground) all the way to infinity (the background) will be in focus.
How to calculate hyperfocal distance
There are many different ways to calculate your hyperfocal distance. We will describe some of the most common:
- Using a formula;
- Using an app;
- With a chart;
- With the Double the Distance method.
Let’s explore each of these in-depth.
Calculating hyperfocal distance using a formula
This is the most complicated way to calculate it, but if you’re an algebra whiz, this is the formula that will provide your lens’ hyperfocal distance:
In the above formula, the “acceptable circle of confusion” is a value, measured in millimeters, that describes the size a pinpoint of light on your camera’s sensor would appear if it were out of focus. In the days of film photography, this number was traditionally 0.03mm for a 35mm film photograph. It’s based on what the human eye considers to be sharp when looking at an 8×10 print from 10 inches away.
Many of today’s hyperfocal distance calculations still use the 0.03mm value. Although, with the ultra-high-resolution cameras of today, that number could arguably be much smaller.
If this seems like too much math and not enough art for you, don’t worry. There are much simpler ways to determine hyperfocal distance that don’t involve dusting off a calculator!
Using an app to calculate hyperfocal distance
There are many photography apps that will calculate hyperfocal distance for you. One option for both iOS and Android is Hyperfocal DOF. This app is a great option because it allows for calculating the distance for both prime and zoom lenses. Some other apps only provide calculations for prime lenses. Simply enter your lens and camera details and settings and the app will provide the hyperfocal distance.
Or, a very robust app that includes many features for photographers is PhotoPills. In addition to its many other great tools, the hyperfocal distance calculator includes an augmented reality feature. It will use your smartphone’s camera to show you where the hyperfocal distance is in your scene. How cool is that? Additionally, PhotoPills allows you to adjust your circle of confusion value rather than using the standard 0.03mm setting that may still result in blurry images with today’s high-resolution cameras.
Using a chart to determine hyperfocal distance
Apps are becoming more and more popular with photographers, but the most common method for finding your hyperfocal distance is to use a chart like the one below. However, they are a lot less accurate than apps as technology continues to improve and charts will eventually become obsolete.
To use a chart like the one above, you would simply find the value that corresponds with the focal length and aperture setting of the lens and camera you’re using. Note that the chart above is made for full-frame cameras. The values would be different for crop sensor cameras so make sure you use the correct chart for your camera’s sensor size.
For example, if you’re shooting and mountain scene with a 24mm lens using an aperture of f/16, your hyperfocal distance according to the chart above is 4 feet. So, in theory, if you focus on something 4 feet into your scene, everything half that distance (two feet) all the way to infinity should be acceptably sharp.
If you’re shooting with a 35mm lens at f/11, the chart says you should focus on something 12 feet into the scene. That way, everything 6 feet in front of that point all the way to infinity will be acceptably sharp.
Using the Double the Distance Method to determine hyperfocal distance
As a beginning photographer, you might hear advice from other photographers saying “just focus ⅓ of the way into the scene and you’ll be fine.” This is bad advice that only works about 1/3 of the time! There’s a much more precise and easier way — The Double the Distance Method. It’s quick and easy and works especially well for photos that have an important subject in the foreground.
As we’ve explained above, when you have your hyperfocal distance, everything from half that distance to infinity will be in focus. So, to find the hyperfocal distance using this method, simply double the distance between your lens and the closest object that you want to appear in focus. For example, if you have a boulder that’s six feet away that you want to be sharp, set your focus point (your hyperfocal distance) to 12 feet away.
This is an incredibly easy method of determining hyperfocal distance. However, you’ll need to be able to estimate distances. Also, you will need to increase your aperture to have a wider depth of field. For wide angle lenses, you’ll usually need an f-stop of f/8, f/11, or higher.
What is “acceptably sharp?”
Notice we use the phrase “acceptably sharp” when talking about the amount of your scene in focus. That’s because it’s impossible for a photograph with a very deep depth of field to be tack sharp from foreground to background. Your lens can really only focus on one point. So, the next best thing is for it to be acceptably sharp. That means it has the appearance of being in focus when viewed with the human eye from a certain distance.
While there is a lot of technical data that goes into figuring out the hyperfocal distance, luckily there are many quick and easy ways to estimate that value without doing difficult math calculations! Find the method that works best for you. Whether you use a handy smartphone app, refer to a chart, or estimate by doubling the distance; calculating hyperfocal distance to get sharper photos will make you a better photographer.