Hyperfocal Distance & Focusing / by James Brown

If you want to take the sharpest possible images, particularly landscapes understanding hyperlocal distances is simply invaluable. Hyperfocal focusing enables you to get the sharpest possible photographs with maximum depth of field. It is extremely important when incorporating close objects in the scene. 

Hyperfocal distance is the focusing distance that gives your photos the greatest depth of field, an example is a landscape picture where you want everything (foreground and background) to appear sharp. 

If you focus on the foreground, the background will appear blurry in the image, if you focus on the background, the foreground will look out of focus. To achieve both you focus at a particular point between the foreground and the background, which makes both the foreground and the background elements of the scene appear reasonably sharp. This focusing point is called the hyperfocal distance.

The technical definition of hyperfocal distance is ‘The closest focusing distance that allows objects at infinity to be sharp and in-focus’ 

Think of “infinity” as the horizon or stars at night.  By this definition, the hyperfocal distance of your lens will vary with apertures and heres why. 

If the aperture is wide, such as F2.8 you will need to focus quite far away for objects at infinity to appear in focus. However, at a small aperture such as F16 distant objects will continue to be sharp even if your lens is focused more closely. There for with smaller apertures the hyperfocal distance will be closer to your lens.

The focal length of the lens also has a huge impact on hyperfocal distance. As you zoom in your hyperfocal distance moves further away. For a 20mm lens you may need to focus just a few feet from your lens to get the horizon sharp. For a 200mm lens the hyperfocal distance may be hundreds of feet away.

It is important to note that if you focus at the hyperfocal distance the image will be sharp from half that point to infinity. So if the hyperfocal distance for a given aperture and focal length is ten feet, everything from five feet all the way until the horizon will appear sharp.

Not all photographs require you to use hyperfocal distance. For example if you are stood on a mountain and there are no objects in your foreground it would be silly to focus at the hyperfocal distance because the nearest object is at infinity. Instead, you should focus on the distant mountains or horizon. Hyperfocal distance is only useful when objects that are both close and far away from your lens need to be sharp. Since you are actually focusing between these objects, neither is perfectly sharp they are both simply close enough or “acceptably sharp”. When you don’t have a nearby object in the scene you can completely ignore hyperfocal distance. 

Most lenses don’t produce details very well at wide apertures, particularly towards the edges of the frame. Each lens has a “sweet spot” where it optically performs the best. These are usually around F11 & F16.

The most common method of finding a photo’s hyperfocal distance is to use a chart like the one below. There are also apps available for your phone which are much simpler to use.

 To use a hyperfocal distance chart follow these steps.

  1    Choose a lens, and be sure to note the focal length that you are using.

 2    Pick an aperture value.

3    Find the hyperfocal distance that corresponds to your chosen focal length and aperture.

4    Focus your lens at the hyperfocal distance. This can be done by estimation.

5    Now, everything from half that distance until infinity will be sharp.

Some other methods you can try out are below, however they are not completely perfect.

The Live View Infinity Focus Method

1    Take a photograph, set at the aperture that you plan to use, focused on the farthest background object in your image.

 2    Review the resulting image at a high magnification (preferably at 100% zoom). Scroll down the photograph until you find the closest point that still looks acceptably sharp (everything past this point to the foreground should look blurry). This point is the hyperfocal distance.

3    Focus your lens at this point. Be sure not to change your aperture.

4    Now, everything from half that distance until infinity will be sharp.

The Blur Focus Method

For this method enter live view mode at the widest aperture that the lens offers. Then focus the lens so that both the foreground and the background are equally blurry – that focus distance is the hyperfocal distance.

1    Turn the lens to manual focus.

2    Select the widest aperture available on the lens (typically somewhere from F1.8 to F4.

3    Turn on live view.

4    Focus the lens so that the closest object and the furthest object in the scene are equally blurry.

5    Don’t touch the focus ring anymore as its already set to your hyperfocal distance. 

6    Set the desired lens aperture. Now everything from half the hyperfocal distance until infinity will be sharp.

Put this in to practice and watch as you develop better quality images, start to understand depth of field and composition more. Good Luck!