Hyperfocal Focusing

There’s a (little used) technique that gets overlooked a lot that can drastically improve the look of your photos. It’s called hyperfocal focusing and requires an understanding of the hyperfocal distance.

The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp; that is, the focus distance with the maximum depth of field (DOF). When the lens is focused at this distance, all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp. That distance over which your photo looks acceptably sharp is known as the depth of field.

You can (and should, I think) focus hyperfocally. This is called (surprise, surprise) “hyperfocal focusing”.

What are the benefits of hyperfocal focusing?

  1. You don’t waste any focusing capability of your lens. For any point you focus on with your camera, your lens will have a range ahead of and behind that point where things are acceptably sharp (in focus). By knowing that, you can focus somewhere closer than infinity and you will have acceptable sharpness out to infinity. And it will be sharply in focus much nearer to you as well. If you just focused on infinity with a high f number, then your nearer stuff will be a bit out of focus.
  2. Your photos will be very sharp. This is good for any photo, but especially good for landscape photos. If you’re shooting landscapes, you are probably using a wide angle lens. Wide angle lenses have lower focal lengths. I use a 10-20 mm wide angle zoom lens. (For comparison, my standard lens is an 18-55 mm and my telephoto is 55-250 mm.) The shorter the focal length of the lens, the greater the depth of field and the wider the hyperfocal range.

So we’ve established here that you want more depth of field and you can achieve it by focusing hyperfocally.

There are a great number of publications on the internet regarding hyperfocal focusing. Instead of getting into the mathematics of it here, I want to show you how to use it. After all, the math doesn’t matter when you’re out in the field holding your camera. This is the last place I want to be punching a calculator.

Here are the basics of how you do it (long method/technique):

  1. Focus on infinity. Take a photo. This is a test shot. Look at it on your camera’s screen. Look at the farthest items in the photo and scan it from far to near. Find the spot where it becomes just acceptably sharp. That is the hyperfocal point. Here’s an added tip: You’ll get even sharper images if you are at apertures of f8 to f11. More on that later.
  2. Set up the shot again with the same aperture and shutter speed but this time focus on the hyperfocal point. You will have to manually focus (probably). Remember to keep the aperture the same as it was in the first test shot. Shoot.
  3. Your photo should be really sharp at the hyperfocal point, and all the way to infinity. You will have more of the photo in focus and sharp in front of that hyperfocal point than you did in the first test shot with your focal point set at infinity.

If you’re lucky enough to have a DOF preview button on your camera, then focus manually and use that to see what you will get. You can guess at the focal point (1/3 of the way in to the photo) and eliminate the test shot that way. This saves time and is very effective. Why 1/3 of the way in? It works, that’s why.

You can also calculate the hyperfocal point. One good source is at DOFMaster.com. Using the DOFMaster.com site, I made some handy charts for each of my lenses and cameras. Here in this post is an example chart that happens to be for my Sigma 10-20 mm wide-angle lens.

I would read this chart like this: “If I’m at f8 an my focal length is about half way at 15 mm, then in order to have everything sharply focused from front to back, I would have to focus at a point that is just a little less than 5 feet away from me.”

Sometimes to make these charts you have to know a lot more about your lens and in that case I would recommend photozone.de where you can find out almost everything you could ever possibly need to know about your lens.

Here’s another way to do it (short method/technique):

  1. I want to point and shoot. Set your aperture at f8 to f11. This is the typical range that camera lenses have their best sharpness. Trust me for now – more on that later.
  2. Make your focus just over 1/3 of the distance into the photo. For a landscape, this mean focusing just a little bit closer to you than half way as far as you can see. (You can’t actually see infinity – pick a big mountain in the distance and estimate just over 1/3 of the distance to it. Focus there.) You want to be a little more than 1/3 of the way in so those things in the far distance are definitely sharp. If you focus too close to you, then you risk losing sharpness in the distance.
  3. Shoot. If things are not sharp in the distance, then keep the same settings and focus 1/2 way in. You’ll lose some sharpness of the closer items, but not much.

Again here, use that DOF preview button if you have one.

It is hard to know what factors affects the depth of field, so here are some general rules that I’ve found:

  1. Aperture (f numbers): Small f numbers = less depth of field. Large f numbers = more depth of field. Go for more.
  2. Lens focal lengths: Long length = less depth of field. Short length = more depth of field.
  3. The zone of acceptable sharpness extends 1/3 in front of and 2/3 in back of the focus point.
  4. Lens sharpness: Your lens is probably sharpest two stops from either end of its range. This usually means f8 to f11 aperture values.

If you are more interested in the mechanics and mathematics behind the hyperfocal distance and hyperfocal focusing, search on the web and you will find a lot of information.

If you want to have sharply focused photos from front to back, then follow one of my techniques as described here and you’ll achieve excellent results!