Landscape Photography – Hyperfocal Distance

Have you ever looked at a landscape photograph and wondered how the photographer managed to get everything in focus? Everything in the image is sharp all the way from the foreground to the background. The photographer didn’t achieve this incredible depth-of-field by accident. Neither was it because they had some really fancy lens. Anybody can achieve this effect, all it takes is to understand Hyperfocal Distance.

It might be the term ‘Hyperfocal Distance’ that puts a lot of people off. The very sound of it seems really complicated. But hang in there! If we break this down into easy steps anyone can understand what it is. Then apply this knowledge to their Landscape Photography.

Understanding Hyperfocal Distance.

In fairness, the dictionary definitions are a bit wordy, but for completeness here you go.

Definition 1: The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. 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”.

Definition 2: The hyperfocal distance is the distance beyond which all objects are acceptably sharp, for a lens focused at infinity”.

wikipedia

Neither of those is the easiest to get our minds around at all! But, let’s just dwell a moment on the first sentence in definition 1.

“The closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp“.

Right, so we are basically talking about the lens Depth of Field (DoF) here. Therefore, if we understand DoF we understand hyperfocal distance.

When you focus your camera on a point, the DoF extends towards the horizon, but also back towards you. To explain this in pictures, look at Figure 1 below.

Depth of Field
Figure 1 – Depth of Field

Typically, in most genres of photography, you focus your camera on the object you want to take a photograph of. The DoF, or lets now call it the in-focus area extends in-front and behind the object.

But in our example, this means the grass objects in front of the dog will be out of focus. So, what if we focus the camera slightly in front of the dog, e.g. a rock or something that lies behind the grass, but in front of the dog? The in-focus area then comes forward and brings the foreground into focus (Figure 2).

Depth of Field
Figure 2 – Optimised Hyperfocal Distance

So that’s all we are really when we take a photograph to optimise the hyperfocal distance. We are simply fine-tuning what we focus on!

So now we know the mechanics of hyperfocal distance, we just need to exploit that in our photography.

Practical Applications

As you can probably guess, there are some mathematical formulae we can use to calculate the exact hyperfocal distance. If you are into that sort of thing take a look at the Wikipedia article.

There are even Apps you can buy for your smart-phone that will do the maths for you in the field.

I prefer to go with neither of the above options and instead use good old trial and error. The thing is, for every lens you have, the focal hot-spot will be different. Plus, it also changes depending on what f-stop you set. Photography is meant to be about creativity, so at least for me, all this maths and gadgetry detracts away from being creative.

Hyperfocal Distance
Image Credit David Coultham

If you really get to grips with your lens characteristics in the field, then you are going to remember this each and every time you need it. To get you started, here are some equipment and composition tips:

  • Use a tripod. We want to capture a nice sharp photo, that’s in focus throughout the image. To maximise our ability to get that, we need to eliminate camera shake.
  • We also want to use a remote shutter, this will ensure we don’t shake the camera pressing the shutter release.
  • Because we are on a tripod, we can set the camera to its lowest native ISO setting. This is typically 100 ISO, but may be either higher or lower, depending on your camera model.
  • Set your camera to Aperture Priority and set the Aperture to its highest setting. This is typically f-22, but again may be different depending on your lens.
  • Set your camera to manual focus (or lens if there is a manual focus button on it).

Set your camera up in an area that has good fore-ground to background interest, so that in your final image you can see that everything is in focus.

As a starting shot, pick an object that is about a third of the way into your landscape, and take a shot. Next take a look at the image to see if you got the sweet spot for everything being in focus. If not, adjust your focus point slightly forward or back etc.

Hyperfocal Distance

Once you are comfortable at f-22, repeat the process at f-18 etc. Don’t take hundreds and hundreds of shots though. It will become too overwhelming. Go back home, take a look at the images you got on your computer, and critically ask yourself what did and didn’t work.

It will probably take a few practice-runs to really nail things down. But in time, what you will find, is that you will be intuitively picking the correct hyperfocal distance for your composition.

Here are some other Photography Techniques articles that may be of interest to you:

Lightning Photography
Lightning Photography

Photographing Lightning can be a rewarding experience. Get the best out of this niche landscape photography genre. With some helpful tips on equipment, camera settings, and composition

Portrait Photography
Portrait Photography

A guide to taking portrait photographs in natural light. This guide is written for those starting out in this genre. However, it may also be useful for more experienced photographers. With useful hints and tips on camera set-up as well as composition.

Landscape Photography
Landscape Photography

Landscape Top-Tips to improve your Landscape Photography. This article will give you a foundation in the best equipment to use, preparation before your photoshoot, the use of tripods and filters, and general tips on composition.


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