Hyperfocal distance, much like the “Sunny 16 Rule,” is one of those things that has arguably lost some relevance in the age of digital photography; the sophisticated metering and auto focusing systems built into digital cameras have helped make life a little easier in some ways.
But there are times when some automated feature of your camera simply doesn’t come through for you, or times when you prefer to take away all your camera’s decision-making abilities and do it all for yourself. Then it’s good to know all those old school rules that you thought you would never have any use for.
One of those “old” photographic principles deemed useful by landscape photographers is that of hyperfocal distance.
What is Hyperfocal Distance?
Portrait photographers don’t typically see depth of field as something to overcome; a good portrait can be made from large apertures and small apertures alike. How much depth of field is present depends on how much of the subject the photographer wants to isolate. Landscape photographers, however, face a different challenge. When shooting landscapes there are going to be numerous objects in a scene — there will be background elements and foreground elements. Furthermore, the distance between the background and foreground could very well be hundreds of feet. The goal is to get all this in focus. How, then, does one solve this depth of field riddle?
We know that depth of field increases with higher f-stops (f/16 creates more depth of field than f/4). We also know that depth of field increases as the camera focuses farther away. So, imagine you are attempting to focus in on a picturesque landscape scene using a 20mm lens set to f/11; you want to be sure that you’ve got the background as well as the foreground in sharp focus. You don’t want to run the risk of stopping the lens down too much and introducing diffraction, and you don’t want to guess on where to focus and end up with a blurry background.
What if there were a point at which you could focus so as to get as much of the scene as possible in focus? Something like that would be brilliant.
Luckily, such a thing exists. It is referred to as hyperfocal distance.
The hyperfocal distance is the point of focus that allows for maximum depth of field throughout a scene. Once you have focused on the hyperfocal point, everything from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity will be in focus.
You may be wondering how exactly hyperfocal distance is determined; how do you know where that magical point is?
Calculating Hyperfocal Distance
In order to calculate hyperfocal distance, you need to know three things:
- Focal length – This will depend on what lens you’re using.
- Circle of confusion value – Commonly 0.03 and 0.02; depends on sensor type.
- F-stop – f/11 and f/13 are often regarded as optimal for landscape photography.
Next, use the following formula and do a little math (lengths and distances measured in mm):
Using the aforementioned scenario involving a 20mm lens at f/11 on a full-frame camera, you get a hyperfocal distance of 1212 mm, or 1.2 meters (almost 4 feet). So you should focus on an object that is approximately 1.2 meters away; everything from 0.6 meters (half the hyperfocal distance) away to infinity will be in focus.
And there you have it. It’s that simple (if you don’t forget to pack a calculator). Using hyperfocal distance will help you get landscape shots that are sharp front to back.