We have all seen those wonderful shots, those beautiful landscapes that are in focus from what seems like inches in front of the lens element to miles in the distance. They look fantastic but how many times have you tried to replicate them without success, maybe the foreground is out of focus, maybe the horizon is blurry. So what is the secret? Well, one thing you should stop doing, is focusing on infinity because the point where we need to focus is the hyperfocal distance. So what is this and how do we calculate it and apply it to our photography?
What is Hyperfocal Distance?
Hyperfocal distance is related closely to depth of field. As we know, depth of field is the amount of the image that is in focus both in front of and behind the actual focus point. It increases with smaller apertures and decreases with longer focal lengths and is also related to positioning. The hyperfocal distance is a point that we focus upon to ensure that the furthest extent of our depth of field falls on the horizon. By focusing on the hyperfocal point we are in effect maximizing the our depth of field.
Now I am sure, like me, you realise that there are quite a few variables that go into making this a complicated calculation. There is the aperture of the lens, the focal length of the lens, and even the crop factor of your camera. There are of course plenty of apps and websites that will calculate the hyperfocal distance for you, you simply type in the variables and the calculator will tell you at what distance to focus your lens. And it is here, in the modern digital age that we hit a bit of a problem.
With careful calculation you can get shots like this. Image by Jacob Surland on Flickr
Apps to Calculate Hyperfocal Distance
In days of old, when film was gold, many lenses had a handy graphic built into them that would show the zone of focus for a given aperture and focal length. Most modern lenses have dispensed with this leaving us only the focus distance scale, which is not always 100% accurate. Hence the need for apps with hyperfocal calculators. If you are of the meticulous type and are looking to get the best hyperfocal distance then getting one of these apps is the best way to go. So how do you shoot to the hyperfocal distance?
Older lenses tended to have a depth of field scale built in. Image by Ho John Lee on Flickr
Focusing at Hyperfocal Distance and Photographing
Well first and foremost you are going to be much better off using a tripod. This will allow you to lock off your composition giving you time to concentrate of your calculations. As we have said the hyperfocal point is related to depth of field, so a wide angle lens and a smaller aperture are going to give us better results. However, before we go merrily shooting away at f22, there is one other thing we should consider, diffraction. Diffraction is a curse of the digital age and put simply, when a lens aperture goes beyond a certain point, we start to incur some lack of sharpness caused by the angle at which the light is hitting the sensor. Typically this is around f8 for APS-C cameras and f11 for full frame. Beyond this limit we are starting to loose the effect of our carefully planned hyperfocal distance. Typically you should go no more than one stop beyond the diffraction limit to ensure best quality.
So with your aperture decided, hyperfocal point calculated, it is time to focus your lens. Now it might be an obvious statement, but you will need to flip that switch over to manual focus to get the right results. Focus the lens to the distance calculated, then check the focus through the viewfinder. If your camera has a depth of field preview button, press this to get a better indication of your focus.
Focus manually and use a tripod. Image by Peter Morgan on Flickr
Of course this is all quite a laborious process, and as with many things in photography there is a (less accurate) short cut. It is still better to have your camera locked off on a tripod, but looking through the viewfinder, you can focus your lens to one third of the total distance to the horizon. Again confirm focus with your depth of field preview if possible. Although not perfect, it will get you out of a hole.
Hyperfocal distance can be a powerful tool for the landscape photographer but you need think about it. If you have a smartphone then a suitable app will greatly help you but remember to factor diffraction into the equation.