I often get the feeling that photography is talked and written about as if its practitioners have an innate knowledge of the terms involved. Any craft or profession comes with its own specialist language, but if you’re new to it—and even if you’re not—you can often feel overwhelmed by the terminology, let alone the technicalities of the medium. Thinking back ‘hyperfocal distance’ is one of the terms that most baffled me.
You will most likely hear ‘hyperfocal distance’ mentioned in relation to landscape photography. It describes a mathematically calculated sweet-spot that, when you focus there, maximises the depth-of-field across your scene. For, while you might believe that using a small aperture and focusing at infinity would do the job, it doesn’t.
Your slice of acceptable sharpness—deeper with a smaller aperture and shallower with a larger aperture—which extends before and after your focal point isn’t divided equally between foreground and background. Instead, it’s weighted towards the background, with roughly two-thirds of your swathe of depth-of-field sitting behind your focal point and approximately one-third in the foreground. (It’s not exact; it varies depending on focal length.) This means that focusing at infinity wastes a chunk of what could otherwise be in focus in your photo. When it comes to landscape images, where having more rather than less of the scene in focus is frequently desirable, this is undesirable.
The solution, therefore, is to locate the hyperfocal distance within your scene and to set your focus there. At the hyperfocal distance, everything lying between a point halfway between your camera and the plane of focus and infinity should be rendered acceptably sharp.
Wonderful! Except that something so brilliantly useful enjoys a commensurate pitfall: your hyperfocal distance will vary depending on your lens’ aperture and focal length and your camera’s sensor size. On a full-frame camera with a 24mm lens at ƒ/16, the hyperfocal distance is just over a metre. But switch to an 85mm lens and the hyperfocal distance moves to a little more than 14 metres. Widen the aperture to ƒ/2.8 and the hyperfocal distance is just under 81 metres.
The good news is that there are a plethora of hyperfocal distance calculators available in app form. (I’ve heard good things about DOFMaster.) You could even download a chart, print it off, laminate it, and put it in your kit bag.
Once you’ve calculated your hyperfocal distance, you are faced with another conundrum. How do you locate it accurately in the field? If you have a lens that has a distance scale on it, you’re in luck. If your lens doesn’t have a distance scale, it’s going to be a bit more tricky, but it’s still possible. A laser range finder is a good option. But you can learn to estimate. Just remember, it’s much easier to estimate a distance that’s closer to you than farther away. In which case, you are better using a smaller aperture and a wider focal length.
This, then, is the hyperfocal distance. And while it might feel a little complicated initially (or even after a while), it’s worth pursuing to make the most of your depth-of-field, and the scenes you want to photograph.