The words ‘hyperfocal distance’ sound hyper complicated, don’t they? The good news is that hyperfocal distance isn’t as difficult as you might think. It’s also really useful, especially when it comes to landscape photos, because it’s about getting as much of your scene in focus as possible. So let’s dive into hyperfocal distance: what it is, how to calculate it, and when and why to use it.
Table of contents
What is hyperfocal distance?
When you take a landscape photo, chances are that you want as much of the scene as possible to be in focus, so that’s the flowers in the foreground and the mountain in the background. By focusing on the hyperfocal distance in your scene, you will maximise your depth of field and help to achieve acceptable sharpness across the image.
The phrases ‘acceptable sharpness’ or ‘acceptably sharp’ are commonly associated with hyperfocal distance. Using the term ‘acceptable sharpness’ means that hyperfocal distance can be defined two ways:
- When you focus at infinity, the hyperfocal distance is the point where objects from half of this distance to infinity will be in focus (or acceptably sharp) for a particular lens.
- Or, it can refer to the closest point where a lens can be focused for a given aperture and objects at infinity remain acceptably sharp.
For both of these definitions, infinity means ‘at a distance’, so that’s objects on the horizon or the stars in the night sky.
While ‘acceptably sharp’ might sound a bit vague, hyperfocal distance is a mathematical calculation, which makes it fairly straightforward to calculate.
Factors in hyperfocal distance
There are three factors which determine hyperfocal distance:
- Aperture: the wider your aperture, the closer the hyperfocal distance will be
- Focal length: a smaller focal length means a wider angle view, and a closer hyperfocal distance
- Sensor size: the larger your sensor, the closer the hyperfocal distance.
When you focus on the hyperfocal distance, everything between infinity and the point halfway between you and the hyperfocal distance will be acceptably sharp. For a hyperfocal distance at 10 metres, everything between five metres from the camera and infinity will be acceptably sharp.
When should I use hyperfocal distance?
Landscape photography is where you will be using hyperfocal distance most often. But even then, you won’t need to perform hyperfocal distance calculations for every landscape shot. It’s only important if you want objects that are both close to you and far away in the composition to be in focus. If you have one element that dominates the scene and that’s the focal point, focus on it. It’s also worth remembering that not everything across your scene will be pin-sharp; it will be acceptably sharp. If you need the entire shot to be super-sharp, you would be better using focus stacking. Similarly, anything very close to you won’t be sharp using hyperfocal distance. It’s a really useful tool, but it won’t work for every landscape.
How to calculate hyperfocal distance
Now that we have established what hyperfocal distance is, and when and when not to use it, how do you calculate it? There are several ways, so pick the one that works best for you. We’ve listed the two easiest methods first. The more old fashioned or complicated ones come later.
Apps for calculating hyperfocal distance
There are a few different smartphone apps available, both for Android and iOS, that will accurately calculate your hyperfocal distance for you. You select camera type (so it knows your sensor size), focal length, and aperture setting, and they will spit out the hyperfocal length you need for that shot.
Of course, landscape photographers can find themselves in situations without internet access, which makes an app a bit inconvenient. Instead, a laminated hyperfocal distance chart might be more accessible.
Charts for hyperfocal distance
Hyperfocal distance depends on your camera sensor size as well the aperture you want to use and your lens’s focal length. To create an accurate hyperfocal distance chart, try a website such as PhotoPills, where you can select your camera and from there note down the hyperfocal distance values for your preferred focal lengths across multiple apertures.
The double-the-distance method of working out a hyperfocal distance is a good ready-reckoner when you don’t have a chart or app. It does, however, rely on you being able to estimate distances.
- Survey your scene and identify the subject in it that’s closest to you and which you want to be in focus. Maybe it’s a beautiful flowering shrub.
- Estimate the distance between this subject, the shrub, and your camera. If your lens has a focusing scale, focus on the shrub and read the value off the lens. Let’s say it’s five metres.
- Double your estimated distance. So five metres becomes 10. Ten metres is the hyperfocal distance.
- Focus at a point 10 metres away from you. You will need to either estimate it, or use the distance scale on your lens.
- Stop down your aperture to maybe ƒ/8 or ƒ/11. Review the image on your LCD screen to see how sharp it is. You might need a smaller aperture, so adjust if necessary.
- Now, everything between infinity and the point that’s halfway from you to the hyperfocal distance (which is the shrub) should be acceptably sharp.
If you look on old prime lenses, you will often find a focusing scale marked on their lens barrels. Newer and zoom lenses don’t have them so much. If you do find one, they are simple to use to calculate your hyperfocal distance.
Set your aperture. On the lens barrel, line up your chosen aperture value to the infinity symbol. There will be a corresponding second marker (they come in pairs and are usually denoted by colour) that indicates the hyperfocal distance and you’re all set.
Hyperfocal distance formula
To calculate hyperfocal distance, multiply your chosen focal length by itself. Then multiply your aperture by the value of the circle of confusion for your sensor size. Divide the first figure by the second, and then add your focal length to it. That’s your hyperfocal distance in millimetres.
If you’re wondering about circles of confusion (or coc), the accepted value for a 35mm camera is 0.03 or 0.02 for an APS-C sensor.
A shorter focal length means a hyperfocal distance closer to you. The smaller the aperture you choose, the closer the hyperfocal distance will be to you. (An ƒ-stop of ƒ/22 is smaller than an f-stop of ƒ/3.2.) For the same apertures and focal lengths, a full-frame camera will have a closer hyperfocal distance than a crop-sensor camera.
Focusing for hyperfocal distance
If you’re using a lens with a distance scale, switch it to manual focus mode and set the distance marker to your hyperfocal distance. You’re good to go. When you use a lens without a distance scale, you will have to estimate the hyperfocal distance and focus on an object approximately that far away from you. You can do it in autofocus mode but you might find that manual focus is easier.
Cameras with electronic viewfinders and live view displays will often show distance scales on their screens. You usually have to be in manual focus mode for them to show up, though.
Hyperfocal distance accuracy
Whichever method you choose, it won’t be 100% accurate, but it will give you a good pointer toward the hyperfocal distance. You can always use focus peaking to check the blur across your image and see if you need to make any adjustments. If in doubt, it’s always best to focus a little further away from you than closer to you as it’ll ensure that the furthest point of your image will be acceptably sharp.
Don’t forget that if you print your images in a large format then it will show more detail and your threshold for acceptable sharpness will be higher than a low resolution image on a screen.
You’re not always going to want to use the hyperfocal distance, and when you do use it, it won’t necessarily be a perfect calculation. But it is a useful formula and one that can produce good results without too much hassle. Give it a try!
It’s the focusing distance which gives you the greatest depth of field. It puts as much foreground and background into focus as possible.
You can use charts, apps, the distance scale on your lens barrel, or even an estimation to calculate the hyperfocal distance?
Your aperture, focal length, and sensor size will all have an impact on the hyperfocal distance for a given scene.
It’s not necessary to use it all the time. It’s for when you want to keep as much of the foreground and background in focus as you can.