Hyperfocal Photography Simplified

There are times when you’ll want edge-to-edge sharpness in your images–here’s how to get it

Hyperfocal photography is a technique that allows an image to be in sharp focus at all visible distances throughout the scene. Subjects in the foreground of a hyperfocal image are clearly in focus, as are subjects in the background.

This technique allows you to emphasize a great expanse of space in your pictures, which is a great tool for landscape photography. By using hyperfocal techniques, a skillful photographer can lead a viewer’s eye through a landscape photo from features in the foreground to the background. But this wouldn’t be possible without an understanding of hyperfocal distance in photography.

Generally, hyperfocal photos come in two “flavors”: wide-angle and macro close-up images. On these pages, we’ll concentrate on the wide-angle variety. Hyperfocal concepts for macro images are essentially the same, but additional considerations come into play because of the extremely small depth of field in close-up photography. Wide-angle hyperfocal images are much easier to compose and produce spectacular results.

Depth of Field

The basic strategy in shooting a hyperfocal photo is to adjust the depth of field of the image so that everything is in acceptably sharp focus. This means that objects in the foreground are sharp, on through to objects in the far distance, usually referred to as objects “at infinity.” A hyperfocal image is one with a great depth of field, which spans from a close distance to infinity.

The term “hyperfocal distance” is used extensively when discussing hyperfocal photography. The hyperfocal distance is the nearest distance that is in sharp focus when your lens is focused at infinity. This means that when you have your lens focused at a point in the far distance, some nearby objects will also be in focus due to the lens’s depth of field and aperture setting.

At this point, you could compose your image so that all objects from the hyperfocal distance to infinity would be acceptably sharp. But hyperfocal photography gives you better results. When your lens is focused on infinity, half the depth of field is effectively wasted because it can be considered to be extended beyond the horizon, and is therefore unseen. Since the goal is to maximize depth of field, we want to reclaim the depth of field that’s wasted in the far distance.

It’s simple to do this–just re-focus your lens to the hyperfocal distance. Now, the depth of field will be extended from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity.

For example, consider the following: Suppose you are shooting a mountain scene using a 24mm lens. There are mountains in the distance and an interesting fence roughly five feet in front of you in the foreground. You want both the fence and the mountains to be sharply in focus.

Now you can use a hyperfocal distance table or hyperfocal markings on your lens (which will be explained later) to determine the aperture setting. In this case, an aperture setting of f/16 is necessary to create sufficient depth of field so that both the fence and mountains are sharp.

Set the lens to f/16 and re-focus at the hyperfocal distance (five feet). The depth of field of the image will span from half the hyperfocal distance (2.5 feet) to infinity, and you will get the sharply focused image you desire.

Putting Hyperfocal Photography to Use

You are now ready to take advantage of these basic depth-of-field and hyperfocal concepts and design truly effective hyperfocal photographs. First, think big: use a wide-angle lens on your camera and begin composing the scene. Use visual elements to guide your viewers eye through the image–natural elements like fences, ridges, rivers and trees can be used to direct the eye. Typically, a strong photographic element in the foreground and an equally powerful counterbalanced element in the background is a straightforward way to begin composing hyperfocal images.

Composing an image well is truly a challenge. Experiment to find a composition that works for you. Move around: lay down on the ground, climb onto a boulder, lean over a wall, and try both horizontal and vertical orientations. Be creative! A tripod is important for this task.

How to Determine the Hyperfocal Distance

Once you’ve got a great composition, you must now set the depth of field to adequately cover the elements in the scene. This is generally accomplished by changing the lens aperture to achieve the hyperfocal effect.

The hyperfocal distance and associated aperture for a particular lens can be computed mathematically. However, most photographers don’t carry calculators in their camera bags in the event that they may want to shoot a hyperfocal image.

Instead, two methods are commonly used. First of all, most wide-angle camera lenses have depth-of-field distance markings on the lens barrel. To use them, select a small lens aperture and focus your lens at infinity. Now look at the depth-of-field indicator marks on the lens barrel that corresponds to the lens aperture you’ve selected. The near distance on the depth-of-field indicator is the hyperfocal distance for the image. For example, a 24mm lens set at f/16 has a hyperfocal distance marker on the lens barrel of nearly five feet.

Next, re-focus the lens at this hyperfocal distance. In the case of the 24mm lens, you would focus at five feet. At this point, all objects from half the hyperfocal distance to the furthest distance will be acceptably sharp. Thus, objects from 2.5 feet to infinity would be in focus on a 24mm lens.

This rakes a little practice. Look at your lens’ instruction manual for additional explanations of the depth-of-field markings for your particular lens.

Hyperfocal Tables

The second method to obtain hyperfocal distances involves old-fashioned hyperfocal distance tables. Someone has gone to the trouble of computing hyperfocal distances for various lenses at common aperture settings.

Remember that hyperfocal tables show the hyperfocal distance of a particular lens setting, which is twice the near distance of the depth of field. So look up your hyperfocal distance in the table as explained below, and divide by two to get the near limit of depth of field.

To use the hyperfocal distance table, follow these steps:

1) Choose the column that corresponds to the lens you are using.

2) Move down the column to the desired hyperfocal distance (two times the nearest distance you want to be clearly in focus.).

3) Read the corresponding f-stop in the aperture setting column on the left.

4) Set your lens to the f-stop and set the focus at the hyperfocal distance. Everything from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity will be acceptably sharp.

This table is very useful in the field, and I recommend cutting out this hyperfocal table and putting it in your camera bag for future use.

A Final Word of Advice

Keep in mind when shooting hyperfocal images that the basic idea is to use the smallest aperture that will give you sufficient depth of field for your image, but don’t go any smaller than necessary. In other words, if f/16 is sufficient, don’t use f/22 or f/32.

There are many more aspects of hyperfocal photography than I’ve explained here, and I encourage you to further explore this creative photographic tool.

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