Hyperfocal Distance Made Simple: Forget the Charts and Calculators

The majority of landscape photographers tend to prefer keeping the entire scene in focus from back to front, using smaller apertures to maintain greater depth of field. Using this simple technique, any photographer can quickly find the hyperfocal distance, or the focusing distance at which a lens, given any aperture and focal length, will produce the greatest depth of field. 

Capturing Sharp Images

Many photographers abide by the rule of thumb to focus one-third of the way into the scene. This method works well enough, provided your aperture is small enough, your focal length wide enough, and assuming there are no close foreground objects that you would like to keep in focus. In the age of digital media sharing, most photographers are sharing their images from their cell phones, with the assumption that the majority of their audience will be viewing from their cell phones as well. This means that focusing errors often go unnoticed and focusing successes often go unappreciated. For example, the image above required careful consideration to keep the close foreground pebbles in focus while also keeping the background within the focal plane, yet on social media, the file is compressed and downsized to the point where it wouldn't have mattered if I'd missed focus a bit. 

Instagram notwithstanding, many of us like to achieve maximum detail and clarity throughout our images, whether for the sake of making higher quality prints, or simply for the satisfaction of making a quality image that looks good at all sizes. Many photographers envy the sharp images of a high-resolution full frame camera, blaming their soft results on a smaller sensor or a cheap lens when in reality, most of their problems are probably due to poor focusing technique. The image featured above is sharp enough for large printing and was made with a "cheap" manual focus lens (Rokinon 12mm f/2.0) and an APS-C camera (Fujifilm X-T2). 

Hyperfocal Distance

The typical method for finding hyperfocal distance involves using charts or calculators available online or with apps such as PhotoPills. Calculating the hyperfocal distance is one thing, but actually focusing your lens at that exact distance is a whole separate challenge. Even with a distance scale on your lens or in camera, it can be difficult to ensure that you are focused at the hyperfocal distance, as those scales are often calibrated poorly. When you've put hard work and preparation into a shoot, you want to be confident that your images are in focus when you get home to process them. The best foolproof method for finding the hyperfocal distance doesn't even require any calculations or charts and can be done completely in the moment prior to releasing the shutter.

  • Begin with setting your aperture as dictated by the scene, keeping in mind that the smaller your aperture, the closer your hyperfocal distance will be.
  • Next, set your lens to manual focus and focus it at the nearest distance it will allow.
  • Using your camera's display zoom at its maximum setting, view an area in the farthest part of the scene that has fine details to focus on, such as a distant mountain or an object near the horizon.
  • Finally, turn your focus ring toward infinity until the finest details first appear at their sharpest. This is the hyperfocal distance for your current focal length and aperture setting. It's as simple as that. If you turn beyond this point, you will be losing depth of field in your foreground, as the hyperfocal distance will be moving away from the camera.

Once you have found the hyperfocal distance, you can now compose the scene knowing that you've already established the greatest possible depth of field for the chosen aperture. Keep in mind, finding the hyperfocal distance does not mean that everything will be in focus. It simply means that you have found the focusing distance at which your depth of field will be greatest. Near foreground objects may still be out of focus and can either be composed out of the scene, brought into focus by selecting a smaller aperture and repeating the steps above, or by focus stacking, if all else fails. 

This method is ideal because it is based on visual feedback, rather than trusting in the distance scales provided by your lens or camera. You can leave a scene with absolute confidence knowing that you've captured everything in crisp detail. 

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16 Comments

Nick Rains's picture

You need to make sure that the aperture is actually stopping down. No point in setting HFD if the lens is still wide open when you are looking through it. Not all cameras have a stop down or DoF preview facility.

Devin Rogers's picture

Fair point. Not all cameras allow you to change your shutter speed or ISO either, for that matter.

Nick Rains's picture

The audience for this article probably do have cameras that can change shutter speed and ISO, and aperture. But judging HFD does require the ability of the camera to display an image with the aperture closed down - it's not always obvious and it should not be assumed.

Devin Rogers's picture

Thanks for the feedback Nick. You are correct that this method will not work for those lacking the ability to preview their depth of field

Richard Kralicek's picture

Doesn't it depend on the aspects of the image you want to have sharp? Your description leads to sharp aspects far away, whereas using the hyperfocal distance normally leads to sharp aspects that are near while maintining decent sharpness on nearer objects and aspects further away.

Devin Rogers's picture

It really depends how close your foreground elements are to the front of your lens, and how stopped down you are. My typical setup for a near/far composition (assuming a static scene) would be a 9mm lens (aps-c) at f/11. Everything will be tack sharp beyond 1' 3" and things will be acceptably in focus approaching half of that distance. If you want to get crazy with it you can determine your circle of confusion and then use photopills to figure out how much closer you can get to achieve "acceptably sharp" results. I don't usually go to such lengths because 1' 3" is a pretty good working distance, and anything closer than that I typically just focus stack or compose it out of the scene. The method I've outlined here doesn't replace other methods but it certainly provides an easy way to maximize your depth of field for those who are new to the concept and struggling with establishing a workflow.

Bert Nase's picture

Really? More simple than Photopills. I think you haven't used it. Just use the AR and it points you to where your focus should be set. Simple as THAT!

Devin Rogers's picture

That's definitely one way to do it! I like this method because it is based on visual feedback, so I can actually see that my image is sharp. I consider it a more precise method. Some people are fine with just focusing 1/3rd into the scene, so everyone has their own tolerances

barry cash's picture

Another way is to double the Hyperfocal distance! good article
Your images seem to have been re processed by FStoppers ZAPing the micro contrast of which Im sure the original images have. Question did you use the P3 color space?

Thanks

Devin Rogers's picture

Thanks Barry. The soft look was a creative choice on my part. I raised the blacks and reduced contrast in certain areas to lead the eye a bit, and I figured the soft contrast helps the colors play better together, almost like a pastel vibe. Not to mention it was very soft light to begin with and the rokinon 12mm has no microcontrast whatsoever. I kinda like it though. It makes for rather uninspiring raw files, but that just leaves more room for a creative vision in post.

I process all of my images in sRGB

barry cash's picture

Ya bought the Rodkin 12 mm lens in Hong Kong got some great visual effects during PP learned my lens had a small bubble in the glass tried to get a replacement in USA no luck... then HK riots came so I chose not to go back in Sept 2019 then of course CCP flu no 2020 trip

Love the images you should print one to get back the great light

Thanks again

Devin Rogers's picture

When buying 3rd party lenses with poor quality control, I always recommend buying from B&H since they have such a great return/replacement policy. If you get a bad copy of the lens they'll let you swap it out no problem

Kurt Schuster's picture

For those of us with optical viewfinders, and no zoom function, might it be possible to use the Auto Focus function to help us with identifying when the distant object is in focus? Assuming, of course, the AF function will work while the lens was stopped down to whatever f-stop was selected for the proper exposure and desired HFD.

Devin Rogers's picture

Kurt, this is an interesting question, as "hyperfocal distance" can either be defined as the nearest distance at which a lens can be focused and while maintaining acceptable sharpness at infinity, OR as the distance beyond which all objects will be acceptably sharp for a lens that is focused at infinity.

This article takes the first approach, which you won't be able to use accurately without any sort of LCD zoom function. Using the second definition, however, if you set your autofocus to a point at infinity and take note of the hyperfocal distance using a chart or calculator, you can now compose your scene knowing anything beyond that distance will theoretically be acceptably sharp.

Of course, you would be relying on your camera's autofocus to actually set the focusing distance to infinity and not some closer distance. The other drawback to this second definition of hyperfocal distance is that it doesn't actually guarantee the maximum possible depth of field at a given aperture and focal length. It is simply a functional definition that allows you to compose your scene within the limits of the depth of field.

Kurt Schuster's picture

Mr. Rogers,
Thank you very much for your response. I seem to have unintentionally left my question rather open-ended. To clarify: using manual focus and placing the center auto-focus point at or near some far away point, and then manually focusing my lens down from infinity, I would hope to get a 'focused' indication at around the same point as in your example. Provided, of course, that the auto focus function in my camera was operational at the selected f-stop.

Thank you very much for your article. It is quite thought provoking and informative.

Paul Samson's picture

If in doubt; stack !