Hyperfocal Distances at Your Fingertips for Easier Photos

Hyperfocal Distances at Your Fingertips for Easier Photos

Hyperfocal distances are an arcane, over-technical art for some photographers and just another tool to whip out at the necessary moment for others. So, how do you put those hyperfocal blues to bed?

It's 6 am on a cold February morning, and you are preparing a dawn landscape shoot. You've got the insulated jacket, woolen beanie, and padded gloves to keep you warm, but even so, you find yourself stamping your feet and slapping your arms in the chilled blue hour. You select the 14mm lens, attach it to your DSLR, and screw it onto the tripod. You're stood over a frozen pool, the vista stretching away into the distance. Angling the camera down, you fill the foreground, level the horizon, and are ready to shoot. At this point, you realize you've forgotten the hyperfocal distance. For a moment, you consider the app on your smartphone, but toss the idea at the thought of taking your gloves off. You guess and start shooting.

So, how do you ensure both foreground and background are in focus? This is the realm of hyperfocal distances, something that we've covered on FStoppers before.

In short, it's the focus distance for a given focal length, circle of confusion, and aperture combination, which gives the greatest depth of field. We don't need to know the physics of its calculation, just that it's a calculable value, and there are a ton of apps for your smartphone that will do it. My favorite on Android is called Hyperfocal Pro, but just search on any app store and you'll get a load of hits.

The screenshot below highlights the boxes you are interested in. These are camera selection, focal length, and aperture.

For my Nikon D700 with Samyang 14mm lens at f/22, this gives a hyperfocal distance of 0.31 m, which means that everything from 0.16 m to infinity is acceptably in focus, notwithstanding any blurring from the effects of diffraction. Stop down to f/16 or f/11 and these distances change to 0.44 m and 0.61 m, respectively. Knowing this was particularly useful for the banner shot of the dome in St. Paul's Cathedral, London.

Of course, none of this is new, and the proliferation of smartphone apps is testament to people wanting to know this stuff. But an app is just a little too much faff for me, and for longer focal lengths, I'm also interested in depth of field (dof), useful for taking portraits. That led me to printing out DoF tables using the useful DoFMaster. In a similar vein to Hyperfocal Pro, you enter the relevant camera and lens, then for different aperture settings, you can produce a table of dofs and the hyperfocal calculation. As it turned out, I'm even less likely to look at these, as they remain crumpled and unopened in my bag.

So what's the answer? Well, just as I have labeled my cameras/lenses to aid their return if I lose them, so I've now also tagged every lens with its hyperfocal distance at f/22, f/16, and f/11. That puts those figures right at my fingertips, and all I have to do is look at the lens.

In addition, for my longer lenses, I've also put dof distances for focusing at 2 m and 3 m, something that I find is common when shooting portraits. So, when you next need to ensure the bride and groom are both in focus, you can rest assured that that knowledge is literally at your fingertips!

Do you have any settings that you'd benefit from sticking to your camera? If so, what are they?

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R. P.'s picture

It is not about being in complete and perfect focus. Hyperfocal length is about getting acceptable focus in front and towards infinity.

And with uwa and wa lenses understanding field curvature is more critical to get sharp images.

Understanding hyperfocal distance is not "arcane or over-technical" at all. It is a necessary fundamental.

Read, study, and learn the craft. Then buy Leica.

Look down at the top of your M-lenses. The hyperfocal distance scales are etched in the lens bodies.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

Leica is far too expensive for most people. It is nice that you have the money but as a brand, it is mostly marginal, overrated and probably overpriced.But on older MF lenses, those scales were really usefull.
Since most mirrorless devices don't have mechanical linkages, this can't be done anymore.

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

true, but all mirrorless cameras offer a focal distance meter on both the evf and rear lcd, depending on which you prefer to compose with.

I've been behind one camera or another since the 1960s and have seen lots of systems come and go. It doesn't have to be Leica, and I didn't say that's what I shoot -- I just said the scale is there on their M-lenses.

Lots of Nikon and Fuji lenses and, I'm sure others, have manual-use scales engraved on them. The key is that the photographer needs to learn the craft and practice the basics. [Ever noticed the red mark slightly to one side of the 'Center' on older lenses? That's the infrared focusing mark for when IR film was available.]

Calling something "over-technical" is akin to saying 'I hate math.' Study -- learn -- practice. Get out and shoot, and study your results.

Philipp Pley's picture

Oh wow, so cool! Go on, tell us more about how amazing your Leica is!

While you do that I'll be out actually taking some photos. Maybe I'll use a Hasselblad, maybe it'll be a Nikon D850, maybe I'll use a disposable camera...

barry cash's picture

yes the hyper focal distance scales on a Leica lens is a good starting point but not very accurate at all. Fact the scale doesn't change if your lens is mounted on a body with a different sensor which is VERY important you need to know what variables will come into the calculation. If you own a Leica you can afford the APP even just to test it out.

This bases its calculation upon the circle of confusion and pixel pitch.

barry cash's picture

yep that the correct way

off-topic question: what tape do you use for the labeling? Does it leave a residue?

Mike Smith's picture

I use a Dymo100H with both plastic and paper tape (see https://www.amazon.com/DYMO-LetraTag-LT-100H-Handheld-21455/dp/B000II09IM). The glue is pretty sticky, although sometimes I cover with a strip of clear 3M tape to make sure it sticks. It does leave a residue but nothing a little amount of alcohol wont remove.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

That only really works for primes. Or are you sticking a whole excel sheet on your zoom lenses?

I'm aware of the hyper focal distance, but i never used it (still only 1,5 years in photography).
My biggest questions is, how exactly do you focus precisely on 0,59 meters from your sensor plane? Are you holding out a yard stick?

Especially for ultra wide (14mm), if i focus on a subject 1 meter away then that subject is sharp. Everything from 0,37 m to infinity is withing my depth of field. Using that whole Hyperfocal distance stuff which will require a table or note as well as a way to focus on 0,59 meters i win 0.07m which are now acceptably sharp. Plus i lose my precise focus plane on my 1 meter subject.
Why would i do that?

If my subject moves to 3 meters away, which is almost infinity for a ultrawide, then i win 20 cm of acceptable sharpness. If my camera is on a tripod and not right next to an object, nothing should be within that distance anyway.
Does it make a difference?

In addition to all my questions here i'll go out this weekend and do some tests myself.
I'm just curious what the fuss is all about, as some people say it's the only right method to focus and a lot others just focus on infinity or the subject they want.