When it comes to getting pictures that are sharp all the way through from foreground to background, a great method you can use is hyperfocal distancing, writes Andrew James & Jon Adams.
Say it out loud and it really sounds like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t! It’s one of those photographic subjects that sounds horribly technical – the sort of thing likely to send a normal person into a deep coma as soon as people like us start talking or writing about it. But hold on one cotton-pickin’ minute, because there’s actually something to this whole hyperfocal distance thing that can make a difference to your photos, and it doesn’t require a degree in geometry to work it out.
Ultimately, and most crucially, it maximises the zone of sharp focus for a given aperture value, so you get pin sharp results exactly where you want them.
So where would we use it in our photography? Well, it’s not a technique to worry about when you’re shooting action, wildlife, or anything where you’re isolating a subject in a limited pool of sharpness. For this, just focus on the bit you want to be sharp (usually the closest eye if the subject’s alive) and get on with it!
Hyperfocal distancing comes into its own for scenes packed with detail through the frame, so the most common area to use it would be landscape photography, though it can also prove useful for architecture and still life, if a massive depth of field is what your shot requires. It’s great for landscapes because the clarity and presence of deep detail running from front to back gives the impression that the viewer can almost ‘walk into the scene’.
So how is it hyperfocal distancing achieved? Well, the method involves finding the optimum focus distance that allows the background to remain sharp, while making sure that your foreground detail is sharp too, and this can be done in a variety of ways.
There’s the old school method that’s only possible if you have older lenses with a full complement of barrel markings; the uber modern way using an App on your smartphone; the ‘practical’ way of using your eyes in the field; or the ridiculously simple way that will satisfy all but the fussiest of us. Let’s look at all of them in turn.
1 Old school
On older lenses with a full complement of barrel markings, you can set the hyperfocal distance in manual focus mode very quickly. Assuming you want to focus to infinity – just line up the outer f/16 marker with the infinity mark, and you can read off the closest distance that will be sharply focused with the inner f/16 mark. Even though the scene may look blurred in the viewfinder, the resultant shot will be sharp from the closest distance indicated right through to the infinity.
In the shot below you can see that the furthest f/16 marker is lined up with infinity. If we now read off the distance lined up with the closest f/16 marker, we can see that it’s 0.5m. This means that at f/16, your shot will be sharp from 0.5m (the minimum) all the way through to infinity (the maximum). It’ll look pants in the viewfinder, but fire off a shot and prepare to be amazed!
2 App it
There are various Apps available – some you have to buy, while a few are free. To be honest, they’re all only a few quid anyway so if you want to go down this route it’s not going to bankrupt you. Depending on the design of the App, you put in the camera you are using, the focal length, and the sensor size and the App will tell you in feet or metres where the hyperfocal point is. Then it’s up to you if you get out a tape measure and mark that point precisely or use your judgement on distances!
3 Do it by ‘eye’
This is one of our preferred methods and you have two choices of approach. The first is to use the Depth of Field Preview button to work out how much sharpness you have within your scene, and adjust either your focus point or change aperture, or both, if more sharpness is required.
If using a DSLR, when you press the DoF Preview button (normally found on the front of your camera body) while looking through the optical viewfinder, the scene will dim as you stop down. While you can still determine the increase in depth of field, it’s much easier if you use Live View, because you can see the effect of the smaller aperture on the photo without the image dimming. This way you can select your focus point, and then assess the amount of sharpness with the DoF Preview engaged. On most mirrorless cameras, you can see this through both the Electronic Viewfinder and on the LCD screen.
The second option is probably even simpler and involves nothing more than taking a test shot and reviewing your results. Work in Aperture-priority and dial in, for example, f/16. Take your shot and then assess the result on the LCD screen. In bright conditions you might need to throw your head under your coat to cut out the light! First, zoom in on the detail to see if your horizon is sharp and then check the immediate foreground – the closest part of the scene you want to be in focus – to see if it’s in focus, too. If everything is sharp as you want it, you’ve achieved your aim. If it isn’t, change your focus settings!
4 Focus one-third in
This is the simplest, but probably least accurate method. However, it’s still the most commonly used and if done correctly will give you perfectly good results. When the phrase ‘focus one-third in’ is used, it’s not referring to the actual distance between your foreground area and whatever is in the far distance. So, you don’t need to guesstimate that those nearby rocks and distant mountains are five miles apart, and then focus on a point you reckon is 1.66 miles away from where you are standing. What you need to do is focus approximately one-third into the frame. In reality, with a wide-angle lens, this usually means the back of your foreground. Of course, this is a good thing to do as a starting point if you then intend to do the test shot method or engage the DoF Preview to make sure what you want sharp, is sharp.
You might wonder why we’re not suggesting setting the smallest aperture on your lens for maximum depth of field which, typically on a wide-angle lens would be f/22. This is because as you stop down to smaller apertures to increase depth of field, a thing called diffraction will start to reduce the quality of your image. It doesn’t matter how good your lens is, diffraction will always occur to some degree when using smaller apertures. Basically, diffraction makes the image detail less sharp, and obviously that’s not something you want.
Diffraction will typically start to occur at about f/8, but usually f/11 and f/16 will give you acceptable results, whereas f/22 can potentially cause visible image degradation. We’d suggest you use f/11 or f/16 as a rule. The next image was shot at f/11 and there is enough sharpness in the foreground rocks and the hills. The softness in the water and sky is, of course, caused by a long exposure.
Finally, we’ve not mentioned focus stacking here as it’s a more complicated technique that involves shooting a series of images of the same scene, each focused in a different place from the foreground right through to far distance, with each frame then merged together in Photoshop. However, for extreme depth of field, it’s a popular method. We’ll cover it in the depth it requires in a future article.