Ask An Expert: Hyperfocal Focusing Demystified

I got a great question on email the other day about hyperfocal focusing.  This is one of those topics that seems to confuse the living crap out of photographers.  That’s a bummer because it’s really critical to know, especially for landscape photographers.  Scott Bacon, a very talented large format photographer who is now mostly a digital dude, wrote an awesome explanation that makes this confusing topic about as easy to understand as it’s gonna get.  Read on…

The Question:

How about explaining how/why hyperfocal distance works, why you should use it, and the easiest way to accomplish hyperfocal focus, without getting too technical. (You know me – I learn on my own and the really technical stuff either goes over my head or puts me to sleep!  Keep it simple, stupid…)   Tim Fitzharris had a pretty easy technique in his Audobon book but I haven’t tried it to see if it actually works.  Yes, I have a chart but honestly – I’m not very good at judging distances by eyeballing it and haven’t had much luck.

Scott Responds:

Hyperfocal focusing is a technique used to maximize the depth of field of an
image. In simpler terms, its just a way to get as much as possible in focus.

Often, we want to compose images with a foreground object (the pretty
flowers at our feet) and a background scene (mountains in the distance), and have both the near and the far in focus. So, how can we use hyperfocal
focusing to do this? Just focus your lens at the hyperfocal distance. Sounds
simple enough, right? Sure, as long as you can determine what the hyperfocal distance is and where that point is in the scene in front of you. This is where many people get lost.

Simply put, hyperfocal distance is the point nearest the camera at which the depth of field extends to infinity. It can be calculated using the focal
length, f-stop and something called the circle of confusion. Uh, oh. This
makes some folk’s eyes glaze over. So just keep in mind what hyperfocal
distance IS and don’t worry so much about how to calculate it.You can find
hyperfocal charts on the web and print them out. I like this one because you can customize it – http://www.dofmaster.com/charts.html In fact, there’s lots of good info and explanations on that website.

Now that we know what the hyperfocal distance is, let’s get practical. Here
are some ways you can use hyperfocal focusing in the field.

Method #1 – Use a Chart:

   1. Compose your image.
   2. Determine your focal length and f-stop.
   3. Find the hyperfocal distance on your chart.
   4. *Manually* focus your lens to the hyperfocal distance.
      1. This can be done easily if you have a distance scale on your lens.
      2. Or… find and focus on an object in your frame that is at the
      hyperfocal distance by estimating. Some are better at this than others.
   5. Check the near/far focus accuracy using the depth of field preview option on your camera. This takes some “getting used to” since the review is often dark.
   6. Press the shutter button.

Method #2 – The 1/3 Rule of Thumb:

   1. Compose your image.
   2. Manually Focus 1/3 of the way into the scene. Seriously! This often
   gets you very close to the hyperfocal distance.
   3. Check the near/far focus accuracy using the depth of field preview
   option on your camera.
   4. Adjust focus as necessary and check again with the Depth of Field
   preview. Repeat as necessary.
   5. Press the shutter button.

Method #3 – Use a Prime Lens:
Some prime, or fixed focal length, lenses have hyperfocal markings on the
lens barrel. Check for f-stop numbers (11, 16, 22) printed on the lens
barrel near the focus scale, or check the lens user manual.

   1. Compose your image.
   2. Determine the f-stop
   3. Manually focus the lens so that the f-stop marking on the barrel of
   the lens lines up with the infinity symbol (looks like a sideways “8″) on
   the focus scale. Done!
   4. Press the shutter button.

Note that it is important to use manual focus while using any of the
hyperfocal focusing techniques. If you don’t turn off auto focus, your
camera will probably adjust the focus as you press the shutter button.

Using hyperfocal focusing techniques in the field takes some practice. But
if you are using a digital camera, you can check your results on your
camera’s LCD, right there in the field. This interactive learning and
practice allows for quick progress. Give it a try!

Thanks for the detailed explanation, Scott!  Got a hyperfocal tip you’d like to share?  Leave a comment and help us all learn from your knowledge and experience.

15 thoughts on “Ask An Expert: Hyperfocal Focusing Demystified”

  1. Great advice! I would just add that with most of today’s dSLRs rather than use the depth of field preview and view finder, which as all know if quite dark, I’ve started using Live View mode in conjunction with the depth of field preview button. This option is great because the lcd is brighter and larger than the view finder and you can zoom into the scene for even more precise focus evaluation.

    http://www.vermontphotographer.wordpress.com

  2. This is really helpful, because I’m sometimes very remedial, and could use the extra help in getting me to understand hyperfocal distance. Thanks to Scott and Bret!

    On my iPod, I downloaded the DOFMaster app, which has proven to be helpful in reminding me of these rules in the field. Previously, I went to the website Scott recommends, and printed out a hyperfocal distance chart for my 10-22 and for my 24-105. I laminated them and kept them in my camera bag. After a while, it becomes like second nature and you don’t need to use them so much any more.

    Thanks again, Cheers,
    Greg

  3. Another trick I employ, which may be more of the lazy way of doing things, is to do my best to select the right hyperfocal focus point, manually focus there, press the shutter and then view the image at 100% on the LCD screen to see if it’s sharp from front to far. The new cameras have such high resolution screens that you can easily tell if your image is sharp. If it isn’t, select a new hyperfocal focus point and repeat the process.

    Of course, this approach doesn’t work when the conditions are changing fast. I like to arrive at a location and set up my composition well before the magic happens. This way I’m able to get all the technical crap out of the way and just enjoy the moment when it arrives.

  4. Great timing on this post Bret. I was reading something recently about hyperfocal focusing and found some smartphone apps that work pretty well. There are apps. for the iPhone, Blackberry devices and apparently for HTC devices as well. I’ve got a little commentary about it on my FB page and can paste the link if you’re game.

  5. Here’s the link to my FB page, it’s about half way down. I’ve asked David if he would be willing to post the link for the HTC app. so hopefully it will be there before long.

    Here’s the direct link for the iPhone app – http://www.dofmaster.com/iphone.html

    Touchscreen Blackberry – http://widgety.biz/DOFcalc/DOFcalc.jad

    QWERTY Blackberry – http://www.widgety.biz/DOFcalc9000/DOFcalc.jad

    For the Blackberry, navigate to the link from the phone’s browser and the app. will be put into the Downloads folder. I’ve tried the one for the QWERTY device on a Bold and it works.

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