Most landscape photographers try to get a scene as sharp as possible, with a large depth of field. To create a photo that is as sharp as possible from the foreground to background, photographers look for the focal point at the hyperfocal distance. The hyperfocal distance is the point where to focus, to use the depth of field most efficiently. If you focus at the hyperfocal distance, the photo will be acceptably sharp starting from halfway the hyperfocal distance, all the way to infinity. Or, as Wikipedia defines:
The closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. When the lens is focused at this distance, all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp.
To understand this page, knowledge on depth of field is necessary. Read my page on that subject here (click).
Why is it useful?
A photo that is completely sharp in its entire range is mainly useful in landscape prints. Imagine you’re in a beautiful field, in the background there is a waterfall, with some trees near a small pond. Separating you from the pond are some gorgeous flowers. The distance between you and trees is approximately 8 meters. So you decide to capture it with your Nikon D7100, using a 20 mm wide angle lens. You set the aperture to f11, and you focus on the trees. After viewing the photo on the screen, the lovely flowers in the foreground aren’t sharp.
Using the settings as described in this scenario, the depth of field of the photo starts 1,45 meters in to the scene, and ends at infinity. So, only after 1,45 meters the scene is in focus! This means you have to focus closer to get a fully sharp photo.
With a Nikon D7100, an 20 mm lens, set at an aperture of f11 the hyperfocal distance is at 1,79 meters. If you focus on this point, the entire scene will be acceptably sharp, starting halfway the hyperfocal distance at roughly 90 centimeters (1,79 / 2).
A real life example is shown in the pictures below. The distance from the camera to the fallen tree is about 6 meters, the distance from the camera to the building is approximately 40 meters. I used a focal lengths of 55 mm, and an aperture of f13.
First, I took a photo and focused on the fallen tree in the foreground. The tree in the foreground is nicely sharp, but the house in the background is not sharp. The picture below the original photo, is a cropped photo showing the details.
In my second try, I focused on the house in the background. Resulting in a nicely sharp building, but an out of focus foreground.
In my third photo, my focal point was the hyperfocal distance. I used an app to calculate my hyperfocal distance, at approximately 10 meters, and focused at that point. The result is a photo, where both the foreground, as the background, are acceptedly sharp.
How to calculate the hyperfocal distance
How did I find the right spot to focus on? This can be calculated using the formula:
Hyperfocal distance = (focal length * focal length) / (circle of confusion * aperture).
The circle of confusion for the Nikon D7100 is approximately 0,02 mm.
For the fictional scenario with the waterfall at the start of this article, this means that:
1. Hyperfocal distance = (20 mm * 20 mm) / (0,02 mm * f11)
2. Hyperfocal distance = 400 / 0,22 = 1818 mm
3. 1.818mm / 1.000 = 1,818 meters.
Thus, you should focus at a point which 1,8 meters away from your camera. Everything starting halfway 1.8 meters to infinity should be in focus.
The CoC is different per camera type. Most Crop cameras have a circle of confusion of 0,02 mm, while Full Frame cameras usually have a CoC of 0,03 mm. Hence, the size of your sensor influences the hyperfocal distances (and depth of field). You can find the CoC for your camera here.
Is it the million dollar answer?
No it is not. Some photographers do not like the hyperfocal distance. Some consider it irrelevant, saying “why go for most depth of field with the risk of losing sharpness”. In order to get a large as possible depth of field, you push the circle of confusion to the limit, something that might result in less sharpness in the background. For those looking closely, you might have noticed how in the example given above, sharpness is compromised. In the third photo of “Estate Eikenrode” the foreground and background are “acceptably sharp”. The foreground is not as sharp as the first photo, and the background is not as sharp as in the second photo. Therefore, sometimes changing settings (I could have closed my aperture to f16 to create a larger depth of field), is better than to calculate the best point to focus on.
However, the scene as described in the introduction with the flowers and waterfall would have been less beautiful if you could not get the flowers to be sharp on your photo.
Other photographers chase romance, what is a boring photo that is completely sharp? Photography is about art! While this is true, a sharp photo might be easier to sell. Sharpness including a good composition, great colours, and wonderful scene is a fantastic result!
Also, many cameras have different sensors sizes, mega pixels, and differ in sizes of the Circle of Confusion. All these factors influence the hyperfocal distance, and DoF. If you do not know theses factors, some calculations might not be accurate, and you won’t exactly focus on the right spot.
Another argument not to use the hyperfocal distance is, because losing details in the background adds to the feeling of depth in a photo.
So no, the hyperfocal distance is not the answer to a million dollar question, but it can help your scene.