The hyperfocal distance at a given aperture on any lens will enable the photographer to “know” what will be in focus in the scene without having to re-focus between shots. Hyperfocal distance is commonly defined as “the closest distance from which a lens can focus that will be acceptably sharp from half that distance through infinity.” It is a technique which is particularly useful with smaller apertures (as in gaining a deeper depth of field) when shooting anything from street scenes to landscapes where the photographer requires an established area of focus from a fixed distance through infinity so that you don’t need to refocus between shots. Follow me in and we’ll go over a simple way to determine your hyperfocal distance.
This is a more lengthy answer born from Dave’s question on my Q&A post last week. Okay, you know the distance scale on your lens? Yeah, the one with m/ft and aperture settings? Okay, when manually focusing a lens, paying attention to this instead of attempting to trust your eye through the viewfinder/LCD screen can make a manual focusing task much, much easier. Because many current systems with electronically controlled aperture irises will use the lens wide open when focusing and viewing through the lens via the viewfinder, you are focusing at the shallowest depth of field available regardless of the focal point. The reason modern cameras do this is because it lets the most amount of light in which A) helps the AF system and B) makes for a brighter viewfinder image aiding our eye to see the scene in front of us. A handy tip to envision how the shot will turn out is to use your DOF Preview on the camera which is normally a button which stops the lens down to a set aperture (assuming you have the aperture stopped down) and this will do two things, first darken the viewfinder as it is letting less light in through the prism and secondly will show you the actual depth of field at that particular aperture.
Have a look at the lens in the picture above. (I’ve used f/16 as the example here, but you can establish the hyperfocal distance for any aperture setting following the same exercise) This pertains to use on a full frame or 35mm film camera. If using a crop sensor camera, you can find charts or use online calculators (there are even apps for smart phones) and the link to my fave is below, a quick rule of thumb would be to find the markings for one setting brighter for APS-C, and two stops brighter for a 4/3 (micro 4/3) size sensor ie: to establish the hyperfocal distance for f/11 on a micro 4/3 camera, or f/8 (more or less) on an APS-C sensor, you’d have to focus to the same point as would be accurate for f/5.6 on 35mm film or a full frame digital when using lenses built for a full frame/35mm film era camera. On the distance scale, there will (or should) be a fixed set of marks pertaining to the aperture. In the middle of these marks is a hash mark designating the focal point, or point of focus. When auto focusing, the barrel will rotate and the focal point will be dictated by the distance that the AF point used finds focus. When manually focusing you can look through the viewfinder and focus by eye (which is a fairly foolproof way of achieving focus as long as your eyes, and shooting technique are up to it) or you can set your Hyperfocal distance and shoot away knowing how far away subjects need to be to be “in focus.” Some modern lenses will have a very limited distance scale, and it may be difficult to manually establish the hyperfocal length at a given aperture. If that is the case, you can use a depth of field calculator (www.dofmaster.com) and then measure the hyperfocal distance by way of an estimation or be more precise by using a measuring tape (or step it off), from the sensor plane out into the scene, focus at that point and you’ll have established your hyperfocal distance. This of course would be difficult if street shooting, but not too laborious if setting up a landscape shot from a tripod.
To establish your hyperfocal distance, set your aperture. For our example here, we’ve used an aperture setting of f/16 (designated by the two 16’s one on either side of the center focal point mark) but if wanting to determine the hyperfocal distance at a different aperture, just replace ‘f/16’ with your f-stop of choice throughout the exercise. The easiest way to determine the hyperfocal distance is to find f/16 on your distance scale (there will be a near mark and a far mark, both corresponding to the set aperture). Using the “far” f/16 mark on the right of my focal point hash mark, set the focus to align the infinity mark with that “far” f/16 hash. Your hyperfocal distance will be wherever on that distance scale that your focal point hash mark hits. Now, look at the “near” f/16 hash mark and note that distance. That near point through infinity should fall into your depth of field and be in acceptable focus. Easy breezy. Step by step:
- In my example shot above, I’ve set the lens to f/16, and turned the focus ring so that the infinity mark resides on that ‘far’ f/16 hash mark.
- My Hyperfocal distance is the distance at which the focal point hash mark (long white one in the center) hits which in this case is just about 49′ or just shy of 15m.
- The ‘near’ f/16 hash mark (on the left) shows my nearest distance that will be in focus which is about 24.5′ or so, or around 7m.
- This means that within my scene, anything that is further than 24.5′ all the way through infinity will be in focus.
Here’s a quick video to show it to you:
As we’ve just established, when focused to the hyperfocal distance (“HFD” let’s say), half of that distance (“HFD/2”) through infinity will be in focus. To make the math simple, let’s say that our HFD= 50′, so our HFD/2 (or near point in focus) would be 25′ (HFD= 50’/2 = 25′) meaning that from 25′ through infinity would be in focus. One other fun fact about hyperfocal distance is that, adjusting focus to the near point “HFD/2” (25′) in this example, will keep everything from HFD/3 (16.7′) through the original HFD (50′) in focus. And so on, focused to HFD/3 (16.7′) will keep HFD/4 (12.5′) through HFD/2 (25′) in focus. This might be a little unnecessary to remember, but still fun to see how optical science works, all the while making a little more sense of the distance scale on our lenses.
*Also, one more fun fact regarding our distance scales, there will be a (usually) red mark, which designates the infrared focusing point. When using IR film, or an IR altered senor, you would focus as per normal, then when you’ve established your focus, move the distance which shows as your focal point to the designated infrared focusing point to properly capture the IR waves as they focus behind the focal plane!
Anyway, thanks as always for reading and if you’d like to receive an email notification when new articles are posted, just enter your email address in the field at the top right of the page.