Hyperfocal distance isn’t a difficult topic, but it can be tricky to grasp initially.
Which is why this article is all about hyperfocal distance–but in a simple, easily understood way.
So if you’re looking to understand hyperfocal distance without all the unnecessary complexities and technical jargon, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s dive right in.
What Is Hyperfocal Distance?
Hyperfocal distance refers to the distance from your camera that maximizes depth of field.
In other words:
By focusing your lens on the hyperfocal distance, you’ll get the most sharpness throughout your photo.
You see, hyperfocal distance is all about making sure that the entire frame is sharp, from foreground to midground to background.
If you focus behind the hyperfocal distance, you may end up with a blurry foreground.
And if you focus in front of the hyperfocal distance, you may end up with a blurry background.
The hyperfocal distance is that goldilocks point–where you can ensure that most (or all) of your image will be in focus.
Now, there are plenty of photography genres that don’t actually care about hyperfocal distance.
If you’re doing portrait photography, it doesn’t really matter if your shot is sharp throughout; it’s really just about keeping the eyes in focus.
However, there are certain types of photography where hyperfocal distance is essential.
That’s what I address in the next section.
When Do You Need to Use Hyperfocal Distance?
Hyperfocal distance basically matters in two scenarios.
First, you need to use hyperfocal distance if you’re photographing a very deep scene and you want the whole thing to be sharp.
I’m talking about a scene that has a very distant background, as well as a very near foreground.
This is why landscape photographers rely so heavily on hyperfocal distances; landscape shooting frequently involves very deep scenes, where the foreground to background needs to be sharp.
You need to use hyperfocal distance if you’re shooting at very high magnifications and you want everything to remain sharp.
(Put a different way: If you want a macro photo that’s sharp throughout, then you’ll need to pay careful attention to the hyperfocal distance.)
That said, there are plenty of macro photographers that don’t actually care about hyperfocal distances. If you’re creating soft focus macro photos, like this:
…then hyperfocal distance doesn’t matter, because you won’t care about keeping everything sharp.
How Should Hyperfocal Distance Be Used?
When you’re out taking photos, I recommend you carefully observe your scene.
If there’s decent-to-significant depth, then you should at least think about the hyperfocal distance.
And if you decide that determining the hyperfocal distance is necessary, go ahead and figure it out.
Then, once you’re done, focus manually at the right point in the frame.
Finally, choose the perfect aperture (as discussed in the next section).
And take your shot.
Hyperfocal Distance and Aperture
Hyperfocal distance is all about maximizing your depth of field.
But does this mean that, as long as you nail the hyperfocal distance, you don’t have to think about different apertures?
Because while the hyperfocal distance will maximize your depth of field, it still may not give you enough depth of field to get the whole scene sharp at the aperture you’ve chosen.
So, if you really want to make sure everything is sharp, you have to determine the hyperfocal distance, yes.
But you also have to choose an aperture that’s narrow enough to give you a sharp scene.
My recommendation here is to focus on the hyperfocal distance, then stop down to at least f/8. Take a shot, and preview it on your LCD. If everything looks sharp, then great–you’re good to go.
But if the nearest foreground element or most distant background element is still blurry, then you’re going to want to narrow your aperture further, to f/11 or even f/16.
Methods of Calculating the Hyperfocal Distance
There are two common methods of determining the hyperfocal distance.
There’s a hard way, and an easy way.
Let’s start with the hard way first, because it’s more technical:
Hyperfocal Distance Charts
There are charts that’ll allow you to calculate the hyperfocal distance.
You simply identify your lens’s focal length and your selected aperture.
Then look on the chart to find the point at which the depth of field will be maximized.
Personally, I’m not a fan of this method. First, it’s annoying to carry a chart with you out in the field all the time.
Second, it takes time to calculate the hyperfocal distance when using a chart, and sometimes you don’t have time, especially if you’re dealing with rapidly changing light.
By the way, a slightly faster (but still similar) method involves using an app; various companies have developed apps that allow you to enter in the relevant details, which then spit back the hyperfocal distance.
The Foreground Subject Estimation Method
This is my preferred method of determining the hyperfocal distance, and it’s the one I use in the field.
Simply figure out the nearest object that you want sharp in the frame.
Estimate how far it is away from you (just a rough estimation is fine; no need to get precise).
Then double that distance.
That’s an approximation of the hyperfocal distance, and it’s where you need to focus if you want the best chance to get everything sharp.
I say ‘best chance’ because hyperfocal distance does occasionally cause problems, which I address in the next section.
Does Hyperfocal Distance Ever Fail?
In a word:
Sometimes, your scene is so deep that it cannot possibly be sharp throughout using normal methods.
Even if you nail the hyperfocal distance.
Even if you use the narrowest aperture your lens offers, regardless of diffraction.
In situations like that, you’ll need to rely on a method called focus bracketing, also known as focus stacking.
The way it works is to capture several images of the same scene, but with different points of focus.
Then you open all the images in post-processing software and stack them together–for one ultra-sharp result!
This is often going to be necessary when you’re shooting at high magnifications, because even a narrow aperture and a carefully determined hyperfocal distance won’t be enough.
(In fact, some macro focus stacking projects literally require dozens, or even hundreds, of shots.)
So just bear this in mind!
Hyperfocal Distance: Conclusion
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should feel confident in your ability to identify hyperfocal distances.
So the next time you’re out shooting, you’ll be able to capture the sharpest photos possible!
The hyperfocal distance is the point of focus that maximizes the depth of field. So if you focus at the hyperfocal distance, you’ll end up with an image that’s sharp throughout (or, at least, the sharpest throughout).
No, definitely not! Most photographers don’t care about the hyperfocal distance at all, simply because it’s not relevant to the type of photography they do. However, the hyperfocal distance is important if you shooting scenes that are very deep and must be sharp throughout (such as landscapes), or if you’re shooting scenes at high magnifications that must be sharp throughout (such as flower close-ups). In those situations, you do need to determine the hyperfocal distance, or at least learn to approximate it.
Hyperfocal distance is not always enough. If you have a scene with very near foreground objects and very far background objects, you may not be able to get a shot that’s totally sharp throughout. In such a case, you do have the option of using focus stacking, where you focus at different points and blend the images together, but that’s a more advanced technique.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.