Hyperfocal Distance: Maximizing Your Depth of Field

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In our article on Macro Photography, we discussed how shallow depth of field can be used to isolate your subject. This, however, is useless in landscape photography since you will need most, if not everything, in focus. To do this, you will need to learn how to maximize your depth of field and learn something called the hyperfocal distance.


CC Photo by mike138

DEPTH OF FIELD

In any given photographic situation, you will have an area that is in sharp focus and an area that is not. By definition, your depth of field is the area that is in sharp focus. Depth of field is influenced by three things, your aperture setting, your lens’ focal length and your distance from the subject. Let’s look at each of the three settings to see what effect they have on how deep or shallow your depth of field is. All the values used were computed using DOF Masters’ Online Depth of Field Calculator.

Aperture

Let’s say you are using a 50mm lens and you focus on your subject who is 20 feet away. Below is a table showing the effective depth of field using different aperture settings.


As you can see, the depth of field increases the higher the aperture value. You should take note the depth of field is always deeper behind your point of focus rather than in front of it.

Focal Length

For our focal length test, let’s assume that we are using an aperture of f/4 with the subject still 20 feet away. If you are using a camera with a cropped sensor then you will need to multiply your sensor’s crop factor to the focal length you are using to get the full-frame or 35mm equivalent before you start using a DOF calculator. In our case, we use a Canon 40D which has a crop factor of 1.6x. This was taken into account when the computations were made.


From the numbers we can see that the wider your lens, the deeper the depth of field. This is one of the reasons why landscape photographers prefer using wide angle lenses.

Distance From Subject

For this section, we again use a 50mm lens with an aperture of f/4. We will see how the distance between you and your subject affects your DOF.


As you can see, the farther away from the subject you are, the deeper the DOF.


CC Photo by jurek d.

Putting It All Together

From looking at all the tables above, you can now start to visualize how you can maximize your depth of field the next time you go out shooting. You can use a small aperture opening with a wide angle lens and be at a reasonable distance from your subject.

HYPERFOCAL DISTANCE


CC Photo by left-hand

The next thing we will look at is the hyperfocal distance. By definition, the hyperfocal distance is the minimum distance where a lens can focus while keeping elements at infinity reasonable sharp. Simply stated, it is the distance setting that can produce the greatest depth of field. This is how you can produce photos that are sharp from front to end. To get the exact hyperfocal distance, you will need to use a depth of field calculator since it involves some math that could take long if done by hand.

Let’s say, we’re using a 15mm lens and to take a landscape shot with everything in focus. From the previous section, we know that we have to select a small aperture opening to maximize depth of field so we select f/11. By using a depth of field calculator with these figures, we come up with a hyperfocal distance of 38.3 ft.

What this means is that you have to set your lens to focus at 38.3 feet. When your lens is focused at the hyperfocal distance your depth of field becomes half of the hyperfocal distance to infinity. Using our example, the depth of field is from 19.15ft (38.3/2) to infinity. Everything from the distance of 19.15 ft away from you will be in focus.

If you don’t have a DOF calculator to use in the field then a good rule of thumb to follow if you want everything in sharp is to focus on something that is one third into the scene using a wide angle lens with a small aperture setting. I would suggest using something between f/11 to f/16. This, of course, is just an estimate that most pros use and is only applicable to landscape shots.

Related Reading:
Lens 101
How to Take Tack Sharp Photos
Macro Photography 101, Part 1

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