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What is Hyperfocal Distance and Why Should I Care? 
by The Staff at Vivid Light

So what the heck is hyperfocal distance and why should I care?

In Plain Language 
If you focus your lens at its hyperfocal distance you will get the greatest depth of field. With a high quality lens you can produce images with your 35mm that people will swear came from a medium format camera.

So what is hyperfocal distance? Whenever you focus your lens there will be an area that is in focus and areas that are out of focus. The area that is in focus is referred to as the "focal plane". 

The import thing here is that 1/3rd of the focal plane is ahead of the thing you're focused on and 2/3rds of the focal plane falls behind what you're focused on.

Focus your lens at infinity and the leading edge of the area that is in focus is the hyperfocal point for that lens. Focus on that point instead of infinity and you'll have the greatest range of focus from infinity back toward your location.

The Chart 
You can cheat, and many photographers do, by focusing about a third of the way into a scene. This will get you good sharp images with a lot of depth of field. But if you really want to squeeze the maximum depth of field out of that sweeping landscape before your lens knowing the correct hyperfocal distance for your lens is the only way.

You can do some math to find out the hyperfocal distance for any focal length lens at any aperture. But since most of us don't carry around calculators in our camera bags it helps to have a little cheat sheet along. We've included a couple of links below that allow you to print out charts for 35mm, 4x5, 6x6, and digital cameras. There are a couple of versions of the charts. The simplest to use is the PDF version. Just download it and print it. We've also included charts in Microsoft Excel format for the math wizards out there who want to modify the spreadsheets for other formats or to change the value of a constant in a formula (see Understanding the Math below).

Using the Chart 
The first step in getting maximum depth of field is to use a tripod. The idea is to capture fine detail. Unless you're using a very high shutter speed and you have the steady hands of a marksman the only way to do this is with a tripod to keep your camera rock steady.

Compose your image. Put your camera into manual focus mode, pick an object at the hyperfocal distance indicated by the chart and focus on it. There was a time when every lens had a distance scale printed right on the lens barrel. Those days are gone so unless you're using an older manual focus lens you'll have to estimate distance.

Use a cable release or the camera's built in self-timer to trip the shutter. Doing it manually by pressing down the shutter release button will cause camera movement and everything you've done so far will have been wasted.

When you get home make a nice big print and enjoy the results!

Times You Don't want to Use Hyperfocal Distance 
A visual technique that has become common in today's landscape photography is to pick a strong foreground subject placed low in the frame. Your eye naturally goes to that foreground subject and then on back into the image.

Depending on the focal length of the lens and the closeness of the subject, hyperfocal distance may leave the focus on that foreground subject soft. Since that is the first thing the viewers eye goes to the whole image will appear to be slightly out of focus - even if everything beyond that foreground subject is tack sharp. So if you're employing this compositional technique for your landscapes you have to make sure the foreground subject is sharp.

If you have a sufficiently bright viewfinder you can go to your hyperfocal distance and then gradually back the focus in until the foreground is tack sharp.

That's the end of the practical discussion and most of us should stop reading here. Continue on only if you want to get into the math and science behind calculating hyperfocal distance.

Download the Charts
Right click on the chart you want and pick Save Target As 
from the menu that pops up
Microsoft Excel 
Format
Adobe PDF
Format

 

Understanding The Math 
Most of us can skip this part and just refer to the chart for the point on which to focus our lens. But for those wanting to calculate other formats or recalculate using a different value for the circle of confusion we've provided the formulas.

         (L x L) 
H = ------------ 
         (F x D)

Where: 
H = Hyperfocal distance (in millimeters)
L = Lens focal length (i.e., 35mm, 100mm)
F = Lens aperture f-stop
D = Diameter of circle of least confusion (in millimeters)
Digital SLRs D = 0.02
35mm format D = 0.03
6x6cm format D = 0.06
4x5in format D = 0.15

Why use a different value for the circle of confusion? The constant used here is based on what is considered to be acceptable sharpness in an 8x10 print at a normal viewing distance. The problem is that normal and acceptable open the door for interpretation.

The constant we used has been around for a while and is widely accepted. But it's been argued that this constant doesn't take into account the tremendous improvements in lens design and film sharpness that we've seen over the last few years. Search around the Web for a while and you'll find numerous values to substitute for the circle of confusion constant, along with very technical sounding arguments for each.

In reality the markings on your lens barrel aren't all that accurate and if you're shooting with a newer lens you don't even have the lens markings going for you. That means you're estimating where the hyperfocal point is. So unless you're using and electronic range finder the slight differences in hyperfocal distance you'll get by recalculating with a different constant for the circle of confusion just won't make any difference in the real world.

Also useful is being able to determine your near focus distance:

                H x D
NF =   ----------------
             H + (D - L)

 
Where:
NF = Near focus limit (millimeters)
H = Hyperfocal distance (in millimeters from equation above)
D = Lens focus distance (in millimeters)
L = Lens focal length (ex. 35mm, 50mm, etc.)

 

For the Technically Obsessed 
Let's say you're the photographer who not only has every gadget in the world but you're obsessive about details. You can get the ultimate in accuracy by purchasing an Electronic rangefinder.

The one shown here is a Disto Lite5 hand held laser meter from Leica Geosystems. It sells for around $375 and will give you accurate distance readings from 0.2 to 200 meters (8 inches to 650 feet). How accurate? How about 3mm!

A number of companies make laser rangefinder systems ranging from handheld to tripod mounted monsters that cover big distances and cost big dollars. Will they make a difference in your photography? Heck no! 

But you'll have a cool toy that none of your buddies have in their camera bag. "Look Chuck that tree is exactly 142.69 meters away!"

 

Calculating Circle of Confusion for Other Formats: 

                  1 
CoC = -------------- 
             1300 / d

D = diagonal of chip in mm

To Find Hypotenuse (diagonal) of a film or digital format:

 

Where:
          a & b are the length of each side of the format. 

This constant in this formula is based on 4 lines per mm viewing resolution. I have seen some charts whose results are based on 5 lines per mm viewing resolution and seen it argued that 6 or even 8 lines per mm should be used in this equation. The fact of the matter is that substituting those constants makes no appreciable difference in the real world.

References for the mathematically inclined

Applied Depth of Field, by Alfred A. Blaker, Focal Press 
ISBN 024051730X

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