09 Jul

Ask yourself if you know about hyperfocal distance, if you have heard of it, if you have used it and even if you think its not just jargon which can be discarded. 

Before we even  get into it, you may be thinking why on landscape photography when this website is all about wildlife? Well the answer to that is in short, to mimic it’s originator (for us anyway) “animalscapes“ which is about animals in their environment. Briefly that allows less zoom and wider composition and is therefore like a hybrid of landscape and animal coming together.

You hear this term hyperfocal distance. You freak out as you think numbers and complicated maths. Nothing can be further from the truth. We regularly use this concept to set up our camera’s focus.

For landscape photographers, the power of hyperfocal distance comes into play when the light conditions are rapidly changing. Once we set up our focusing point to get everything sharply in focus, we do not have to think about getting the focusing correct as long as we don’t change the aperture and focal length. So, when the sky is putting on an incredible show, we can concentrate on getting the best possible landscape photography composition and making use of the available light to get as many stunning photos as possible in a short period of time.

However, beginner landscape photographers often struggle with this concept because they are often overwhelmed by the complex interaction of hyperfocal distance with composition, depth of field, exposure, and more. This often causes them to make some basic and common errors  while trying to use this powerful concept. Here are some tips for beginner and intermediate landscape photographers to effectively use hyperfocal distance to get sharp focus.

  • Do not focus on your subject

When you have a strong subject that dominates the landscape photo you are trying to capture, it is perfectly natural to pay lots of attention to the subject. So when it comes to time to select your focus point, beginner landscape photographers frequently try to focus first on the subject and then try to find out how to use hyperfocal distance to select their aperture.

However, that approach is incorrect and often an error made by beginner landscape photographers. In reality, the subject distance has no relationship to the focusing distance if you are using hyperfocal distance to focus (assuming that your subject is completely within the frame). Sometimes the focus distance aligns with your subject; other times it may be close or further away from your subject. For this reason, it is important that the beginner landscape photographer grasps this concept

  • Be conservative when setting your focussing distance

The concept of hyperfocal distance often raises the question:

How do I measure the distance when selecting my focus point?

This is a totally understandable question and we can certainly understand why it comes up. Traditionally, hyperfocal distance is derived from a mathematical formula. This formula gives an exact distance to which to focus so that everything in half the distance between the focusing point and infinity is sharp.

What then happens to your depth of field if you are slightly off in estimating that distance?

Well if you estimate the distance conservatively so that you are focusing slightly further away than the hyperfocal distance, everything in your frame (from half of that distance to infinity) will still be in focus. You can easily verify this fact by pulling out your favourite depth of field app (they are freely available and usually free of charge) and plugging in the numbers.

If aggressively, you focus too close to your setting and focus closer than hyperfocal distance, you may not get everything sharply in focus. For this reason, it is always advisable to be conservative in estimating distance when using hyper focal distance.

  • Look beyond the Set It and Forget It approach

One of the biggest advantages of using a hyperfocal distance workflow is that the landscape photographer can use it as a Set It and Forget It approach. Here is how Set It and Forget It approach works:

  • Set the camera to get sharp focus for a given aperture and focal length using hyperfocal distance.
  • Lock this focus setting on the camera by placing the camera in manual focus mode.
  • At this point everything between half the hyperfocal distance and infinity is in sharp focus.
  • You can then change your composition and capture as many photos as you like as long as you don’t change the focal length or aperture.

So, when landscape photographers are confronted with spectacular light conditions, they can use several photos without having to worry about focus setting on their camera. However, it is easy to forget that the Set It and Forget It approach is not always optimal for taking photos.

  • Know your lens limitations

I was asked this great question:

Why not always use say F11 and set the camera using Hyperfocal Distance? This way, I only have to remember a single hyperfocal distance for a given focal length. The workflow would be super easy.

This is a very valid point. This would make your workflow a lot simpler.

However, landscape photographers should remember an important fact. Every camera lens has its own sweet spot where the performance of the lens is optimal. For most lenses, the performance is optimal between F5.6 and F11 apertures. Once you start using your lenses outside this aperture range, lens performance degrades. But the amount of this degradation varies for every lens.

Knowing the limitation of your lenses helps you select between using a very narrow aperture to get everything sharp using hyperfocal distance or relying on other techniques such as focus stacking.

  • Work with available light and weather

By using the hyperfocal distance rule correctly, everything in your frame from half the distance from the hyperfocal point to infinity will be in sharp focus. But getting the focus correct does not necessarily guarantee sharp photos. Here are few things that can reduce the sharpness of the photos even when your focus setting is correct:

Camera motion: It is important to use a sturdy tripod and remote release. This ensures that your camera is steady when you are taking a photo. This is especially important for long exposures.

Subject motion: Moving subjects can induce motion blur in landscape photography causing loss of sharpness (think animal heads turning, ear flicking)

Wind: Wind can create motion in some of the elements (such as vegetation). This induces motion blur in the image causing you to lose sharpness. Very strong winds can also cause your camera to move, inducing motion blur throughout the scene.

Weather: Sometimes mist, rain, and snow can obscure small details, making the photo appear soft.

In Summary 

So, if your intention is to get sharp photos, as it should be, you must look beyond hyperfocal distance to create photos that match your vision.

Now that we have shared some hyperfocal distance tips for landscape photographers, are you ready to add it to your “tool kit”?

Would you like a hyperfocal distance rule of thumb or trick that works 95% of the time? To get that, send us a mail on hello@wild1s.co.za and we will send to to you. 

Do you use hyperfocal distance for your landscape photography? Should you? Feel free to share comment or share this.

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