Hyperfocal focusing for wide angle landscape photos

Getting the most from your lens

Edith Creek and Mt. RainierIn photography, big words tend to elicit glassy-eyed stares. Hyperfocal seems to be one of those words; it gets people turning around in circles of confusion. But it’s just a word, hyper—or excessive—focus. It means a lot of focus. When you use hyperfocal focusing you’re taking the greatest advantage of depth of field to achieve the greatest amount of apparent focus.

A couple things to remember:

  • To get the greatest depth of field you need to use the smallest aperture openings
  • Depth of field extends in front of and behind the point of focus; a little bit toward the camera and more away from the camera.

Having everything in focus is especially desirable in wide-angle landscape images where the goal is to convey a sense of depth. In 35mm photography, and when using a full-frame DSLR, I’ve found that using lenses that are about 28mm and wider work best to achieve this. For the smaller DX digital sensors, 18mm and wider works well.

When a lens is set to the hyperfocal point, depth of field extends from one-half the focusing distance (the hyperfocal point) to "infinity." With a wide angle lens, by using a small opening like f/16 or f/22 and setting the lens at the hyperfocal focus point, depth of field can extend from a close foreground object to infinity, thereby achieving that sense of depth and also achieving acceptably sharp focus throughout the image.
This is actually a lot easier done than said.

There is plenty of information to be found in books and on the internet dealing with the mathematics and theory behind hyperfocal focusing so I’m not going to go into that here, that’s not what this article is about. What I will go into is how to take the best  compositional advantage of hyperfocal focusing.

The Totem Pole, Monument ValleyFirst of all, let’s get the focusing part out of the way.
Once you have a composition that excites you, then you need to set the focus. One common mistake here is to focus on the nearest foreground element in the frame; after all, that’s what you want to have in focus and that’s what will look best in the viewfinder. But remember, if you do that, some depth of field will extend from that point towards the camera and out of the frame. This is just wasted depth of field and you’ll end up with your background slightly out of focus. You need to focus slightly beyond that nearest foreground element. When you’re focused on the hyperfocal point, the image in the viewfinder may not look good; that foreground you like so much may look out of focus. Resist the temptation to refocus. Instead, if you need some reassurance, press your depth of field preview button and watch everything pop into focus.

Just where to focus is the sticky part and it’s where most people get hung up.

If you’re using a fixed focal length wide angle lens there will usually be hyperfocal focusing marks on the barrel, though this is becoming rarer and rarer. These are marks on either side of the focus scale with corresponding f/stop numbers. You’ll usually see numbers like 11, 16, and 22 on each side of the focusing distance indicator mark. If your lens has these marks, simply line up the infinity symbol (∞) on one side of the barrel with the mark for the aperture you’re using. On the other side of the barrel the corresponding mark will point to the distance of closest focus. If that’s not the case then you’ve got it backwards and you need to put your infinity symbol on the other side of the lens barrel.setting hyperfocal point on 24mm lens

If you’re using a wide-angle zoom the best way to focus is to use a hyperfocal chart. These charts, or some variation, are often provided in the owner’s manual for your lens. When you use one of these charts, you set your focusing ring to the distance indicated for your chosen focal length and the chosen aperture.

Charts can also be generated using optical formulas, you can easily find them by searching on the web. There are also apps for depth of field and hyperfocal calculations for use on mobile devices. One I've tried (and have on my iPhone) is the DOFMaster app. It uses circle of confusion numbers that are nearly identical to the ones I use to generate my charts and it's pretty easy to use. You can find links to the Apple and Android apps on the DOFMaster site. Other apps such as PhotoPills will also give you hyperfocal distances.

35mm-chart

Hyperfocal chart for 35mm film and full framed sensors

dx-chart

Hyperfocal chart for DX sensors (1.5 crop)

The accompanying charts were generating assuming that the photographer wants high quality prints larger than 8x12.

I've created PDF pages of these charts.
For a page of eight charts for 1.5x cropped digital cameras (can also be used for 1.3 and 1.6, this isn't rocket science you know) click here.
For a page of ten charts for 35mm and full frame digital cameras, click here.

Here's how to use the charts. On the left hand side is the focal length of the lens. along the top are aperture settings. After you've found your composition, look at the zoom setting to get your focal length. Choose the aperture you want to use. This will usually be f/16 or f/22. Using the chart, find the intersection between your focal length and aperture. That's the distance you want to set the focus to. The charts are in feet and meters, this will make it a bit easier to find a matching mark on your lens's focusing scale.
What if your lens has no focusing scale? Then find something, your camera bag will do, and focus on it from the indicated distance. Keep in mind, the distance is measured from the camera's sensor or film plane, which is about a half inch from the back of the camera. There's a mark that looks like a circle with a line through it. That's the focal plane.

All this stuff about maximizing depth of field is well and good, but it does nothing for you unless you use effective composition techniques.

In close up pictures, backgrounds become critical. In landscape images, it’s the foreground. The whole purpose of using hyperfocal technique is to have both the foreground and the background in focus.

positioning camera for depthIf you’re after dynamic landscape images that convey a great sense of depth, photographing in the vertical format will be more effective simply because you have more space to express that depth. A very effective way to do this is to get close and slightly above your foreground and tilt the camera slightly down to draw the foreground in. Fill the bottom of the frame with foreground and place the horizon in the upper part of the frame. This is where you achieve that sense of depth, that near/far effect. Notice that most of the image is going to be foreground.

One thing you might find when you start using this technique is that your hyperfocal point, more often than not, ends up right in the middle of the frame. If you don’t have a chart handy, use this positioning technique of getting close to and slightly above your foreground while tilting the camera down a bit and just focus right in the center. This is a trick I learned (stole) from my friend David Middleton.

Something else I’ll mention here is the myth of focusing a third of the way into the frame. The trouble with this is that one-third may be too close or too far away. It all depends on your composition and isn’t very reliable. Sometimes it works. Usually it doesn’t. I simply use the marks on my lens or the numbers from the charts. In fact, I’ve memorized the hyperfocal points for the most common focal lengths I use.

Since the foreground is where your viewer starts, choose it carefully. It’s very important to find an effective foreground. If your foreground isn’t interesting, if it doesn’t draw the viewer in, you might as well not even include it. Foregrounds can make or break a wide-angle landscape photograph; so choosing your foreground needs to be your primary consideration. If everything from 2 feet to infinity in your picture is in focus but it’s boring, then what’s the point?

Note also that using a good foreground with a boring background will also lead to less than satisfying pictures. In close up photography, it’s like finding a great background for a bug eaten and ugly flower.

Cuernos del PaineIf you’ve read any of my articles on composition, you already know that I encourage people to strive for simplicity and to look for graphics. For wide-angle landscapes, I look for leading lines and curves to use in foregrounds. I look for connections. I look for a way to draw my viewers in and lead them through the picture.

When choosing foreground elements like flowers, look for groups or shapes that can act as leading or entry elements, a place for the viewer to begin. Also, look for attractive specimens. Remember, most of your image is going to be foreground so you need to make the most of it. When using water for a foreground, perhaps a stream, try to visualize how the flow of water will play in your foreground, how the lines and curves will travel. One way to do this is to use your depth of field preview button. When set at f/22, the viewfinder will become very dark, eliminating nearly all the detail and leaving only the light and the dark. In other words, just the flow of the water in your frame. You can use this technique to evaluate the graphics in your composition. (If you don’t have a preview button then simply squint your eyes)

Also, try to keep it simple. Don’t include too much. A single line or curve leads the viewer better than a confusing group of lines or elements. Simplifying is often the most difficult part of composition but it will improve your photography the most. It takes practice, so just keep at it.

It bears repeating that the techniques outlined here are effective when used with wide-angle lenses: 12-24 mm on a DX sized (cropped) sensor and 18-35 on a 35mm or full frame digital slr. You simply cannot get the depth of field needed with a medium or telephoto lens to achieve the near/far effect I describe here.
These techniques are for what I call "Reach out and touch it" foregrounds, where you can literally reach out and touch your foreground from behind the camera.

Tips for dynamic wide-angle landscape images:

  • Get close to your foreground. Ok, now get closer
  • Find your composition first, and then set up your tripod
  • Once you’ve found your composition (close to and slightly above your foreground), and taken all the time to get your tripod set up and your tripod head adjusted in just the right place, lock in your composition. Then use your quick release to take the camera off the tripod to determine exposure (you may need to use a graduated filter and you’ll need to spot meter around the scene to determine which filter to use)
  • Set your focusing using the hyperfocal marks on your lens, a chart, or by focusing near the center of the frame.

Back in my film days I was often asked if I use medium or large format to achieve the depth and detail seen in large prints of my landscape photos. Folks were surprised to learn that I used only 35mm film. By using the hyperfocal techniques I outline here and by using a tripod, quality film and lenses, I was able to achieve large format results without a large format camera. And with the resolution available on today's DSLR cameras, you too will be able to create stunningly sharp images using the same techniques.

(I know that we can now easily stack images for focus, but that's a subject for another article)

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