*Establishing Hyperfocal distance! You mean like manually focusing?

The hyperfocal distance at a given aperture on any lens will enable the photographer to “know” what will be in focus in the scene without having to re-focus between shots.  Hyperfocal distance is commonly defined as “the closest distance from which a lens can focus that will be acceptably sharp from half that distance through infinity.”  It is a technique which is particularly useful with smaller apertures (as in gaining a deeper depth of field) when shooting anything from street scenes to landscapes where the photographer requires an established area of focus from a fixed distance through infinity so that you don’t need to refocus between shots.  Follow me in and we’ll go over a simple way to determine your hyperfocal distance.

This is a more lengthy answer born from Dave’s question on my Q&A post last week.  Okay, you know the distance scale on your lens?  Yeah, the one with m/ft and aperture settings?  Okay, when manually focusing a lens, paying attention to this instead of attempting to trust your eye through the viewfinder/LCD screen can make a manual focusing task much, much easier.  Because many current systems with electronically controlled aperture irises will use the lens wide open when focusing and viewing through the lens via the viewfinder, you are focusing at the shallowest depth of field available regardless of the focal point.  The reason modern cameras do this is because it lets the most amount of light in which A) helps the AF system and B) makes for a brighter viewfinder image aiding our eye to see the scene in front of us.  A handy tip to envision how the shot will turn out is to use your DOF Preview on the camera which is normally a button which stops the lens down to a set aperture (assuming you have the aperture stopped down) and this will do two things, first darken the viewfinder as it is letting less light in through the prism and secondly will show you the actual depth of field at that particular aperture.

Have a look at the lens in the picture above.  (I’ve used f/16 as the example here, but you can establish the hyperfocal distance for any aperture setting following the same exercise)  This pertains to use on a full frame or 35mm film camera.  If using a crop sensor camera, you can find charts or use online calculators (there are even apps for smart phones) and the link to my fave is below, a quick rule of thumb would be to find the markings for one setting brighter for APS-C, and two stops brighter for a 4/3 (micro 4/3) size sensor ie: to establish the hyperfocal distance for f/11 on a micro 4/3 camera, or f/8 (more or less) on an APS-C sensor,  you’d have to focus to the same point as would be accurate for f/5.6 on 35mm film or a full frame digital when using lenses built for a full frame/35mm film era camera. On the distance scale, there will (or should) be a fixed set of marks pertaining to the aperture.  In the middle of these marks is a hash mark designating the focal point, or point of focus.  When auto focusing, the barrel will rotate and the focal point will be dictated by the distance that the AF point used finds focus.  When manually focusing you can look through the viewfinder and focus by eye (which is a fairly foolproof way of achieving focus as long as your eyes, and shooting technique are up to it) or you can set your Hyperfocal distance and shoot away knowing how far away subjects need to be to be “in focus.”  Some modern lenses will have a very limited distance scale, and it may be difficult to manually establish the hyperfocal length at a given aperture.  If that is the case, you can use a depth of field calculator (www.dofmaster.com) and then measure the hyperfocal distance by way of an estimation or be more precise by using a measuring tape (or step it off), from the sensor plane out into the scene, focus at that point and you’ll have established your hyperfocal distance.  This of course would be difficult if street shooting, but not too laborious if setting up a landscape shot from a tripod.

To establish your hyperfocal distance, set your aperture.  For our example here, we’ve used an aperture setting of f/16 (designated by the two 16’s one on either side of the center focal point mark) but if wanting to determine the hyperfocal distance at a different aperture, just replace ‘f/16’ with your f-stop of choice throughout the exercise.  The easiest way to determine the hyperfocal distance is to find f/16 on your distance scale (there will be a near mark and a far mark, both corresponding to the set aperture).  Using the “far” f/16 mark on the right of my focal point hash mark, set the focus to align the infinity mark with that “far” f/16 hash.  Your hyperfocal distance will be wherever on that distance scale that your focal point hash mark hits.  Now, look at the “near” f/16 hash mark and note that distance.  That near point through infinity should fall into your depth of field and be in acceptable focus.  Easy breezy.  Step by step:

  • In my example shot above, I’ve set the lens to f/16, and turned the focus ring so that the infinity mark resides on that ‘far’ f/16 hash mark.
  • My Hyperfocal distance is the distance at which the focal point hash mark (long white one in the center) hits which in this case is just about 49′ or just shy of 15m.
  • The ‘near’ f/16 hash mark (on the left) shows my nearest distance that will be in focus which is about 24.5′ or so, or around 7m.
  • This means that within my scene, anything that is further than 24.5′ all the way through infinity will be in focus.

Here’s a quick video to show it to you:

As we’ve just established, when focused to the hyperfocal distance (“HFD” let’s say), half of that distance (“HFD/2”) through infinity will be in focus.  To make the math simple, let’s say that our HFD= 50′, so our HFD/2 (or near point in focus) would be 25′ (HFD= 50’/2 = 25′) meaning that from 25′ through infinity would be in focus.  One other fun fact about hyperfocal distance is that, adjusting focus to the near point “HFD/2” (25′) in this example, will keep everything from HFD/3  (16.7′)  through the original HFD (50′) in focus.  And so on, focused to HFD/3 (16.7′) will keep HFD/4 (12.5′) through HFD/2 (25′) in focus.  This might be a little unnecessary to remember, but still fun to see how optical science works, all the while making a little more sense of the distance scale on our lenses.

*Also, one more fun fact regarding our distance scales, there will be a (usually) red mark, which designates the infrared focusing point.  When using IR film, or an IR altered senor, you would focus as per normal, then when you’ve established your focus, move the distance which shows as your focal point to the designated infrared focusing point to properly capture the IR waves as they focus behind the focal plane!

Anyway, thanks as always for reading and if you’d like to receive an email notification when new articles are posted, just enter your email address in the field at the top right of the page.

Happy shooting!

Tyson

15 thoughts on “*Establishing Hyperfocal distance! You mean like manually focusing?

  1. Great article (as always!) Tyson – I’m sure everyone who’s picked up one or more manual lenses for their mirrorless camera will find this very useful indeed😉

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  2. Tyson – I think your article would be better if it recognized that today’s almost universally-used zoom lenses don’t (can’t) have the distance scale on them. Using hyperfocal distance is therefore not practical for almost everyone.

    That’s a shame because it can be really helpful in some situations such as dark parties where flash can only reach say, 15 feet, and hyperfocal use will relieve the autofocus system from being a problem. DKD

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    • Thanks Don,

      You’re right in that many people wouldn’t find an intuitive distance scale on many modern zoom lenses. I think that while many people primarily use zooms, it’s far from almost universal though. I think most of us who have come into a more “controlled” relationship with photography over the last 10 years or so might be more accustomed to using zoom lenses, and that is kind of what prompted this type of an article, along with many of my earlier entries. Like my own journey, I started off shooting old 35mm film cams with fixed prime lenses. I didn’t care to learn some of the fundamental tools, and after a more recent renaissance with digital, I’ve come full circle as I researched techniques and wanted to replicate certain visual effects (ie: subject isolation via shallow dof, bokeh, etc) which found me re-learning to shoot with prime lenses. While it’s not impossible to utilize a hyperfocal distance with a zoom lens (as most all zoom lenses do have a basic distance scale, just not near/far hash marks) you can determine the hyperfocal distance at a particular focal length and aperture setting and manually focus to that distance, and lens setting, it is in truth, much less practical. I’ve linked it a few times on the blog, and it’s also in the ‘free-sources’ but using an online Depth of Field calculator like : http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html can help. By entering your info, you can make note of hyperfocal distances for certain focal lengths at specific aperture settings, and carry that with you while out shooting. In fact, I just recently did this for use with a 17-40mm zoom lens while shooting a job🙂

      As an example, if someone had an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens and were having issues focusing in low light, one could research the hyperfocal length for say 18mm via the DOF calculator. On an APS-C sensor, at 18mm and set to f/3.5, you’d have a hyperfocal distance of about 16′, which if you manually focus to 16′, you’d have everything from 8′ from the camera’s position through infinity in focus, which, if your subject was further than 8′ from the camera, and your camera’s flash guide number fell within that range, you could set your focus manually and not worry about AF hunting in lower light and potentially missing shots, all while the flash could potentially properly light the scene, etc. It makes it a little trickier in low light when using larger apertures, as you inherently end up with a shallower DOF making it more difficult to manually focus to HFD and shoot from the hip, unless your subjects are quite a distance from the camera’s position.

      Thanks again Don. I appreciate the conversation and hope this helps clarify the lack of mention of zooms in the article itself.

      Tyson

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  3. Appreciate your explanation and examples. I’ve used a printed chart from DOFmaster but found it just too hard to see in low light when I need it. I also carry an Expo DOF disc, but use it for studying rather than in the field. I once memorized a couple of specific settings that I thought I would use but in the thick of an event got cold feet and went back to autofocus (which works better and better in low light with recent camera bodies).
    The less expensive lenses (kits, that I find often in my basic DSLR classes) have no distance marks and the lecture subject is worthless, so I’ve even stopped talking about it. For those who are more advanced and use primes, it’s always worthwhile.
    I remember my surprise when I realized that using hyperfocal focusing together with a limited on-camera flash distance could solve the need for rapid event focusing. Thanks again. DKD

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    • I hear ya!

      I actually have tried to remember a couple HFD settings on a couple of my wide angle lenses for this reason. I know that when using my 14mm prime, set to f/2.8, I focus to 8′ to keep just about everything (minus anything closer than 4′) in focus. For landscape or street shooing in good light, set to f/11 I need to focus to about 2′ to keep everything from my minimum focusing distance of about a foot through infinity in focus. Really handy when out and about. Of course, the shorter the focal length, the closer the HFD and in turn the larger area in focus at any given aperture, but for certain lenses, it can be handy to remember a couple settings.

      Thanks again Don.
      Cheers,
      tyson

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  4. Pingback: *Everything you need to know about digital photography. Two years of tips, tricks and various freebies, revisited. «

  5. novice asking a question, ” am I correct re HD if I set the camera on the tripod and set the lens to Manual, check the chart for the HD and set this on the camera,do I then compose the shot and fire away

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    • Yes, essentially. Taking into consideration your capture format (APS-C, Full Frame, MF, etc) you can find the Hyperfocal distance through a variety of charts, etc. Once the HFD is established on your lens, all you need to do is determine the distance closest to the camera that will be in focus (half the HFD) and keep anything that you’d like to be in focus within that range and you’re good to go!

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  6. Hi Tyson,

    You’ll probably know me from Flickr. However I have a peculiarity specifically to do with the use of these scales. Before reading your article I had already tried the technique of setting the infinity mark to the aperture value selected, however I would find that infinity was slightly out of focus, it was slight, but just noticeable.

    What I found was on most lenses there is an infra-red index. If you set your lens to infinity=aperture value, then read the distance which lines up with the IR marking and set the corresponding distance at the centre, you are guaranteed to get infinity.

    Essentially, you push the lens slightly towards infinity before you shoot. It’s a strange habit, but for me it works better. (maybe it’s psychological).

    Best Regards

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    • CC!

      How’s it going? I’ve not tried the IR mark method personally, and never thought to look at that mark for any other reason than focusing for infrared light, but this is good to know! I tend, when using a hyperfocal distance, to default to a slightly farther focus distance anyway to ensure infinity (assuming I don’t have anything in the foreground that would otherwise go out of focus) and sometimes even just focus to the HFD for one stop wider to be safe/lazy.

      I hope all is well and thanks for reading through and sharing. Always great to connect.

      Cheers,

      Tyson

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  7. Hi Tyson and thanks for explaining everything in a very easy way. This question may sound too novice but could you please tell me why most of primary lenses but not all of them have a red line just above number 8 on the right and whether this is an important mark that has to do with the hyperfocal distance?
    Kind regards,
    Johnnie

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    • Hey Johnnie,

      That’s the infrared mark. I briefly mentioned it, but it’s easy to miss, from the article: “When using IR film, or an IR altered senor, you would focus as per normal, then when you’ve established your focus, move the distance which shows as your focal point to the designated infrared focusing point to properly capture the IR waves as they focus behind the focal plane!” Hope this helps to explain it.

      Cheers,

      Tyson

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