Calculating Hyperfocal Distance in Photography

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A lens’s hyperfocal distance—a mathematical combination of lens focal length, aperture or f-stop, and focus distance—is a tool that photographers can use to maximize their depth of field for capturing nearby foregrounds and distant backgrounds in acceptable sharpness.

While you can always dial up your lens’s sharpest aperture (sweet spot), many landscape photographers want as much foreground and background in focus as possible so that they can, for example, take a photo of flowers in front of a mountain range and have the flowers and mountain be sharp. Stopping down your aperture too much to increase your depth of field can cause image softness due to diffraction. Meanwhile, shooting at infinity focus at the sweet spot aperture might not give you enough depth of field to keep the foreground and/or background sharp.

Images © Todd Vorenkamp

I talk about hyperfocal distance and the other variables in its formula in this arithmetic-heavy article on depth of field (DOF). But, if you don’t want a deep dive into the hyperfocal subject, you can stay here—I will go over the basics of the principle so that you can use hyperfocal distance in your focusing. (And, fair warning, if you did read that article, some of the information in the next section will look pretty familiar!)

Sharp foreground. Sharp background.

Sharp foreground. Sharp background.

Hyperfocal Distance

Hyperfocal distance is defined as the distance when the lens is focused at infinity, at which objects from half of this distance to infinity will be in focus (or “acceptable sharpness”) for a particular lens. Alternatively, hyperfocal distance may refer to the closest distance that a lens can be focused for a given aperture while objects at a distance (infinity) will remain acceptably sharp. The hyperfocal distance is a variable and a function of the aperture, focal length, and circle of confusion (COC). (COC is covered in that DOF article so I won’t go into it again here. COC is affected by sensor size and is a key variable in the math behind hyperfocal distance and DOF. But you can easily push the “I believe” button and press on with little or no understanding or knowledge of COC in your photography life.) 

Hyperfocal distance can be calculated mathematically: 

The hyperfocal distance formula

The hyperfocal distance formula

In the above example, 34' is the hyperfocal distance for this 50mm lens at f/8. If the lens is set at f/8 and focused at 34' (or at the infinity mark if it appears before 34') on a full-frame camera, everything from 17' to infinity should be in focus. 

Remember that because we enter the formula with a focal length in millimeters, the solution is given in millimeters. Using the formula, you will see that the smaller you make the aperture, the closer to the lens the hyperfocal distance becomes, and the shorter the focal length, the shorter the hyperfocal distance, as well. 

How do we calculate this formula in the field and employ the solution? Let’s discuss further. 

If I had focused at a hyperfocal distance for this image, the background lighthouse would be sharper.

If I had focused at a hyperfocal distance for this image, the background lighthouse would be sharper.

Calculating Hyperfocal Distance (and Zone Focus) Using Lens-Barrel Markings

Many traditional camera lenses (and some modern autofocus lenses) come equipped with hyperfocal markings on the barrel. The advent of autofocus lenses has basically sent this tradition the way of the payphone for some lens manufacturers, but some lenses will still feature these markings. If you have a newer lens with a clean design that is unencumbered by numbers, don’t worry, you can still figure out your hyperfocal distance. But we will discuss that after we indulge those using marked lenses!

Here we have both the foreground and background sharp.

Here we have both the foreground and background sharp.

Using the lens barrel markings to determine hyperfocal distance is a type of “zone focusing.” The etched or painted numbers and markings on the lens are good for more than just figuring out your hyperfocal distance—you can determine your depth of focus, as well. We will start with a zone focusing example and then shift to hyperfocal distance calculation examples.

Zone Focus

Zone Focus

Let’s get closer to the lens… 

Our subject and focus distance are 4' and our aperture is set to f/16 on this 50mm lens. Using the blue marks (f/16 is blue), we see that everything between approximately 3.5' to 5.1' should be in acceptably sharp focus. (An electronic DOF calculator says 3.2' to 5.1'. More on those later.) 

The practical application of zone focusing is that you can dial-in an aperture and focus distance and know that everything between certain distances will be relatively sharp. This is a boon for street and sport photographers who need to shoot quickly from the hip. 

Hyperfocal distance is acquired similarly, but we place the infinity symbol over a specific f-stop marking. Here are three examples: 

Example 1: f/22

The infinity symbol of this 50mm lens is placed above the red line (f/22 is red) and the hyperfocal distance (above the focus dot) shows approximately 12' on the distance scale. Everything from 6' to the edge of the known universe should be in acceptable focus with the lens aperture and focus set like this.

Example 2: f/16

The infinity symbol of this 50mm lens is placed above the blue line (f/16 is blue) and the hyperfocal distance (above the focus dot) shows approximately 18' on the distance scale.

Example 3: f/16 Zone Focus + Hyperfocal

Like Example 2, the infinity symbol is over the blue line (f/16) and we can apply the zone focusing technique here to see that everything from approximately 9' to infinity is acceptably in focus. Ready for the magic? The definition of hyperfocal distance states that “where objects from half of this distance (hyperfocal distance) to infinity will be in focus.” We calculated the hyperfocal distance to be 18' in Example 2. Applying the zone focus, we see that the range is, indeed, 9' to infinity. Cool, right?

Here is one more example for reinforcement:

Example 4: f/11

The infinity symbol of this 50mm lens is placed above the yellow line (f/11 is yellow) and the hyperfocal distance (above the focus dot) shows just over 20' on the distance scale. Therefore, around 11' is the distance where sharpness starts.

NOTE: For photographers using crop sensor cameras and adapting lenses (almost all mainstream vintage 35mm lenses were made for 135 format “full frame” cameras), remember that the hyperfocal distance markings on the lens will be inaccurate for the crop sensor camera due to the smaller sensors. Full-frame shooters using 35mm-format lenses can enjoy accurate, if not precise, marking-based hyperfocal calculations.

Foreground to background sharp.

Foreground to background sharp

Hyperfocal Distance Charts

Because of the consistency of the mathematics (based on a focal length, aperture, and sensor-size-based COC), you can find, online, many hyperfocal charts that you can reference on a smartphone or print out to take into the field.

You can also use the data from these charts to create ones specific to your own kit—leaving out the lines of data for focal lengths of lenses you do not own and basing the chart on your camera’s sensor size (many charts will be for full-frame cameras).

HYPERFOCAL DISTANCE CHART for FULL FRAME (135 Format) CAMERAS

 

f/2.8

f/4

f/5.6

f/8

f/11

f/16

24mm

22' 5"

15' 10"

11' 3"

8'

5' 8"

4'

35mm

47' 7"

33' 8"

23' 10"

16' 11"

12'

8' 6"

50mm

97'

68' 8" 

48' 7"

34' 5"

24' 4"

17' 3"

85mm

280' 1"

198' 2"

140' 2"

99' 3"

70' 3"

49' 9"

Hyperfocal Calculators and Apps

There are many hyperfocal calculators online and many photography apps, like PhotoPills, will include hyperfocal calculators. These calculators give you a precise solution to your calculations. The best part of many of these calculators is that they can be instantly tailored to your camera’s sensor size.

PhotoPills has a hyperfocal calculator that allows you to add your specific camera (for sensor size data) and get hyper accurate distances for different focal lengths and apertures—no lens barrel markings required.

PhotoPills has a hyperfocal calculator that allows you to add your specific camera (for sensor size data) and get hyper-accurate distances for different focal lengths and apertures—no lens barrel markings required.

Knowing Your Focus Distance

How do you determine your focus distance in the world of electronic lenses and cameras with sleek and modern designs? There are several methods. (If I miss something applicable to your lens and camera, please drop a question or comment in the Comments section, below). 

Traditional lens markings. Even in the digital world, lens focus distance markings are not uncommon on many modern autofocus lenses. Sometimes you will even see the hyperfocal markings. Focus distances will be painted or etched onto the barrel or viewed through a protective window. 

Pentax’s white-background distance markings contrast nicely with the black lens barrel on this lens.

Pentax’s white-background distance markings contrast nicely with the black lens barrel on this lens.

Lens OLED display. Some modern lenses have digital displays that show the focus distance in metric or imperial units. Will this become the norm? 

New school cool.

New school cool

Electronic Viewfinder (EVF). Some mirrorless cameras have distance scales inside their electronic viewfinders. Note that some cameras require you to be in the manual focus (MF) mode to be presented with the distance scale. This likely will not work with adapted lenses, but many of them have barrel markings.

This busy diagram of a FUJIFILM X-T3 EVF shows the lens focused to 18 meters on the bar at the bottom of the blue window.

The EVF data in the image above shows the lens is focused at 1.8m. This is indicated by the white mark on the distance scale. The dark blue bar to the right and left of the white marker shows the depth of focus.

Live View Display. Like the EVF, some cameras show a distance scale on their Live View displays. Again, you may have to be in the MF mode to view it.

This Canon Live View display shows a focus distance scale.
This Canon Live View display shows a focus distance scale.

Crop Factor and Hyperfocal Distance

I mentioned above that many traditional hyperfocal distance charts were etched in stone for 135 format “full-frame” cameras back in the days of 35mm film. With the advent of smaller films and digital sensors, the math changed, but many charts stayed in their comfortable 135 format world. 

The focus distance and hyperfocal markings on this lens are null and void when adapted to this crop sensor camera.

The focus distance and hyperfocal markings on this lens are null and void when adapted to this crop sensor camera.

How much of a difference does sensor size make? Let’s use an app calculator to get the hyperfocal distances for a 50mm lens at f/8 on an APS-C and full-frame camera: 

The smaller sensor of the APS-C camera gives you a greater hyperfocal distance. Depending on your scene, this could give you an advantage or disadvantage. Let’s now do the same comparison with a 50mm-equivalent lens (35mm) on the APS-C camera: 

The smaller sensor with a shorter focal length lens has a shorter hyperfocal distance. Again, this might be helpful to a photographer looking for more depth of field in a scene. 

The foreground blur is from the wind, not the focus.

The foreground blur is from the wind, not the focus.

Uses for Hyperfocal Distance

Hyperfocal distance is traditionally used by landscape photographers who are trying to maximize sharpness and capture close foregrounds and distant backgrounds in focus. It is also used by street and sports photographers who can dial up a certain aperture and know that everything in a certain range will be, more or less, in focus as they are photographing—sometimes without bringing the viewfinder to their eye. 

Sharp from front to back.

Sharp from front to back

Is Hyperfocal Distance Important?

As I say in my sister article about finding your sharpest aperture, hyperfocal distance might be a great number to have and use, but it has its limitations. As you saw above, the definition of hyperfocal distance uses the phrase “acceptably sharp” (which is calculated using multiple factors including the viewer’s visual acuity, but admittedly, also sounds fairly subjective). In reality, the focal plane of a lens is an infinitely thin slice of space an exact distance from the camera and everything before, or after, that plane is less sharp—with sharpness decreasing the further you get from that plane. 

Everything sharp.

Everything sharp

Depending on how expansive the scene is, and how much you want in focus, a hyperfocal calculation might serve up an aperture that, due to diffraction, will cause your lens to lose sharpness. In the case where your foreground and background are begging for an f/22 hyperfocal focus point, you might be better off shooting multiple images at a sharper aperture and different depths and then focus stacking them in post-production. 

The larger the film or digital format, the more useful, and, arguably important, hyperfocal distance becomes. Large format film photographers often relied on hyperfocal calculations to get images with expansive depth and sharpness.

The foreground in this photo is at the top… and sharp.

The foreground in this photo is at the top… and sharp.

Hyperfocal distance calculations are just one tool that can help you get sharp results—but they alone are not always the best solution for sharpness.

Luckily for digital photographers, images are virtually free, so you can shoot at infinity at your sweet spot and then take another photo using hyperfocal distance. Compare them on the big screen later and print the sharpest one!

Do you use hyperfocal distance calculations in your photography? Do you have questions about hyperfocal distance calculations? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

2 Comments

One of the early things I learned as a photographer was DOF and hyperfocal distance. It was used in my high school photography class for sports. One setting and you are good to go. That was later carried on in my experience as an AF photographer in Vietnam. One setting and you could shoot a roll and never worry. Just check the lens now and then to make sure you were set. Now that digital has set in it has gone the way of the dodo bird. This is a good reminder of how to maximize your images front to back for best DOF. 

Hey Christopher,

Thank you for your service!

I am glad you found the article to be a helpful reminder. In the days of auto focus and precision lenses and ultra-high resolution digital sensors—and pixel-peeping sharpness—I agree, hyperfocal shooting might be of limited use in many scenarios. Regardless, it is a good tool to have in the toolbox.

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd