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How to Use Hyperfocal Distance for Sharper Photos

Last updated: April 4, 2024 - 9 min read
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Calculating hyperfocal distance is one way to ensure your photos are as sharp as possible. This may seem rather technical, and it is. But our article takes you through every step of using hyperfocal distance for sharper pictures.

You’ll learn about how hyperfocal distance works. And your photos will always be sharply focused!

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What Is Hyperfocal Distance?

Hyperfocal distance is the closest focusing distance where elements in your composition at “infinity” are acceptably sharp. Infinity is the most extreme distance your lens can focus on.

If you want to focus on an element in the foreground and keep your background in focus, you need to know how to calculate the hyperfocal distance. It’s different for every lens focal length.

You might ask, “Isn’t stopping down my lens to its narrowest aperture going to make everything in focus?” Not necessarily. A narrow aperture gives you more depth of field.

But it does not always produce an acceptably sharp image in the background. More variables in the physics of focusing lens optics come into play.

Aerial shot of Rice Farming in Thailand shot using hyperfocal distance photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Calculating Hyperfocal Distance: Finding the Sweet Spot

Focusing on an object closer to your camera gives you less depth of field at any aperture setting. Focusing on an object that is further from your camera gives you more depth of field. We are looking for a sweet spot with any aperture setting.

When your lens is set at its hyperfocal distance, you achieve the maximum depth of field in your photo. This distance calculation is based on three main variables:

  1. A lens’s focal length
  2. A camera’s sensor size
  3. The aperture setting

At any lens’s hyperfocal distance, everything from half the distance you are focused on to infinity is acceptably sharp.

Let’s say you use a 35mm lens with an aperture set to f/11 on a full-frame camera. With the focus set at 20 ft (6 m), everything from 10 ft (3 m) to infinity is acceptably sharp. Your hyperfocal distance is 20 ft (6 m).

Aerial view of a temple in Thailand
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Four Ways to Calculate Hyperfocal Distance

Here are four ways to calculate hyperfocal distance. You can determine which works best for you.

1. Use the Formula

This is the least attractive and most difficult method. The hyperfocal distance formula involves too much algebra for me and most people I know!

Formula for calculating hyperfocal distance

2. Use an Old Lens

Older lenses (and some newer ones) have markings on the lens barrel you can use to calculate the hyperfocal distance.
Below is an example of a 20mm lens set at f/11.

Setting the lens infinity symbol to the middle of the corresponding marker (the left-hand yellow line) gives you the hyperfocal distance.

Everything from 2.3 ft (0.7 m)—indicated by the right yellow line—to infinity is acceptably sharp. These markings are for full-frame cameras only and are incorrect for any other sensor size.

If you don’t have a lens with these markings and are not a whizz at algebra, there are two easier ways to calculate it.

A 20mm lens on a table
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

3. Use a Chart

Many hyperfocal distance charts are available online, showing the distance for any focal length lens. Printing out a chart like this lets you carry it with you and refer to it when setting focus on your lens. Make sure you use the correct chart for your camera’s sensor size.

Hyperfocal distance chart

4. Download an App

I like to use the Photo Pills app ($10.99 for Android and iOS). This smart little app lets you enter your camera and lens information and settings and provides the hyperfocal distance. Photo Pills also has a helpful online hyperfocal distance table that is free to use.

One main benefit of using an app like this is that it lets you be more precise when calculating the hyperfocal distance using a zoom lens. Most charts only give you the distance for prime lenses, not intermediary focal lengths.

Keep These Factors in Mind

The shorter your focal length, the closer the hyperfocal distance is. Conversely, the higher you set your f-stop, the closer the hyperfocal distance is.

The larger your sensor, the closer the hyperfocal distance is. The hyperfocal distance will be further away if you use the same focal length on a crop sensor.

Aerial view of a Asian Resort Hotel
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

What Is “Acceptably Sharp”?

This term always comes up in discussions about hyperfocal distance. You may think it’s somewhat vague, and it is. What is acceptably sharp depends on something called the “circle of confusion,” which is equally ambiguous.

Camera lenses do not focus light rays perfectly. At best, a point of light is rendered as a spot rather than a distinct point. The smallest spot a lens can produce is called the circle of confusion.

When your lens is focused, a single point of light on the plane of focus is sharper than if it were in front or behind. The further from the actual focus point, the less sharp it becomes.

When your lens is set to the hyperfocal distance, points of light anywhere in the range are within the circle of confusion. They are considered acceptably sharp.

Opening your aperture wider, changing your focus, or moving your camera closer to the point alters the circle of confusion. Parts of the photo may no longer be acceptably sharp.

This series of photos may help you understand the circle of confusion. Each was made with a 105mm lens on a full-frame camera. The lens aperture was set at f/3.2.

The glass is in focus. The small LED lights in the background are obviously out of focus. They appear much larger than the very small lights which they are.

A blue cocktail with blurry bokeh light background
A close-up of a blue cocktail with blurry bokeh light background
A zoomed-in shot of a blue cocktail with blurry bokeh light background

As I moved the camera closer to the glass and kept it focused, the shapes of the blurred lights in the background appeared larger. The same thing happens with single points of light, but I cannot practically illustrate that in photos.

The level of acceptable sharpness can vary depending on how the image is displayed. A high-definition print displays more detail than a projected image or one on a low-resolution monitor.

Acceptable sharpness is measured by the point at which the spot appears indistinguishable by the human eye.

Do you want to geek out and learn about acceptable sharpness and the circle of confusion? Filmmaker IQ has an excellent video with superb animations called “The Science of Deep Focus and the Hyperfocal Distance.”


Using Hyperfocal Distance for Creative Photos

Many people value taking technically correct photos. Others are less concerned about getting everything right by the book.

Making photos using hyperfocal distance calculated correctly results in very sharp images. But they may not necessarily be interesting images just because they are technically correct. I don’t often use the hyperfocal distance technique.

Generally, when photographing landscapes or wide scenes, I include an element of interest in the foreground. This is usually closer to the lens than the minimum focusing distance possible for everything else in the photo to be sharp.

A pink dahlia flower with a rolling green landscape in the background
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

My photo above of the dahlia flower is close to the lens and in focus. I used a 35mm lens set at f/11. Even though my lens is a medium wide angle and my aperture was f/11, the background is out of focus.

I would have had to move too far back from the flower and the background to be acceptably sharp. At f/11, the hyperfocal distance for my 35mm lens is 12.43 ft (3.79 m), so the flower would be very small in the frame.

Photographing larger objects and maintaining an interesting composition is easier. This is because you can be much further back from your subject to frame it well. Moving back brings it within the range of your lens’s hyperfocal distance.

For example, I used a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera in my photo of the plane below. The lens was set to f/10. I focused on the plane’s windscreen.

It must have been 28.41 ft (8.66 m) or further away because this was the hyperfocal distance. The joints in the plane’s fuselage near the nose are sharp, as is the detail in the background.

An Aircraft on the Airport runway
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion: Hyperfocal Distance for Sharp Photos

It’s trendy among photographers to work with a very shallow depth of field. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget to stop the aperture down, take a few steps back, and make very sharp images.

Consider your subject. Think about the whole scene. Don’t get stuck making blurred photos just because everyone is doing it.

Understanding hyperfocal distance can help you make more interesting photographs. Knowing when to pull out your chart or app to help with the calculation takes some practice.

It’s best to choose the best opportunities to use this technique carefully. Even if you predominantly photograph landscapes, you don’t want to use it all the time.

Sticking rigidly to a particular photography technique, such as hyperfocal distance calculation, can result in dull photos. It’s important to find a balance between technical aspects and creative expression. Even technically correct photos can still be very lifeless.

Technical accuracy does not alone make a good photo. Next time you are out with your camera, seek to creatively use the hyperfocal distance technique.

Video Course
Photography for Beginners
Photography for Beginners
Unlock the secrets to stunning photography with this course:

  • Learn to effortlessly set up your camera for any situation.
  • Master the art of selecting the perfect exposure every time.
  • Discover 10 composition rules that elevate your photos instantly.