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Johns handy hyperfocal distance charts

Achieving sharp images from foreground to background can be a challenge in landscape photography.  Viewfinders can be deceiving, and checking a magnified version on the screen isn’t particularly instructive, it’ll indicate what’s wrong, but not the best way forward.

This might sound a bit old school and 1990’s, but I’ll occasionally use a hyperfocal distance chart to help me set the focus distance.  It can also help me judge whether front to back focus is even possible in a single capture, or if two or more images would need to be combined, and it only takes a few seconds as long as a printed copy is within arms reach.

Hyperfocal distance is a bit of a strange term, it’s the closest focus distance which still renders the entire background sharply.  If you focus on a point closer than the hyperfocal distance, objects in the distance start to become blurred.  If you focus on a point past the hyperfocal distance, more of the foreground becomes blurred.  Using the hyperfocal distance gives the maximum depth of focus in the image, the closest point which will still appear sharp is half way between the camera and the hyperfocal distance.

In the scene below, which was captured with a 14mm lens (on a crop sensor camera APS-C/DX), my chart indicates a hyperfocal distance of about 2 meters at F8, which is about half way along the rock formation.  If I was to narrow the aperture to F11 for a greater depth of field, the hyperfocal distance point also moves closer to about 1.5 meters which is nearer to the close end of the rock formation.  F8 is the sweet spot with many lenses, so narrowing down too far can degrade the details, F11 is usually OK, but F16 may start to push things too far, at least for larger prints.  Knowing the hyperfocal distance can help optimise the focus point.

The tables can be pretty helpful but they’re not perfect either, there are some practical limitations.  If for example you found the hyperfocal distance for a scene is 2 meters away, it could be difficult to  judge that distance exactly, and most of us don’t carry a tape measure around.  Even if you did know exactly where the 2 meter mark was, it could be difficult to focus there precisely with the cameras clunky focus points (try it).  Then there are variations between lens designs and other quirks which can throw the results off too, so consider the charts as another tool in the tool kit, and use them as a brain aid.

I could never remember all those numbers, but I do remember the distances that are most useful to me, and even just knowing the principles is helpful, and a time saver.

So feel free to print the tables and keep them in your bag, and just remember they’re a guide, and not an absolute.  Distances are shown in either feet or meters, so be careful which charts you use.  They also differ based on the camera sensor size, so choose the tables that match your camera, I’ve included tables for full frame and crop (APS-C/DX) sized sensors.  At smaller print/display sizes a slight blur becomes unnoticeable, but at larger print sizes everything shows, so typically I’d use the table for larger print sizes.

Good luck!

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