As someone who has seen many of photography’s trends come and go, I’m still surprised with how many beginning photographers are worried about little things that ultimately amount to nothing. One of those little ideas is the hyperfocal distance. It’s put forward as some sort of golden mean, a perfect place to focus to get optimal results. But while the hyperfocal distance might help some photographers with a few photos, it’s barely relevant to most folks who still need to learn the basics. Here’s why.
What is the hyperfocal distance?
If you’ve spent any amount of time playing with your camera’s focus, you’ll have learned something. It’s impossible to get the entire scene into focus. You can focus up close, in the middle, or far into the background, but none of those techniques will put the entire scene into focus. If you focus on a close subject, the background is out of focus:
Similarly, when you focus on the background, the foreground will be out of focus:
You’re almost always limited to some piece of the scene no matter what you’re doing.
So what if there were some place you could focus to get as much of the scene into focus as possible? Wouldn’t that be monumentally helpful? In a sense, that’s what the hyperfocal distance is. It is a certain distance from the camera such that when you focus there, the largest portion of the scene remains in focus, and you get maximum sharpness overall. In a way, it gives you the best bang for your buck. It’s called a hyperfocal distance because focusing at that distance increases the total amount of focus in your image, making it as sharp as possible.
How do you find the hyperfocal distance?
So, we've learned that the hyperfocal distance is the place to focus on to make sure as much of our image is in focus as possible. Where we focus the image to make sure the background is in focus ('infinity focus') but still have as much of the close subjects as possible also in focus. But how do you find that place? It is always somewhere between what’s immediately in front of you (the foreground) and what’s furthest away from you (the background). But you can't focus on either of those points. As I showed above, it results in some of the image still being out of focus.
The actual distance depends on your aperture setting, and it's possible to calculate it exactly. However, those calculations are unfortunately, very complex. Fortunately, you don't need to worry about it!
Why you don’t need to worry about the hyperfocal distance
Call me a hopeless romantic, but photography shouldn’t be about maximizing sharpness. We’re creating art here! There are times when I really don’t want the entire scene to be in focus. A good example is macro photography. When I’m shooting flowers, I just want the most interesting part of the image to be in focus (maybe it’s a ladybug or a petal - you get the idea).
Sharp backgrounds can actually be distracting. You need to make the creative decision to include or exclude them from your image. If you’re too intent on getting the hyperfocal distance to think about things from a creative perspective, you’re missing out on the purpose of photography. Who cares if you’ve got maximum sharpness when there’s a streetlamp sticking out of your friend’s head?
Now there are times when it helps to get maximum sharpness. I’m not going to deny its usefulness. It’s great when you’re shooting landscapes, and you really do need to get everything in the scene into focus (particularly because including foreground objects helps make a better landscape photo).
Plus, you’ve gotta think about this from a practical perspective. Unless you’re shooting in a professional studio of your own making, it just doesn’t make any sense to try and find the ideal spot to focus. If you’re doing portrait photography, it won’t matter anyway because your probably won’t want the entire scene to be in focus. And if you’re doing landscape photography, you aren’t going to drag a tape measure all the way from where you’re standing to some distant point on the horizon (a very quick way to look really really weird in public).
At the end of the day, the hyperfocal distance is something for science textbooks. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fascinating concept. It’s really interesting that such a distance even exists in the first place. The problem lies in applying that concept while you’re out taking pictures. It’s neat, but it should never take precedence over the creative decisions you need to make.
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