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How to Use Hyperfocal Distance to Get the Greatest Possible Depth of Field
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This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.


You probably know that to get maximum depth of field with any lens, you should shoot using the smallest aperture the lens permits - that is, the highest f-number. For example, if the smallest aperture of your lens is f/16, use it to obtain maximum depth of field. If your lens shuts down to f/22, better still - use it. Or f/32 or whatever is the smallest aperture of the particular lens.

But this is just the start.

The next question is: Where should you focus the lens? Should you focus on the horizon? In other words, should you focus on infinity? This is what most photographers do when they want to get maximum depth of field - they "shut down" to their smallest aperture, and they focus on infinity. But it's wrong!

The problem with doing this is that, while this method gets distant objects in focus, it doesn't maximize the sharpness of foreground objects. (To best follow the discussion from here, we suggest you get out your camera and your favorite lens, and follow along with them as you read this.)

As an example, suppose you want to capture a distant mountain vista, and you also want to add a sense of depth from near to far by framing the scene with the branches of the tree overhead. Nice idea, but how can you get the nearby branches in focus at the same time you keep the distant mountains in focus?

You can accomplish this by using what is called the hyperfocal distance setting if your lens has a depth-of-field scale imprinted on it. This is an important "if" since many of today's lenses don't have a depth-of-field scale. This is a scale with a series of numbers coinciding with the apertures available on the lens. Each number is printed twice - once on the left of the center position, once on the right. So if your lens has apertures running from f/2 through f/16, you will find a "2" imprinted in the center and the number "16" printed at the left extreme and again at the right extreme. Here's how to use this scale to get the overhead branch in focus at the same time the mountain is in focus:

  • Set your lens to its smallest possible aperture - say, f/16.

  • Since your lens is set at f/16, find the "16" markings on the depth-of-field scale on the lens. Instead of the normal procedure of positioning the infinity distance mark at the center, position the infinity symbol above the "16" mark on the right. This brings infinity just within the depth-of-field at f/16. Now, you are no longer focusing directly on infinity. Depending on the lens, you are now focusing on a distance of around seven to ten feet. But everything will be within the depth of field now from the distance above the left-hand "16" marking - about three or four feet - and all the way to infinity.

This setting is known as the "hyperfocal distance setting." It provides you with the maximum depth-of-field you can possibly get with the lens you are using. In other words, you now can have the overhead branch in focus as well as the mountains in focus - and everything in between!

One final word. If your lens does not have a depth-of-field scale - and most of today's lenses don't - you might experiment. When you want to maximize depth of field, use the smallest aperture, set your distance for infinity...then back off the distance from infinity a little bit. How much? This depends upon the lens. So the operative word here is experiment!

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