Where to Focus for Landscape Photography

depth of field for landscape photography

Hyperfocal distance for landscape photography

Today’s topic comes from Jennifer Brinkman, who submitted a question on our Facebook Fan Page.  Here’s her question:

“I’ve been following your blogs and really appreciate all the great information they contain.  I just bought a Tokina 11-16mm lens.  This is my first truly wide-angle lens.  I’m wondering if there is any trick to getting a really sharp photo with a wide angle lens, other than just using a tripod. When taking a landscape photo, do you focus on the bottom third of the photo as with a regular lens to get most of the landscape in focus?”

The Answer: Hyperfocal Distance

Wide-angle lenses behave much differently than standard lenses.  If you didn’t catch the post from a few weeks ago, go check out the article on some lesser-known aspects of wide-angle lenses.  In that article, I point out that wide-angle lenses have a greater depth-of-field than standard lenses when everything else is equal.  If that’s a new concept to you, you might want to check out this article on depth-of-field, too.

Although wide-angle lenses will provide greater depth-0f-field for broad landscape photos than standard zoom lenses because of the short focal length, depth-of-field is always a concern when shooting sweeping landscapes.

To achieve maximum depth of field, you’ll need to understand hyperfocal distance.  Hyperfocal distance is a point where, if the lens is focused at that distance, everything from half that distance all the way to infinity will be in focus.  This maximizes the depth of field that can be achieved with any lens.

You can probably tell from the scientific sounding name that hyperfocal distance includes some complicated math that requires the photographer to have an understanding of the circle of confusion.  Fortunately, there are two really simple ways to calculate the hyperfocal distance, which will, in turn, tell you where to focus the camera.

The first method is to download an app for your smartphone that will tell you exactly how many feet away to focus with the camera gear you are using.  I recommend DoF Master if you’re using Android or an iPhone.

Quite frankly, I rarely run into a situation where I feel it necessary to go the scientific route.  Generally, the hyperfocal distance will be one-third the way up from the bottom of the scene.  So in the picture featured below, you would focus one-third up from the bottom of the frame, which would be If you focus there, you’ll maximize your depth-of-field and get everything from near to far in focus.  So where should you focus your wide-angle lens for landscape photography?  Usually, one-third up from the bottom of the frame.

If you generally focus one-third up from the bottom of the scene, you'll generally have the best depth-of-field.

I should caution you, however.  If you follow my advice on landscape composition and include foreground elements, you may want to focus much closer than one-third the way into the scene because you’ll want the foreground object to be in extremely sharp focus, and that’s more important than losing a tiny bit of sharpness of the objects far in the background.

Also, even more important than using the proper hyperfocal distance for your scene is using the proper aperture.

 

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Although you stated
    “two really simple ways to calculate the hyperfocal distance, which will, in turn, tell you where to focus the camera.”

    You didn’t say what the second method is!!

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Richie. The two methods that I mentioned in the post are (1) download an app for your cell phone if you want to get all techy and scientific, or (2) simply focus about one-third the way into the scene and call it good enough. Sorry I wasn’t very clear.

  2. says

    Thanks for the tips, I have yet to tray and master the second method, because it’s quite abstract and hard to focus at a certain distance when the lens doesn’t have distance markers.

  3. says

    If your lens has markings on the top that show the f-stops against the distance scale…then setting the infinity marker against the appropriate f-stop should give you front to back sharpness from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity.

    You will not have to worry about judging distances [too much].

    A bit difficult to explain without being able to post images…Jim – perhaps you could add to this posting showing this more clearly in pictures.

    Getting the hyperfocal distance set correctly can give wonderfully sharp front to back images.

  4. says

    As a general rule of thumb, focusing at the hyperfocal distance is a good idea. However, as you noted, it’s not always appropriate.

    If you’ve got a lot of close-up foreground detail to capture, and the background “at infinity” is obscured by atmospheric haze, anyway, then it will make sense to focus fairly close, and let the background blur as it will.

    Conversely, if the foreground features are relatively large, and it’s a very clear day with a lot of detailed scenery in the background, you might be much better served by focusing “at infinity”, for maximum sharpness of those distant details. The closer features may very well be large enough that a slight blurring won’t make them noticeably unsharp.

    On clear days (when I’m likely to want to take a landscape shot), it’s more likely that I’ll find myself in the second situation than in the first. So, I’ll almost always find myself focusing well beyond the theoretical hyperfocal distance in order to produce the best picture, rather than simply the one with the widest range of distances in “acceptably-sharp” focus. After all, there are no well-defined borders between “acceptably sharp” and “unacceptably blurred” — it’s a gradual transition, and “acceptable” depends a lot more on the angular size of the features you’re trying to capture than it does on a pure “circle of confusion” calculation.

  5. Alex Marius says

    What nobody tells is WHERE EXACTLY U SHOULD FOCUS????? Where???? Anywhere? How exactly put the focus where? on the ground, a tree??????

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