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?”
If you are interested in learning even more about landscape photography, check out Nick's Advanced Techniques for Landscapes!
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.
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.