Hyperfocal Focus

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Sometimes to get it all in focus, it has to all be out of focus.

Shooting photos you often find yourself wanting an object in the foreground and an object in the background both in focus. This can be a frustrating situation. Inevitably, focusing on either the foreground or the background leaves the other out of focus. There is a way to make it happen but it requires putting on your thinking cap.

It’s called hyperfocal focus and yes there’s going to be math, sort of. You may have noticed that on the barrel of your DSLR lens there is a scale that shows how far from the camera your point of focus falls. That tool is handier than you might think. Here’s how you use it to get the shot.

First focus on the foreground object that you want sharp. At this point it doesn’t matter whether you use auto of manual focus. Take a look at the scale. Let’s say your foreground focus is at three feet. Now focus on the background object that you want sharp. Let’s say it’s at nine feet. We now know we need to carry six feet of focus.

That six feet of sharpness is called depth of field or DOF. Literally the depth of our field of focus. We control the DOF with our aperture. Smaller apertures like F16 or F22 carry a wider DOF. Larger apertures like F2.8 or F4 have narrow DOF. If you’re confused don’t panic. Stay with me. The higher the F# the smaller the aperture. It’s a mathematic formula and I could explain it but it’s not important for this exercise and it’s frankly too much information.

So what we need is an F# that will carry six feet of DOF. Now it’s time to set your camera to manual focus! if you spent a whole lot of money on your lens it may have a scale that shows you the DOF for each F#. If so, that’s great. Choose an F# and set your focus so that three feet and nine feet fall between the brackets. If you don’t have the scale, don’t panic, just set your lens for the highest F#. If you want to get really technical, consult this nifty DOF calculator.

OK, I promised math so here it is. The thing about DOF is it’s a geometric progression. That means that as you increase your DOF by stopping down your aperture, you get twice as much DOF behind your point of focus as you do in front. Does your head hurt yet? Trust me it’s easy. Just divide the the distance you need to carry, in this case six feet by three then add that to the distance to your foreground object.

6′ / 3 = 2′ + 3′ = 5′

The six feet we need to carry divided by 3 plus the three feet to the foreground object equals five feet. Set your focus to five feet and shoot away! Nothing will look sharp in the camera but don’t worry. Have a look at the results and if you don’t quite get it all sharp, take a step back (away from the subject) and do the math again.

All of this takes a minute and it’s hard to pull off with a thrashing fish but under the right circumstance, it can take your photos to the next level. After a while, you will get the hang of it. I often use this technique, short hand, using my auto focus and selecting a point of focus that I feel is one third of the way into my scene. It pays of.

Pardon my shameless plug here. We are going to cover lots of this kind of thing in a hands-on photo class on our Andros South trip in January. We’d love to have you join us!

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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10 thoughts on “Hyperfocal Focus

  1. Louis,
    Awesome info! I would also like to learn more about getting the most out of point and shoot cameras. I carry a waterproof p&s most of the time I’m on the water and I feel like for the size / weight, and price you can get some amazing photos with one of the newer p&s models. Also curious if you ever shoot with one and if so which one?


  2. Thanks for the great article. I struggle with this issue quite frequently and end up just increasing the f stop to get more in focus. I will try this trick next time on the water. Again thanks.

  3. Hope you are doing well and life is getting better. Thanks for all the photo tips, appreciate them more than you can imagine. It’s hard to take fish pix alone when you have to get in the water to remove the line off a stump in order not to stress the fish, especially wild backcountry trout.
    Maybe a head mounted go-pro and not hike alone that distance, kind of dumb!

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