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Total sharpness: Hyperfocal photography

Dave Johnson | June 10, 2013
Follow these tips to put everything into focus.

Conventional wisdom has it that you should keep the background in your photos out of focus to draw attention to the subject in the foreground. Generally that's good advice, but sometimes you might want everything to be in sharp focus, from the foreground elements all the way to the distant background. If you have a camera that lets you adjust the focus manually (think DSLRs and advanced compacts), you can accomplish this effect using a technique called hyperfocal photography.

A photo in which everything is in focus, from the foreground to the background, requires some planning.

Despite the intimidatingly technical name, hyperfocal photography isn't especially complicated. The term simply refers to taking a picture in a way that delivers the maximum possible depth of field.

Sounds easy—after all, you already know that large f-numbers yield deeper depth of field. So picking the biggest f-number available (say, f/22) would automatically give you a hyperfocal photo that's uniformly in focus, right?

Not so fast. There's a little more to the story of hyperfocal photography. It also requires you to shoot at something called the hyperfocal distance.

Imagine that you want to take a photo of a person standing 10 feet in front of you, and that you want the entire shot—including the distant mountain range in the background—to be in focus. If you set the camera to aperture priority mode and dial in f/22, and then focus on the subject in the foreground, you might end up with a total depth of field that's about 15 feet, extending a little in front of the person and a little behind. The mountains off in the distance will be a blur. So simply setting your camera to the deepest possible depth of field won't work.

Typically, when you focus on the foreground, the distant background is out of focus, no matter what aperture setting you use.

Now use the same settings, but focus on the faraway mountain range. The depth of field might now start about 18 feet in front of the camera and go all the way to infinity. That's awesome: The mountains are in sharp focus, along with anything and everything in the frame beyond 18 feet. But the subject? At just 10 feet away, the person is a blur.

What's going wrong? In both cases we're "wasting" perfectly good depth of field. When we focused on the subject, the depth of field in front of the person went unused. And when we focused on the mountains, any depth of field behind the mountains was wasted, because it's already at infinity.


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