You’ve likely heard that focusing at the hyperfocal distance will help you nail focus in your landscape images. You use your camera settings to find the hyperfocal distance from a table, set the focus there, and everything in your depth of field should be “acceptably sharp”.
Simple enough, right? But, when you are setting up your shot, you may find yourself wondering — wait, how the heck do I actually measure the hyperfocal distance in the first place??
Here are five simple ways to measure the hyperfocal distance and the pros and cons of each method.
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What is the Hyperfocal Distance?
Before we dive into the five methods, let’s first briefly define what the hyperfocal distance is to make sure we are all on the same page. If you are brand new to the subject of the hyperfocal distance, then I encourage you to download my free Hyperfocal Distance Made Easy Ebook, which goes into the details of what it is, how and when to use it, when not to use it, etc.
As a brief refresher, the hyperfocal distance (also known as hyperfocal focusing) is a handy way of figuring out where to focus in a landscape to maximize the depth of field and to get as much of the scene as possible “acceptably sharp”.
In landscape images, a deep depth of field typically includes everything from a nearby foreground element to a far distant subject in the background and is sometimes called deep focusing or near-far focusing.
The hyperfocal distance is the distance between the camera and a point in your scene at which everything from half the distance to that point and beyond to infinity will be acceptably sharp.
It’s impossible to get everything within a deep depth of field tack sharp (only one point can be tack sharp), and so the next best option is to get everything in front of and behind that tack sharp point “acceptably sharp”.
Acceptably sharp is what the human eye perceives as sharp in a printed image viewed at a certain distance. You can also think of it as the foreground and background being equally sharp and unsharp so that one area of the image is not more or less sharp than another.
The hyperfocal distance is the point in the scene such that if you focus there, the deep depth of field will include your foreground element and your background subject and everything included in that depth of field will be acceptably sharp.
If you’d rather watch me review the five ways of measuring the hyperfocal distance, then check out this video. Otherwise, please read on.
5 Ways to Measure the Hyperfocal Distance
Method #1: Use the distance scale on your lens
Some lenses come with a distance scale built into them. Distance scales are shown in feet and meters. The range indicates the minimum focusing distance and the infinity symbol, and it is controlled by the focusing ring of the lens.
To use the distance scale to measure the hyperfocal distance, follow these steps:
- Compose your image.
- Based on your camera sensor size (full-frame, crop sensor, etc.), your focal length, and the aperture or f-stop, find the hyperfocal distance using an appropriate hyperfocal distance table or an app like PhotoPills (this is a link to their free online calculator) to determine what the hyperfocal distance is under your specific parameters.
- Switch to manual focus.
- Manually focus the focus ring so that focus is set at the hyperfocal distance according to the distance scale on the lens. In theory, everything from half that distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp.
Pros: The main benefits of this method are that no extra equipment is needed, and it’s not complicated to figure out.
Cons: Obviously, not all lenses have a distance scale. Plus, they don’t tend to be terribly accurate. You should test your lens first before relying on this method.
Note: Some mirrorless cameras, like Fujifilm, come with a distance scale that can be viewed through the electronic viewfinder (EVF) or on the LCD in Live View. It shows you how far away your set focus point is and indicates whether it is within the depth of field based on your other settings (focal length, aperture).
I have never used a mirrorless camera, so I don’t have personal experience with how accurate this mirrorless camera distance scale system is, but if you do, please comment below and let us know your experience.
Method #2: Use a measuring tape
Ok, before you guffaw at this idea, let me explain. I am not suggesting you use a measuring tape as a long term solution for measuring the hyperfocal distance. It’s not practical.
However, I do think it is a handy way to train your eye to be able to estimate distances. You can set up practice shots and guess how far away different foreground elements are and then test your judgment with the measuring tape.
You may be surprised. Your mental measuring tape will get more accurate with practice.
Using a measuring tape has definitely made me feel more confident in my ability to estimate various distances up to about 20 feet.
The ability to measure or estimate distances has the added benefit of allowing you to use a handy trick to find the hyperfocal distance, called the double the distance method.
To use a measuring tape to find the hyperfocal distance using the double the distance method, follow these steps:
- Compose your image.
- Measure (or estimate) the distance to the nearest foreground element you want in focus, and then double that distance. That is the hyperfocal distance. Recall that when you focus at the hyperfocal distance, everything from half that distance to infinity will be acceptably sharp.
- Some people stop here and just focus at “double the distance”, but if you would like more precision, then you need to figure out what aperture to use to get everything acceptably sharp in the scene when you focus at double the distance. This is where a hyperfocal distance table (or app) comes in handy.
- Use the focal length of your composition and the double the distance value you found and refer to a hyperfocal table to determine which aperture to use to get everything in your scene acceptably sharp when focused at double the distance (aka the hyperfocal distance when used with the correct aperture and focal length).
Pros: Using a measuring tape is a great way to teach your eye how to estimate distances. If you do use it to set up a shot, it will give you an accurate measurement of the hyperfocal distance.
Cons: Carrying around a measuring tape is clunky, and you have to remember to bring it. It’s not a practical solution for in the field use. Some measuring tapes sag or collapse when extended to longer lengths, which may interfere with the scene. I recommend the Fat Max tape measure by Stanley because they do not collapse at long distances.
Method #3: Use your body measurements
One easy way to measure short distances is to use your own body measurements. For example, most of us walk at a consistent step length. Step length is the distance between the heel strike of one foot and the heel strike of the other foot. This tends to be a consistent length for your natural walking pace, and the average step length is about 2.5 feet.
How to find your step length:
- Mark a starting point with a piece of tape or a chalk mark.
- Stand with your feet together with your heels on this mark, and then take 20 steps at your natural walking pace.
- Mark where your heel hits the ground on the last step.
- Measure the distance between the starting and ending points.
- Divide the distance by the number of steps you took. This is your step length.
The more steps you take over a longer distance, the more accurate your calculated step length will likely be.
Another body measurement that you can use is your wingspan or the distance between your fingertips when you have your arms out at your sides and parallel to the ground. It is often the same as your height, but you can have someone measure it for you to be sure.
To use body measurements to measure the hyperfocal distance, follow the same steps as above when using a measuring tape.
Pros: The main benefit of using your body measurements is that they are always with you! No extra equipment to carry along.
Cons: The main downsides of this method are that for many landscape situations, it is not feasible (or you may not be permitted) to tread into the area of your composition, and you may leave footprints that you do not want as part of your composition. Additionally, depending on the terrain, your natural step may change. Using your arm span for more than one length can also be inaccurate.
Method #4: Use PhotoPills
Many photography apps are available that will calculate the hyperfocal distance for you, and the one that I use and recommend is PhotoPills.
The reason I use PhotoPills is because their hyperfocal distance table has built into it an augmented reality (AR) feature that uses your smartphone’s camera to show you where the hyperfocal distance is in your scene.
It’s a really handy feature. I’ve tested it against a measuring tape and have found it to be pretty accurate to within a few inches. When in doubt, I set focus to just beyond what the PhotoPills AR says is the hyperfocal distance, and that works well.
In addition, you can enter your camera body from their list of bodies or you can create your own camera body profile. This allows you to either enter the circle of confusion (CoC) value you choose or they can automatically calculate for you.
Why is this important? Most hyperfocal distance tables use a circle of confusion value of 0.030mm, but this does not apply to all camera models. The circle of confusion is a factor that is important in determining what is acceptably sharp and is part of the hyperfocal distance calculation.
If you plan to print your landscape images in large format and would like to ensure that everything in the image is acceptably sharp (recall, meaning that the foreground and background are equally sharp and unsharp), then using the correct CoC may be important. Otherwise, using the standard 0.030mm CoC from which most hyperfocal distance tables are calculated is usually sufficient.
To learn more about the circle of confusion and how to calculate it, check out this PhotoPills article and free CoC calculator.
To use PhotoPills to measure the hyperfocal distance, follow these steps:
- Open PhotoPills
- Click on the Hyperfocal Table pill
- Enter your camera body in the top tab
- Scroll down to find your focal length on the left
- Scroll left to find your aperture on the top
- Click the hyperfocal distance value on the table – the box will turn blue when selected
- Click on AR in the bottom menu area
- The augmented reality overlay will appear through your phone’s camera
- Set the feet on top of your camera, and slowly rotate your phone up so that you see the blue arched line overlaid in your scene. This is the hyperfocal distance.
- Set focus on an element in the scene that is at the hyperfocal distance (where the blue arched line is) or just slightly beyond it.
Pros: The benefits of using PhotoPills to measure the hyperfocal distance are that it is accurate, you get a visual representation of where the hyperfocal distance is, and you do not need to walk into your scene.
Cons: The app is available for Apple and Android, but not everyone has a smartphone. The app is currently $9.99, which is expensive for some people. The app is packed with other photography tools, so it is worth the price in my opinion. Lastly, not everyone wants to bring their phone into the field with them.
Method #5: Use a digital laser distance measure
While these devices are usually used by contractors, I find the digital laser measure a handy tool for photography as well. I use the Bosch GLM 20 Compact Laser Distance Measure, which measures from 6 inches to 65 feet with ⅛ inch accuracy. If your subject is greater than 65 feet away, you really wouldn’t need to use the hyperfocal distance anyway, so this little pocket laser tool would be just fine. No need to spend a lot of money on more expensive models that measure greater distances.
To use a laser distance measure to measure the hyperfocal distance, follow these steps:
- Hold the device above where your camera sensor is located
- Push the button and point the laser on various objects in the scene to see how far away they are.
- When you find one at or very near the hyperfocal distance, then focus on that object.
- You can also use the laser measure with the double the distance method described in #2 above.
Obviously, do not point the laser directly in the eye of any human or animal as it is a class 2 laser and could cause eye damage.
Pros: The benefits of this approach are that the Bosch digital laser measure is extremely accurate, very lightweight (0.2lbs), fits in your pocket, and you do not need to walk into your scene to find the hyperfocal distance.
Cons: The downsides are that it is another device that you have to remember to bring, it runs on AAA batteries, which may run out while in the field, and the laser itself can be hard to see on bright days.
So, which method is best?
Honestly, that’s for you to decide. There is no perfectly ideal method for measuring the hyperfocal distance.
Personally, I occasionally practice with a tape measure to keep my mental distance estimates in tune. I also almost always have my phone with me, and so I’ll rely on the PhotoPills augmented reality to check my estimates if I’m unsure of the distances. I think the Bosch laser is fun to bring along if weight and space in my bag are not concerns.
Lastly, I’ll always take a series of images focused at the hyperfocal distance and a few images focus in front of and behind where I think the hyperfocal distance is. Then, when I get home and evaluate the images on my computer, I just pick the image(s) that I consider acceptably sharp. This way I’ve covered my bases and there is room for user error.
Do you have any tricks for measuring the hyperfocal distance? If so, please share them in the comments below.