Introduction – Hyperfocal Focusing for Creative Landscape Images
A few weeks ago, we were in a doctor's office on a scheduled visit. As is common, the office was decorated with hanging art, and this office had displayed a number of outdoor landscape photographs.
Now you should know that enlarging a photographic image has a way of highlighting any imperfections. Actually, the photos were colorful and even the composition was interesting but there were some issues. Virtually everything was slightly out of focus. I mean, nothing was sharp.
Regardless of the colorfulness or the good composition, the lack of sharpness was a show stopper. It's hard for us to sometimes be critical of our own work since we have a tendency to see our images with the remembrance of the actual outdoor venue. And so we see with different eyes. Others, however, are not so forgiving.
Landscape Photography is one of those endeavors that combine art and science. It's also an avocation that I see many individuals would like to explore and actually find great pleasure in. It's also an area where a little knowledge can go a long way towards improving your outdoor images. It is with this that NatureViews presents “Mastering Hyperfocal Focusing on Creative Landscape Images.”
The different types of landscape images
Starting in close with our macro lens, we can capture an image of, let’s say, a flower. Now, with the flower in focus, we want everything in front of (foreground) and behind (background) the flower to be blurred or out of focus.
Here, we use a narrow “depth of field” to highlight and draw the viewer’s attention to the flower without the distraction of the chaos going on with all the leaves and other flowers in the scene.
This is a choice we've made and we have pre-visualized what we as the photographer/artist need to control in order to achieve this creative effect. We do this simply by using a lens optimized for close up shots – macro lenses, selecting a wide aperture and focusing on the subject we want to feature. Simple – or it is until the wind starts blowing.
Now let’s look at the other end of our lens selections – the telephoto lens.
Here we want to effectively create the same artistic look. That is, we want the subject to be in sharp focus but we also want the
foreground, if any, and the background to be out of focus. Again, we are using a narrow depth of field to draw the viewer’s attention to the subject which we want to highlight or feature. In the next image, I’ve used a 300mm lens with an aperture of 2.8 to sharply focus the lion cub and leave everything else, including the lion’s mother, out of focus. Actually, the photographic technique is similar – we use the appropriate lens, in this case, a 300mm, focus on the cub’s eyes, and select a wide aperture to create a narrow depth of field and thereby isolate the subject we want to feature.
Now, as a side note, the blurred or out of focus area in both of these images are referred to as “bokeh.” Bokeh is the Japanese word for blur and in photography, refers to the aesthetic quality of the blur produced by the out-of-focus points of lights in the image. Some lens produces more artistic bokeh than others, and often better bokeh becomes a feature of better professional lenses.
Let’s now visualize a third type of image. This is the image to which we effectively focus directly upon a flat object. Let me give you an example.
In this image, we’re capturing essentially a flat surface. There’s no concern over depth of field. Here, I’ve used a 105mm lens, focused exactly on the object and used an aperture of f/8. F/8 is normally the sweet spot on many lens. Pretty simple and straightforward.
Landscapes with depth
Now there's a fourth type of image, we may want to create, which I'll a typical landscape with depth.
This image involves the use of a normal lens – or those lenses with a focal range of around 40 – 70mm. Let’s look at this stream mid-scape.
Here is an image which has been shot at 55mm with a small aperture. But notice that we have everything in focus – from the closest rock to the background of the aspen leaves. How do we do this?
This is where the common advice “f/16 and focus ⅓ of the way into the frame” can work.
Actually, in these types of situations, using a smaller aperture – from f/8 to f/22 and focusing about ⅓ of the way into the image, you can get everything into focus. You'll see shortly, however, how this parallels the CANDID Technique.
But…there are a few caveats. First, you’re using a normal to a telephoto lens. Second, your foreground is not particularly close – let’s say 20 – 50 feet away from the closest object in the image. Third, you’re using a smaller aperture, and finally, you’re focusing approximately ⅓ of the way into the image and erring on a tad more. It’s important to check your image on your back display window to ensure everything is sharp.
What about focusing on infinity? You could do this with celestial shots. Manually set the lens close to infinity and using live view, magnify the image and focus adjust one of the stars so that it is the sharpest point you can obtain. There's much more to celestial shots but effectively, this is how most star photographers focus on celestial shots.
So, we’ve covered four typical landscape images and the methods we use to capture them – the macro image, and the telephoto image – both of which share a common characteristic, which is to isolate by using a wide aperture and thereby blurring the foreground and background.
The third type of image, which is just a flat image, requires nothing more than accurately focusing on the image and using the lenses optimal aperture – usually around f/8.
Finally, we’ve introduced a fourth type of image which attempts to keep everything in focus – that is creates a large depth of field but uses normal and even telephoto lenses. Here I’ve specified using a smaller aperture and focused approximately ⅓ of the way into the image. I’ve also detailed some additional caveats.
The depth of field then is the area of the image which is in sharp focus. As we’ve just seen, whereas the depth of field on a macro or a wildlife image may only be a 1/16 of an inch to a few inches, most landscape images normally require a depth of field that extends throughout the entire image.
That is, we want a landscape image to show everything in sharp focus – as if the viewer could just walk into the image.
Now, let’s discuss the fifth type of image, and this is where everyone has trouble – creating maximum depth of field with wide-angle lenses and with images where the closest object is maybe only a foot or two from the camera.
We’re going to create maximum depth of field by understanding and utilizing the concepts of hyperfocal focusing.
I’ve shot the above image, at about 24mm with the aperture at f16. Some of these canyon walls, however, are only a few feet away from the front of the camera. Now using a wide-angle lens and shooting with a small aperture should go a long ways towards creating the maximum depth of field – but there’s another element which is the secret to sharpness and which we’ll cover after discussing how to set up your camera to more easily keep everything in sharp focus.
As a landscape photographer, one of the best changes you can make to your camera’s settings is to set it up for “back focus” and “exposure lock” through live view.
What are back focus and focus lock?
Cameras are normally set to meter, focus and trip the shutter with the shutter release button. This works well with portraits and wildlife photography but landscape photography requires more control over metering and focus.
With landscape photography, you will often use a focus point that is specifically chosen to optimize and maximize depth of field and your exposure metering might be from another area on the image. Finally, when you press the shutter release, you do not want your preset focus point and exposure metering to be altered.
The best way to achieve these three separate objectives – “focus, metering, and shutter release” is by setting up your camera for back focusing and exposure lock.
Okay, here are the settings for “back focus” on the Nikon D810:
In the Custom Settings (pencil icon) menu – change a4 AF activation from the default “shutter/AF-On” to “AF-ON only” and hit the “OK” button. The a4 menu will show as AF activation – OFF.
In menu a1, change the default to “release and focus.”
In menu a12, set your autofocus mode restrictions to “AF-C.” This is the continuous mode setting. Only the D810 has this restricted feature. If you have a D800 press the AF button on the side of the camera, and with the command dial, toggle from AF-S to AF-C, which will show up in menu choice “a1.” Effectively the D810 locks this in. With other cameras, you will need to check this occasionally.
Now, with back focusing set, you press the “AF-ON’ button on the back of the camera to focus and press the shutter button to release the shutter. By continuing to press the AF-ON button, you will continue to focus in continuous mode and when you release the AF-ON button, your focus is set. You’ll see later, why this is important in capturing hyper-focused images.
To set up “exposure lock” on the Nikon D810, you need to make the following changes:
In the Custom Settings (pencil icon) menu – change c1 to “OFF.”
In menu f6 – set Assign AE-L/AF-L button to AE lock (Hold.)
Once you make these changes, your camera’s focus will be operated in continuous mode by pressing the back “AF-ON” button. You metering will be locked by pressing the back “AE-L/AF-L” button and you will trip the shutter by pressing the shutter release button.
Effectively, you now have complete and individual control over the focus point, exposure and shutter release. This is critical for getting sharp images that are also exposed correctly.
Virtually all semi-pro and professional cameras have some option for both back button focus and exposure lock.
Since it isn’t practical to cover each camera, I recommend that you simply Google back button focusing and exposure lock for your camera and follow their instructions. Believe it or not, most cameras are covered in Google.
Setting up “back focus” is not only helpful for Landscapes and a majority of professional photographers use this option for all their photography needs.
Okay, let’s discuss what hyperfocal focus means.
Sometimes, this is referred to as “hyperfocal distance.” Hyperfocal distance is simply the formula point of focus which places everything in the image in focus.
Understand, there is a somewhat complex formula for determining hyperfocal distance and there are resulting hyperfocal tables which attempt to lay out the various settings relative to various lens focal lengths, apertures (f-number), distances and a concept defined as the circle of confusion.
Here’s the long version of the formula:
Now, if you’re into formulas and charts, there are a number of internet articles which discuss hyperfocal distance and there are even iPhone apps which you can carry with you out in the field. Some lens, especially older manual focus lens, even have hyperfocal scales built into the lens (however, they use a circle of confusion which is more optimal for film than it is for digital images.)
Also, you may be interested in knowing the “acceptable circle of confusion” is really nothing more than a modifier of sharpness. Circle of confusion refers to the size that a pinpoint of light can spread out on your camera’s sensor before its blur becomes noticeable. The ability to notice includes, however, how far you are when you view the image and even what your vision is (20-20 or not.)
So the smaller the circle of confusion, the sharper the image. Like everything in photography, however, there are tradeoffs and a smaller circle of confusion will require smaller apertures and wider lens. In reality, this is more than we even need to know.
Let’s look at an excerpt of a Hyperfocal chart, using a 0.02 circle of confusion modifier.
So, how do we read the Hyperfocal Chart?
Well, using various wide angle lenses – from 16mm to 35mm, and using various aperture 0settings – from 5.6 to 22, the hyperfocal points are set forth in the above table. What this means is that using the lens, aperture and focusing on the distance set forth in the chart, everything “from ½ of the hyperfocal distance to infinity” will reasonably be in sharp focus. So, for example, if I’m shooting a 28mm lens, at f/16 and focusing on an object which is 8 feet from the front of the camera's lens, then everything from 4 feet to infinity should be in focus.
Similarly, if I’m shooting with a 20mm lens at a f/8 aperture, everything from a little over 4 feet (4’ 1” to be precise) should be in focus if I focus on an object that is 8’ 2” from the front of the camera's lens.
This is a little counter-intuitive and hopefully, you can discern that getting into the mathematics of hyperfocal distance may be fun for gear hoarders but it is totally antithetical to artistic creativity. In fact, it’s really backward. It is not practical to pull out charts, or iPhone apps or use measuring tapes, or view the scales
on your camera lenses. But, fortunately, it’s not necessary.
Why? because I’m going to show you an easier way that works great – and I call it the “CANDID Technique.” The “C A N D I D” Technique.
First of all, make sure to ensure that your camera is set up for back focus and metering lock.
Here's the CANDID Technique:
- Compose – setup your composition in live view and lock in your ball head. This assumes you’re selecting a focal length lens that meets your composition vision. If necessary, take the camera off the tripod and move around to get a creative composition.
- Aperture – select the lowest aperture that will reasonably capture the image and render everything in sharp focus. Make sure your camera is in Aperture mode. Remember, images which have subjects close to the lens will require smaller apertures. Also, smaller focal lengths will allow for more latitude in subjects that are closer and a little larger aperture. Again, all of these choices are trade-offs and should be made in light of how close the nearest object is and even what is moving in the image such that a shorter aperture is required.
- Nearest Object – Looking in live view, and determine which object is the closest to your camera's lens. Usually, this is at the bottom of the viewfinder but it may be an object jutting out and even closer to your camera, for example, a tree limb. Estimate the distance from the front of the camera’s lens to this nearest object.
- Double the distance – Find an object that is approximately double the distance of the closest object and using your back focus button, move the cursor of the camera’s live view to the new object and lock in your focus. Where possible, err by focusing a tad bit more than exactly double the distance of the nearest object. If necessary, take the camera off the tripod and focus on an object that is double (plus) the distance of the nearest object.
- Image Metering and shutter release – Again, using the cursor on live view, select the spot that you want to meter your image. This is usually a spot that is a little brighter than most of the image. Set you metering lock and trip the shutter.
- Double Check – Magnify and review the foreground and background in live view to ensure everything is sharp. Some cameras allow for a setting that with one button sets the magnification on live view to 1 to 1. If possible use this setting to quickly check the foreground and background of your image.
Also, run your eyes around the perimeter of the image. Are there tree limbs or other objects that are shooting into the image? If so, you can either ensure that you do in fact have the actual nearest point in order to double the distance or you can recompose and eliminate the distraction. Doing this now will eliminate these surprises when it comes to processing your images at home.
If the image is not sharp enough, consider the following:
- Recheck your distances and adjust your focus point. Make micro adjustments for a little further out.
- Use a smaller aperture, Remember, there are aperture settings between the 5.6 – 8 – 11 – 16 and 22.
- Make finer adjustments and then check for sharpness. Usually, simply using a smaller aperture or adjusting your focal point will do the trick. You could move further back from the nearest object or even change the focal length of your lens, but these adjustments are actually changing your composition, in which case, you’re actually starting over again. That's fine as you may have to face the reality of your camera and lens limitations but, you need to start the CANDID Technique over again.
In reviewing the hyperfocal chart above, you can see that smaller apertures and smaller focal lengths allow for closer subjects. You’re not going to be able to keep everything focused if you’re shooting a 35mm lens, even at f/22, when your nearest object is only six (6) inches away.
This doesn’t mean you have to memorize the chart or even bring it along on your shoots – just become familiar with the general limitations and abilities and apply the CANDID Technique in the field.
Again, smaller apertures and smaller focal lengths allow for closer subjects.
That's it – the CANDID Technique is a quick and precise method of ensuring your landscape images are in sharp focus, without a chart, iPhone app or other distractions that will only delay and inhibit your photo creativity.
Real life reviews
Let’s use some actual examples and discuss the CANDID technique used in capturing each image.
This is an image, taken in Alabama Hills, near Lone Pine, California. Although the tripod is set to approximately eye level, you’ll notice that there is foliage all around the base of the image. You’ll also notice that the background is not particularly far off – except for the clouds (which, by the way, are moving and will be somewhat soft if the shutter speed is too long.)
So, I’ve created a composition which shows foreground, midground, and background and I’m using a focal length of 31mm. Since some of the rabbitweed is close to the camera, I’ve selected an aperture of f/16.
I recognize that the nearest object to the camera is the flora at the base of the image and estimate their distance to be about 5-6 feet. I want to focus then, on an object which is approximately 12 feet or so and select a rabbit bush, to the left, which is approximately that distance. I set my image exposure on the light rocks and capture the image.
Finally, I want to enlarge the image in live view and double check my sharpness by looking at the closest object and then shifting to the top of the mountains. The clouds are effectively at infinity and if the top of the mountains is sharp, I accept the clouds as being acceptably sharp. Again, remember, clouds move.
This is an image taken around the South end of Mono Lake near Lee Vining, California, in the Sierra Nevadas. This is a wide angle shot taken at a 24mm focal lens.
Although there is a lot to get into focus, because of the fact that there is a slight breeze, I select an aperture of f/11 in order to reduce the shutter speed and minimize any movement with the plants. I could also have increased the ISO but, if given a choice, would rather keep the ISO low and adjust aperture.
Although it appears that the brownish/gray limbs at the lower right are closest to the camera, the green foliage of the large plant is actually closer, and I estimate because of their height to be about 4 feet away. Now since there was so much foliage right in front of the camera, I had to remove the camera from the tripod and focus on and lock onto a spot about 8 feet away. Returning the camera back to the tripod, I expose for the lighter weeds and take the picture. Again, I enlarge the image in live view and double check the sharpness of the bottom foliage and the distant mountains.
Here’s an image from Yosemite National Park, California, which I will call a mid-scape. Notice the sharpness and detail of everything in this image. This image was actually taken with a much smaller resolution camera but still, achieves the desired effect of sharpness. A 25mm focal length was used with an aperture of f/8. The trick in this image was to focus about ⅓ up into the image. You’ll notice that the closest object is probably 10 – 12 feet in the distance and that ⅓ of the way up is approximately 24 feet or so. It also is a relatively flat image so the f/8 aperture is perfect for this image.
Remember that focusing ⅓ of the way into the image works because it’s a close approximation of the CANDID Technique – not because it's its own rule.
Here’s an image of the Big Sur region near Monterey, California. This composition was created with a 20mm focal length and because of the closeness of the nearest rock – which is the bottom left touching the bottom of the image – required an aperture of f/16.
So the composition is created by getting extra close to the rocks – probably a foot or so away. The aperture of f/16 has been used. It’s seldom necessary to go beyond that although you can experiment with f/22. The near rock is about 12” and double that, at about 2 feet + focusing on the nearest edge of the rock to the left. I set my exposure on the light rock to the right and tripped the shutter. Again, magnifying live view, I double checked both the bottom edge and the distant water line to ensure that I achieved the required sharpness.
There you have it, four (4) typical images which require the use of the CANDID Technique to get the entire image focused sharply.
We know in Landscape and Nature photography that the technique for macro and telephoto shots are effectively the same – using a wide aperture, you focus on the object and let the foreground if any, and background go out of focus.
There are flat images which require the lens’ sweet spot, usually f/8, and a precise focus on the image.
There are what I’ve called mid-scapes which require a smaller aperture and focusing about ⅓ of the way into the image.
You’ve learned how to set up your camera to more effectively and efficiently take sharp images using both back focusing and an exposure lock button.
Finally, you’ve learned the CANDID Technique which eliminates all of the superfluous charts and smartphone apps etc., in order to quickly and efficiently capture the sharpest images and allow for considerably more artistic creativity.
You simply Compose your image with the best Aperture to produce a sharp image. You next determine the distance between the Nearest object and Double that distance which you focus on using your back focus button. Next, you determine you Image exposure and take the picture. Finally, you Double check the sharpness by enlarging the image on Live View and ensure that the foreground and background are both in focus.
I hope you've both enjoyed this and have received some practical insights that will make you a better landscape photographer.
That’s it, enjoy the journey.
Thad M Brown