There’s no rule that says photographs should be sharp from front to back, but often that’s just what they need, especially when it comes to foreground/background landscapes, but it’s not always easy to achieve.
Camera viewfinders can be deceiving when it comes to visualising the focus zone, and constantly checking the LCD screen in hindsight can be a distraction in the middle of a shoot, especially if the light is great and you’re spending time pressing buttons instead of making artistic choices. The screen may indicate what’s wrong, but it won’t tell you if there’s a better way, and that’s where a hyperfocal distance chart can assist.
Some scenes simply can’t be captured sharply from foreground to background without taking multiple captures and stacking them together, but if possible I’d argue it’s best to capture the scene in one go most of the time, which may not mean focusing directly on the subject.
Most mirrorless already cameras have an overlay feature to indicate which areas of the frame are in focus, but I’ve found they can be a little misleading at times, and my viewfinder is optical anyway, so that doesn’t work for me. Some cameras even have a hyperfocal setting or indicator built in, but it’s not common.
My solution, if I need to double check myself (or my own sanity), is to use a hyperfocal distance chart, which I carry with me. It maximises focus by indicating where the focus point should be to achieve maximum depth of field and how much of the scene can be rendered sharply. I find it most helpful when I’m shooting in an unusual way, like when the foreground is particularly close, or if I’m using an unfamiliar lens. It can save me from second guessing myself or wasting time taking extra photo’s when the light is at its best, ideally though I would have checked the chart before the light is best.
If you’re unfamiliar with the principle of hyperfocal distance, it’s just the focus distance that keeps the background sharp, but also as much foreground as possible. There’s no need to focus on anything behind the hyperfocal distance because the background is already sharp, and if you focus closer than the hyperfocal distance, objects in the distance will start to blur out. So knowing the hyperfocal distance can indicate whether it’s even possible to capture everything in your scene sharply from foreground to backround in a single capture. The closest point which still renders sharply is about half way between the camera and the hyperfocal distance.
If for example, I find the hyperfocal distance for a 24mm lens at F8 is 3 meters away and I focusat 3 meters expecting to capture sharp detail in my foreground which is only 1 meter away, it won’t happen because the closest point which will render sharply is 1.5 meters away (half of 3 meters). I’ll need to decide whether I make multiple captures, narrow my aperture, change my position, or focus closer to the foreground and sacrifice sharpness at the horizon.
The hyperfocal distance depends on two main things, the aperture and the lens focal length, but it also depens on camera sensor size, resolution, and how large you will display the resulting image. Small images will get away with just about anything, large prints won’t.
The scene below was captured with a 14mm lens (on a crop sensor mirrorless camera). My chart indicates a hyperfocal distance of about 2 meters if shooting at F8 with a 14mm lens on a crop sensor camera, which is about half way along the rock formation, so that would be a reasonable place to focus because most of the foreground would then be sharp, including the entire rock formation. This scene would run into trouble if the rock formation wasn’t sharp, but could get away without the foreground grasses in focus. To err on the side of caution though I’d sacrifice a little background focus to make sure the foreground was crisp.
If I was to narrow the aperture down to F11 for greater depth of field, the hyperfocal distance would move closer to about 1.5 meters which is nearer to the close end of the rock formation. F8 is the sweet spot for many lenses, so narrowing down too far past that can lower sharpness. F11 is usually acceptable, but F16 or higher may start to flatten those micro details, at least for large prints or tight crops. Knowing the hyperfocal distance can help optimise the focus point, and also the aperture.
One problem with the charts though, is guestimation. If for example you found the hyperfocal distance for a scene is 2 meters away, how would you judge it? Most of us don’t carry a tape measure around. Even if you did know exactly where the 2 meter mark was, it would be difficult to focus precisely on that point (try it). Then there are variations in lens design and other quirks which can throw the results off too, so I like to consider the charts as another tool in the kit.
Memorising the hyperfocal distances for your favourite lens and aperture combinations can be handy. Take for instance a 24mm lens at F8, one of my common combinations, it has a hyperfocal distance of about 3 meters, perhaps double the length of an upright tripod. Knowing that means I don’t have to think too much about foreground details or multiple captures with scenes that start further than 3 meters away.
Feel free to print the charts and keep them in your bag, and just remember they’re a guide, and not an absolute. Distances are shown in either feet or meters, so be careful which charts you use. They differ based on sensor size, so choose the charts which match your camera, I’ve included charts for full frame and crop (APS-C/DX) sized sensors.