This post is also available in: German
Where the heck do I set my focus when I shoot a wide landscape image? The foreground? Somewhere in the middle? The background? This question always comes up when I show people how to shoot and compose landscapes and the answer isn’t quite as simple as me pointing at your screen and saying “there”.
It involves learning about hyperfocal distance and I hate to say there might be some math involved, but please bear with me.
Understanding Hyperfocal Distance
In the case of landscape photography, most of the time an overall sharpness throughout the image is desired. When you focus at hyperfocal distance, acceptable sharpness can theoretically be achieved from roughly (!) half the distance away all the way to infinity. Or easier: this means that the depth of field can reach from half the hyperfocal distance all the way to infinity and focusing at hyperfocal distance helps maximize the depth of field and assure that as much of the image as possible is sharp.
Now, I know this is hard to visualize, but the following illustration should help:
Calculating Hyperfocal Distance
The hyperfocal distance depends on the aperture, the focal lenght as well as the crop factor of the sensor and its circle of confusion. You can find out your sensor’s circle of confusion online. For example, if I use an aperture of f/8, a focal length of 16mm and my 7D MarkII with a 1.6 crop factor that has a 0.019mm circle of confusion, I’d calculate it as follows:
In this example, the hyperfocal distance is 1.7 meters. With the appropriate depth of field calculator I can then figure out that with such a wide lens, the depth of field ranges from 0.85 meters to infinity and thus this area will be adequately sharp.
Don’t worry though, if you don’t feel like whipping out a calculator yourself, there are plenty of online calculators and apps available that will do the math for you. Or you can do all the work at once and create your own spreadsheet that you can carry with you in your camera bag. Once you have calculated the hyperfocal distance, you need to eyeball it and focus on that point – to avoid any errors, preferably manually in live-view.
Using the Rule of Thumb
Of course it’s not realy feasible to run through these calculations every time you want to take a photo. It’s simply unrealistic if you want to get anything done in a reasonable amount of time. Instead, I see these depth of field and hyperfocal distance calculators as a good way of experimenting, as it does help visualize what depth of field actually is. In everyday photography, I suggest you just go out there, work with a rule of thumb and get a feel of how different apertures and focal lenghts influence the resulting image.
A good rule of thumb for choosing the focus point in landscape photography is by putting it roughly 1/3 of the way into the image. Of course, this won’t be completely precise, but it is a good starting point.
When it really counts, you can always carefully set up a shot and run through the whole calculations to get it just right. Even then, it’s basically impossible to get every single area of a landscape photo, from the nearest foreground to the furthest background tack sharp without resulting to higher f-stops and dealing with the light refraction that comes with that. Sometimes you need to make a decision whether you want a super detailed foreground or a tack sharp background.
Keep in mind that it’s always dangerous to stubbornly stick to rules without looking at each scene and determining yourself what has to be done to capture it adequately. For example, if you scene consists of elements that are all in the far distance and thus at the very edge of the depth of field, adhering to the hyperfocal distance might mean that those faraway mountains are sharpish, but not tack-sharp. The same goes for images that are very foreground based of course.
The conclusion is that sticking to the hyperfocal distance and using the rule of thumb is a good place to start, but it isn’t applicable to every single image. For creating landscape photos that are absolutely tack sharp from foreground to background, have a look at my tutorial on focus stacking. It’s a relatively simple fix to this problem of having to make sharpness sacrifices in certain areas and is a somewhat more advanced focusing trick.