I’m sure each of you have experienced a similar scenario: you’re at a beautiful location, perhaps the American Southwest, and are ready to take a photograph at sunset that captures the beauty of the scene in front of you. The colors are popping, the clouds are red and your adrenaline is flowing while you set up your camera. Then, it hits you … where should you focus the camera? Obviously, the entire scene is beautiful, but you can only pick one distance to set your focus.
The crazy thing about landscape photography is that your goal isn’t necessarily to focus on any specific thing, rather you should focus so the majority of the scene appears to be sharp. Landscape photography is all about maximizing depth of field (DOF), which will hopefully produce sharpness from the front to the back of the image.
Rather than focusing on a specific thing in the scene like a mountain or a flower or a river, you want to focus at a specific distance. This distance is called the hyperfocal distance.
The term hyperfocal distance is defined as the focus distance that places the farthest edge of the depth of field at infinity. In other words, if you focus at the hyperfocal distance then the mountain in your scene will be in focus (infinity) as well as objects close to your camera. More specifically, focusing at the hyperfocal distance for your photograph keeps everything from infinity to half of the hyperfocal distance acceptably sharp. To better understand what this looks like, see the figure below.
In this scenario shown in this figure, let’s say the photographer chooses an aperture of f/16 with a 24 mm lens. The hyperfocal distance for this combination is 2.7 feet from the camera. In this example, everything from infinity to half of 2.7 feet (1.35 feet) will be in sharp focus.
I have a section in my new book (The Nikon Autofocus System) on hyperfocal distance that includes a hyperfocal distance table, but here are two web resources for you to calculate hyperfocal distance if you aren’t planning on purchasing the book:
To set your focus distance to the correct hyperfocal distance, simply use your focus markings on the lens barrel. In the example I described above, just rotate the lens’ focus ring to 2.7 feet, then take the picture.
If all this technical discussion makes you want to pull your hair out, then I have an easier answer for you. Don’t worry about the hyperfocal distance calculations or tables. Rather, just set your lens aperture to f/16, then focus about 1/3 of the way into the scene.
Obviously, this method requires a bit of guesswork, but after you’ve framed the scene with composition you want, then focus about 1/3 of the way up from the bottom edge of your composition. This will approximate the hyperfocal distance and your brain won’t hurt from looking at tables or plugging numbers into a calculator.
Since the scene doesn’t move around in landscape photography, go ahead and set your camera to AF-S mode. AF-S stands for single servo. This means the camera will focus once then lock the focus while you take the photograph. The common approach is to focus with the AF sensor pointed at the hyperfocal distance – or 1/3 or the way into the scene – then recompose the photograph before taking the picture.
For your autofocus pattern, I recommend using single-point AF. Again, since the scene doesn’t move, the single focus point allows you to precisely choose a focus point that maximizes DOF.
Interested in learning more about autofocus on Nikon cameras? Check out our brand new book titled The Nikon Autofocus System, Mastering Focus for Sharp Images Every Time.