In-Depth Photography Guides

Focusing Technique Guide Part 1: Where to Focus to Maximize Depth of Field

Most landscape photographers are interested in getting their entire composition in focus from the foreground to the background…

but knowing where to focus in order to get your entire scene sharp can be one of the most confusing topics in landscape photography.

When some digital cameras have up to 51 autofocus points within a frame, how do you know which one to choose?

What is the best object within your frame to focus on in order to maximize depth of field?

Depending on the photographer you speak to or are learning from, the “best” place to focus will probably be different.

There are, however, 5 predominant methods that landscape photographers use to create photos that are entirely in focus.

This article breaks down each of these 5 methods and the school of thought behind them.

You will learn the shooting scenarios in which each of these methods works best, so that you can decide for yourself what the best place to focus on is given your composition and camera settings.

Before moving on, I encourage your to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of depth of field - the zone of acceptable focus that falls either side of your point of focus. Understanding depth of field will give you a foundation on which to build these more advanced concepts about focusing. You can learn these fundamentals in my depth of field guide here.

Table of Contents

Method 1: Focus at the Hyperfocal Distance

This is one of the most popular focusing methods used by landscape photographers which you will likely hear and learn about often.

Focusing at the hyperfocal distance is a very precise way to ensure that you are focusing on the exact point in your scene that will give you the most depth of field possible in your photo.

The hyperlocal distance is the distance between your camera and the closest point you can focus on within your composition that still allows you to get everything in the background (i.e. infinity) in focus.

When you focus at the hyperfocal distance, everything from half of this distance to infinity will be in focus, as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1. A photo shot with an aperture f/11 and a lens focal length of 24mm. These settings result in a 5'8'' hyperfocal distance. It was critical for me to get the bush in the foreground and the buttes in the background both in focus. In order to get the foreground and background in focus, I focused on the hyperfocal distance 5'8'' feet away. Doing so meant that everything from 2'10'' (half the hyperfocal distance) in front of me to infinity (i.e. the distant horizon) would be in focus. Since the bush in the foreground was about 3 feet in front of me, I knew everything in my composition was in acceptable focus.

The hyperfocal distance is calculated using a mathematical formula that takes into account your focal length, f-stop value, and image sensor size.

This means that any time you change one of these three variable, you will need to recalculate your hyperfocal distance.

While there are many ways to find the hyperfocal distance, the best way I have found to find it is by using the double the distance method.

The double the distance method is the most practical way to approximate the hyperfocal distance in your composition because it is easy to do, quick to implement, and requires no additional tools like calculators or charts.

To use this method:

  1. Locate the closest object in your composition that you want to be sharp.
  2. Estimate how far that object is from your camera, and then double that distance.
  3. Focus at this doubled distance.

You can find a more detailed step by step guide on how to use the double the distance method here.

Hyperfocal distance can be a confusing topic, so highly recommend that you check out my Hyperfocal Distance Guide as a supplement to this section. In that guide I break this complex subject down in a way that will help you grasp and use it in your own photography.

I also provide step by step instructions how to use the Double the Distance Method, so that you can start using it to improve your photography today.

When to use this method

  • when using a wide angle lens (i.e. lenses with short focal lengths)
  • when you have objects in your scene that are only a few feet away and you want to  get these objects AND your background in focus
  • when you have enough time to accurately estimate approximate the hyperfocal distance
  • if you are more of a technically minded person who wants to reduce their focusing margin of error

Pros:

  • it is the best way to consistently produce photos that are sharp from the foreground to the background
  • it works for most landscape compositions
  • it is repeatable and requires minimal guesswork because it is based on math and not judgement. every scene has a hyperfocal distance that is the single most effective focus point to maximize depth of field

Cons:

  • difficult to use with telephoto lenses. the larger the focal length of your lens, the harder it will be to approximate the hyperfocal distance in your scene.
  • it takes more time to execute than the other methods listed below
  • some photographers believe this method is too technical and complicated when other methods can potentially give you the same results, depending on the scene you are shooting
  • it can take some extra practice for people who are not good at estimating distances

Method 2: Focus 1/3 of the Way Into Your Scene

This is a very popular focusing method among professional photographers because it’s easy to do, quick to implement, and often very reliable in certain shooting scenarios.

Depth of field falls approximately one-third in front of where you focus and two-thirds beyond this point. Therefore, if you focus too near or far into the scene, you are effectively wasting a slice of the depth of field available to you.

For this method, you simply focus on a point that lies 1/3 of the way into your composition.

In other words, you would focus at a point that lies at the bottom third of this line, and at the center of this bottom third line, as shown in figure 2.

Figure 2. A photo I shot at 24mm, f/8 while focusing 1/3 of the way into the frame. I had nothing within a few feet of me in the foreground, so I knew that focusing 1/3 into the frame would get the entire photo sharp.

This method generally works because the hyperfocal distance for many common landscape photography shooting scenarios tents to be about 1/3 of the way into a scene.

Despite how easy and versatile this method is, this method is not an exact science and it doesn’t not always work so well.

Technically, focusing at the hyperfocal distance will allow you to more accurately maximize depth of field on a consistent basis.

However, when used in the right situations, focusing 1/3 into your scene works just as well as the hyperfocal distance method, so it should be a method that you utilize and master.

When to use this method:

  • When you don’t have time to approximate and focus at the hyperfocal distance using the double the distance method.
  • When focusing at the hyperfocal distance isn’t practical. For example, if it is too far away to approximate accurately - this happens when using a telephoto lens where the hyperfocal distance could be hundreds to thousands of feet away.
  • When you are using telephoto lenses in the 70-150mm range with a large f-stop value (f/11 or greater). This method works best when using a telephoto lens and you don’t have an object in your foreground closer than at least a few hundred feet away Note: if you use a lens with a focal length greater than about 150mm, this methods won’t work as well.  This is because the hyperfocal distance gets further and further away as your focal length increases.
  • When you are using a wide angle lens set to a relatively large f-stop value (e.g. f/11 and above) AND you don’t have an object in your foreground closer than 3-4 feet.

Pros:

  • It is easy to learn and use.
  • It is the fastest way to approximate the focus point in your composition that will maximize depth of field for when you need to take a photo quickly.
  • It works for the most common landscape photography compositions (e.g. deep scenes/expansive vistas where the foreground isn’t too close).
  • It is possible to achieve the same front-to-back focus in an image as you would by using the hyperfocal distance method without getting bogged down in the technicalities and more complicated concepts behind hyperfocal distance.

Cons

  • If your foreground is too close to your camera, you might not be able to get your foreground in focus.
  • It is an estimate and not an exact science, meaning your results might not be consistent.
  • It often works better when using telephoto lenses with focal lengths in the range of about 70mm-150mm, not telephoto lenses with longer focal lengths.
  • When shooting with a wide angle lens, it only works best when there is no foreground closer than a few feet, which limits how you can compose your photo if you want to get your entire foreground in focus.
  • Tt may require more trial and error (e.g. moving your focus point closer or further into your scene if you notice your image isn’t fully in focus).

Method 4: Focus at Infinity

The term “infinity,” when used in photography, can be as somewhat confusing term.

How do you focus at a finite point that an infinite distance away?

Infinity focus has to do with optics and the way light forms an image at the focal point of a lens.

When you focus at infinity, everything beyond the hyperfocal distance will be in focus, no matter how far away the scene extends.

For example, let’s say you focus at infinity as you are shooting a scene that has very far mountains. You notice that everything in your composition beyond about 4 feet is in focus. This means that your hyperfocal distance is about 4 feet away, and your depth of field extends from 4 feet to the infinite distance.

If this concept doesn’t make make much sense to you yet, the good news is that you don’t have to understand it in order to use it as a photographer.

What infinity conceptually means is to focus on something that is very far away.

If everything in your scene is far away enough, then everything will be in focus.

In other words, if everything in your scene is further than the hyperfocal distance, then when you focus at infinity, everything will be in focus.

For example, let’s say you are shooting the mountain shown below in figure 3 with a 300mm lens set to f/11.

You can probably guess that the mountain will be in focus if you focus at infinity because the mountain is well beyond the hyperfocal distance (which is about 100s of feet away for this focal length and aperture).

When to use this method:

  • When everything is your scene if very far away (i.e. further than the hyperfocal distance).
  • When you have a very distant subject that you want to be sharp, and you don’t care if the foreground is out of focus.

Pros:

  • This method is very simple and doesn’t require much thought.
  • It works very well if your entire composition is far away.

Cons:

  • If you misjudge how far away the closest object to you is. if it is closer than the hyperfocal distance, it will be out of focus.
  • Infinity focus is a concept that can be difficult to fully wrap your head around.

Method 5: Use Focus Stacking

All the focusing methods listed up to this point should allow you to achieve front-to-back sharpness in your photos given that you know how properly choose the right camera settings to maximize depth of field.

However, there are a few outlying situations in which you can’t get enough depth of field to get your entire composition in focus, even when you are using optimal camera setting and focusing at the most optimal point.

In these situations, you may need to use focus stacking, which is a technique you can use to extend the depth of field in an image by taking multiple images at different focus points and then blending them together in Photoshop.

If you are interested in learning more about his method and how to use it, I encourage you to check out my focus stacking guide, which breaks this topic and will teach you how to focus stack step-by-step.

I highly recommend that you understand the fundamentals of focusing, depth of field, and post processing before attempting focus stacking.

Focus stacking is actually not very difficult, but it is definitely a bit more complex than any other focusing technique listed above.

When to use focus stacking:

  • When you can’t get the foreground and the background in sharp focus, even when you are focusing at the hyperfocal distance and using a larger aperture (e.g. f/11). This often happens when you have objects in the foreground that are very close to you (e.g. within a few feet).
  • When you want the sharpest image possible, even sharper than “acceptably” sharp.
  • When you don’t mind doing more work and spending more time post-processing.

Pros

  • You can get incredibly sharp photos, even sharper than you can achieve using any other method listed above, because it allows you to shoot at your sharpest aperture and combine the sharpest regions of several photos.
  • You have more flexibility with how you compose your photos (e.g. you can get very close to an object in the foreground for creative effect).

Cons

  • It takes more work and technical skill than any other focusing method.
  • You can achieve similar results with less work by using the methods above.
  • Some might argue that a photo stacked photo is “over processed."

Final Thoughts

Don’t worry if this seems like a lot of information to understand just to know where to focus.

Practice each one of these methods as much as possible and see what works best for you.

The more you practice, the less you will have to think about where to focus.

You will also likely choose one a couple of methods that work best for you, so stick with those rather than trying do do what works better for someone else.

Not everything presented here will be useful for you, so take what works and leave the rest.

Personally, I probably use the “focus at 1/3” method the most, followed by the double the distance method.

Once you understand where to focus to maximize depth of field, check out the second part of my Focusing Technique series, where you will learn how to focus to maximize sharpness.

Method 3: Focus 1/2 of the Way Into Your Scene

As I mentioned in the previous section, assuming all other settings remain constant:

as the focal length of a lens increases, the hyperfocal distance will get longer.

In other words, the hyperfocal distance will get further and further away from your camera and deeper into your scene as focal length increases.

For example, the hyperfocal distance for one of my telephoto zoom lenses

This will make the hyperfocal distance appear to move higher into your composition; closer to the half way into the frame rather than the bottom 1/3 of the frame.

For this reason, when shooting with long telephoto lenses, you might find more success getting your entire scene sharp when you set your focus point in the center of your frame, which is 1/2 way up the vertical axis of your composition as shown below in figure 3.

Figure 3. A photo I shot at 300mm, f/11 while focusing 1/2 way into the frame. The peak shown in this image was at least a mile away and there is nothing in the foreground, so I knew that focusing in the center would probably produce a completely sharp image.

When to use this method:

  • When you are shooting with a long telephoto lens (focal length of at least about 150mm, but you should test your equipment to be sure) AND you don’t have anything in your foreground closer than a few hundred feet away, or no foreground at all.
  • This technique is NOT recommended when shooting with wide angle lenses or when you have foreground too close to your camera as this will likely result in your foreground being out of focus.

Pros:

  • It is easy to learn and fast to execute in the field without much thought.
  • It is the fastest way to approximate the focus point in your composition that will maximize depth of field for when you need to take a photo quickly.
  • You don’t need to worry about calculating hyperfocal distance.

Cons:

  • It typically only works well when shooting with telephoto lenses at least 150mm at higher f-stop values (e.g. f/11 and above). This technique is NOT recommended when shooting with wide angle lenses or when as this will likely result in your foreground being out of focus.