Increasingly on workshops I am getting the old complaint, ‘My pictures never seem to have front-to-back sharpness!?’, followed by questions regarding that seemingly black art of Hyperfocal focusing. I always remember my Dad telling me to focus 'around a third of the way in'. In theory this is because depth of field extends twice as far behind the point of focus as in front of it.
I have to agree with some of my clients that this is a vague statement at best! How do you judge 'a third of the way in' with any accuracy? There are variables such as the subject distance, focal length of the lens and the aperture that you happen to be using. That said, focusing a third of the way in can work well a lot of the time, and my advice to you would simply be to play around with your focusing, taking note of your focus point, particular aperture setting and checking your image for front-to-back sharpness; over time (hopefully quite quickly), you will find the sweet spot.
The focus point on the above image is 'around a third of the way in', approximately in the middle of the foreground rock, front to back sharpness has been achieved using this method.
Where we can benefit from hyperfocal distance is when we have an object in the immediate foreground for example, and we wish to have both this foreground object sharp along with the background. So what is the hyperfocal distance? Well put simply, it is the precise distance at which depth of field (DOF) is optimised for any given aperture and focal length combination.
Without going into detailed mathematics and staying clear for now of the Circle-of-confusion, let's look at a simple technique for employing hyperfocal distance. Firstly you will need to download a relevant chart for your camera, below is a generic example, but using the following link, you should be able to tailor to your precise needs, scroll down to find the hyperfocal chart calculator.
To put hyperfocal distance into practice, simply check the focal length and aperture you’ve set, find the hyperfocal distance from your chart or app and then manually focus on an object at the distance stated.
Everything from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity should be sharp. Using the Photopills app in the example above I've set my camera (Sony a7R) which is full frame, at f/11 on a 24mm lens, which gives us a hyperfocal distance of 1.72 metres. Some of you may have difficulty in estimating the hyperfocal distance, don't be afraid to get your tape measure out in that case! Some cameras have a depth of field preview button too, which can help you to check for depth of field, refer to your manual. With frequent application of this technique, it won't be long until you gain the knowledge required of where to set your focus point, for a given aperture and focal length.
I have to stress that personally I don't use the hyperfocal technique very often at all, I find that people tend to overthink the process a little too much when they are starting out. It's good to practice from time to time but with experience you will get to know the 'sweet spot', as it were. When making images it's most important to me to evoke the mood of the location, using distracting techniques and utilising tape measures is only going to detract from you fully immersing yourself in the landscape around you! Please bear in mind that this is a very quick guide to hyper focal distance, hopefully it should point you in the right direction.