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In Landscapes, Hyper Focal Distance Matters

Flat & Shadowy

Harsh & HDR-y

I've been struggling with this sunrise picture for a couple of weeks now. And I'm bummed because the sky was just plain awesome that morning. I've tried a variety of processing, and they've all felt "off". Including what's above ... harsh & HDR-y versus too flat & shadowy. A blend of these two wasn't any better.

And then, to add insult to injury, I noticed my foreground is way out of focus. I've abandoned the notion of saving this shot.

A few days after this outing, I happened to watch a good video on taking dynamic landscapes, hosted by Tim Cooper. In the video, Tim discussed the focal ranges of lenses and how in landscapes, the hyper focal distance is almost always desired. And that brought me back to this sunrise - I wanted to understand more about what went wrong.

Aperture: Focus Points and Focal Distance

In Aperture, View > Show Focus Point (or Option-F) shows your camera's focus point. (Aside: I'm don't know if this feature is supported on all cameras. I know it works with the Nikon D70s and D7000.)

The focal point is on the distant hillside. EXIF is telling me it's ~33 feet, but I know it's farther than that. It's a good 3 minute walk to that area - and I don't walk that slow. I also know I'm about 6 feet from the rock in the foreground. 

Using this information, I turned to the Simple DoF app. I plugged in the f/stop and focal length into the app. First, I specified 33' as the focus distance - what the EXIF data tells me. Look what Simple DoF calculates for what's in focus (A). From about 9 feet onward in the image will be in focus. That foreground rock that's about 6' away ... it's gonna be blurry. And it is. Look at my photo. It's living proof.

Contrast that against using the hyper focal distance for the selected f/stop and focal length (B). At 12', my foreground rock would be in focus. As would everything else in the frame - an infinite depth of field - which is what we generally want in a landscape. (Yes, I know, infinity is a concept, not a distance. I don't make up these terms used in photography, just abide by them. :)

A: Focal range based on my focus point @ 33'

A: Focal range based on my focus point @ 33'

B: Hyper focal range based on my f/stop & zoom selection

B: Hyper focal range based on my f/stop & zoom selection

For future landscape shots, I'll be using Simple DoF to help determine where to dial-in my focus ring. I don't want to miss another great sunrise or sunset due to blurriness in the image.