One of the key aspects of a photograph is whether or not it is in focus. Modern cameras typically include autofocus and sophisticated cameras such as the Canon 5D s-r or Mark III will have a huge variety of options and choices to assure you get the focus you want. They will offer a wide variety of focus points and calculation methods…they have servo settings that can track an object (such as a bird or basketball player) and maintain focus as you pan and track the subject. They let you choose a particular point in the photo to set your focus, or you can let the built in algorithms figure out the best option letting it focus more automatically for you. I say that to set the stage and make it clear that this is a big topic. The real topic here is the use of hyperfocal distance since this will help you take photos where the landscape is in focus over a broad area.
There is a very cool website you might want to visit: http://www.outsight.com/hyperfocal.html This site offers a calculator that will tell you the hyperfocal distance. The hyperfocal distance is the distance you focus a lens that will give the greatest amount of area all in focus. This is different for each lens and for each aperture (f stop). The calculator will tell you exactly the distance to focus on in your photo for the maximum area in sharp focus.
For example, if you use a 50 mm lens, enter 50 in the lens size on the calculator. Then enter the aperture (shoot in aperture priority or manual to use this technique) such as F14. That will tell you where to focus the lens: in this example it will tell you to focus at 19.5′ in order to have the shot in focus from 9.75′ to infinity. For a large landscape, for everything to be in focus from roughly 10′ from you to infinity, that will look nice and sharp so long as your main subject is not closer than 10′ from the lens.
Of course, you may know that wide angle lenses have greater depth of field, so if you shoot with a 24 mm lens at f14 your hyperfocal distance is 4.5′. If you focus your camera (manually) on something 4.5′ from the lens, everything will be in focus in this instance from 2.25′ to infinity. Now we’re talking!
So if you calculate the main lenses you use for shooting landscapes and shoot with manual focus, you can have maximal depth of field. Most lenses are sharpest in the mid range of f stops, which is why I only calculated for f14. F22 will give a smaller aperture and larger depth of field, but it is not as crisp as a lens set at F11 or F8. F14 gives more depth of field without pushing to the limits. I just have to know the hyperfocal distance for my main landscape lenses (14 mm, 24 mm, 50 mm). Prime lenses are the easiest for this method if you want to use it with precision. Once you know the principal and the basic distances that come from the calculator, you will know where to focus your lens regardless of how zoomed in you may be. Any you’ll know that if you focus on the right spot, not only that spot can be in focus but also some things closer to the camera than that spot as well as everything out to infinity.
If this is not clear enough for you after reading it a couple of times and trying out the calculator, you might check out the youtube feed for Adorama. They have a video on the use of hyperfocal distance. You can also read my blog on focus stacking if you want yet another way to assure a massive depth of field in a photograph, or the blog on the tilt function of the tilt-shift lens. Photographers have to have many tricks for staying in focus…it is the name of the game to control exactly what and how much of a scene you want to show in sharp focus.