Okay, let’s review.
Would you really allow your camera to choose the focus point for this composition? (Hint: No.) Like exposure, focus is not an absolute that can be determined by sterile, binary analysis; rather, focus is a creative choice that profoundly affects the result. That’s because creating the illusion of depth in two-dimensional image means composing elements at different distances throughout the frame.
Unfortunately, adding depth introduces another layer of complication: Where to place the focus point? Photographers afraid to trust their judgement (or their eyes), mistakenly assume their camera knows better. But resorting to autofocus leads to images that are sharp in the wrong place, or flat, two-dimensional compositional decisions.
Because every image has only one perfectly sharp plane of focus, finding the right point and depth of field is essential. Of the many techniques photographers apply to ensure proper focus, Hyperfocal focusing is the most reliable. Hyperfocal focusing determines the combination of focal length, f-stop, and focus point to ensure the ideal location and depth of the frame’s zone of “acceptable” sharpness. Because finding the precise hyperfocal point requires plugging variables into a chart or (my preference) iPhone app, many photographers mistakenly assume it’s not worth the effort. But like most things that start out difficult, just doing it regularly will quickly reveal the underlying simplicity–it wasn’t long before chart- and app-free, seat-of-the-pants hyperfocal focusing became second nature.
On most fall mornings, the photographers at North Lake (on Bishop Creek in the Eastern Sierra) outnumber the mosquitos, but evenings can be relatively peaceful. For this early October sunset, I immediately recognized the possibility of something special in the sky. And without the swarm of photographers I was accustomed to, I was free to roam the lakeshore in search of a composition that gave me the depth I wanted. I set up in front of this granite archipelago, dropping low and composing vertical and wide to allow the rocks to lead the eye to the spectacular aspen and peaks across the lake.
My general rule in scenes that require more depth of field than is possible, I favor the foreground and tolerate slight background softness. But left entirely to the camera, the foreground rocks in North Lake would have been soft. Instead, at 23mm and f11, manually focusing toward the back of the right-most rock gave me tack-sharp rocks while retaining acceptable background sharpness. A tripod allowed me to refine and lock-in my composition and focus point well in advance of the sunset, enabling me to sit back and simply appreciate the splendor. When the color arrived, all I needed to do was meter and click.