Today I’m writing about how and why I calibrate my lenses to my camera. I hope you’ll find this informative and I really hope it helps you take your photography to the next level!
Have you heard of lens calibration? Neither had I, until I was having so many problems with my focus that I started doing some research. It seemed that no matter what I tried, different focus modes, different apertures, different angles, my focus always seemed soft, or entirely missed. That’s a pretty big bummer when you are trying pretty hard to learn photography and you can’t get a sharp picture. I felt so disillusioned having worked so hard and feeling like I still didn’t get it. What could I have been doing wrong that I hadn’t tried to correct already?
Well, it turns out it wasn’t me at all! That’s where lens calibration comes in. While I can’t say I understand all the mechanics within a DLSR, a lens, and auto-focusing systems, I do understand there a very delicate balance between them all. Everything between those components and systems need to align just right in order to achieve precise focus. Each lens you put on your camera may require small adjustments to make sure camera and lens are working together properly. Some lens/camera combos may require no adjustment at all. The truth is, at least in my experience, that you don’t know until you put the lens on the camera and start snapping away.
Let me walk you through what the calibration process looks like for me. I’ll show you the simple tool I use and my method for achieving sharp focus. A huge factor in learning to do this yourself is the savings, both in time and money. Believe it or not, lens calibration can add up quite a bit since you need to calibrate each lens & camera body separately. For the sake of comparison, I requested lens calibration quotes from some of the big camera manufacturers out there. The first came back at $178 which was pretty high. The second manufacturer came back with and estimated $298, yikes! I found a camera shop within about an hour and a half from me that offers calibration services for about $60/lens+camera however, they were not an authorized repair center by either of the manufacturers I tried… hmmm. That’s a bit of a pickle, not to mention I’d have to ship my camera body (and each lens I want calibrated to it) off to the manufacturer for at least a good week or two when you consider shipping time + service time. It’s just an expensive headache all around.
That’s where this wonderful little device, the spyder lenscal, comes in. While this is not necessarily inexpensive, at about $70, it has saved me so much in the long run. Be sure to check that your camera has a feature for calibration as not all DSLRs do. This is what the lens calibration device looks like at first glance –
Below are the steps I follow each time I calibrate a lens and camera.
First, I setup my camera & lens needing calibration on a level surface across from my lenscal.
I know, I said a level surface and here I am showing you a stack of books! The table is level, that was my starting point and I tried to line up as evenly as I can so that my camera and the lenscal are perpendicular to each other. One very important thing when you are calibrating however, is you want to make sure you are using your central focusing point. When my camera was directly on the table, I had to use a focus point or two above the center. That would not give me an accurate calibration. I stacked a few sturdy books to get to the right height, and things are working out 🙂
You’ll want to be in a well-lit area, your aperture at it’s lowest (1.8 on my 50mm,) and bump up your ISO if you need to in order to get a proper exposure without flash. To the right side of my camera is an open sliding door. I placed my lenscal on the opposite end of the table so the light would land on it.
I start by taking a shot to see how my focus looks. The matrix circled is the area you want to be focusing on with that central focus point I mentioned above. The ruler lines up at 0 with that small square. You want the 0 to be what’s in sharp focus. As you see here, it’s not. The ruler is angled to show you which direction your focus is falling. In this case, my focus is falling in front of my focal point. I would say somewhere between the 3 and 4 below the 0 is what looks most in focus to me.
Since I can see my focus is off, I need to go into my auto focus fine tuning menu to correct it. These are the steps I take on my Nikon D610. Nikon calls this AF Fine-Tune, Canon calls it an AF Micro-adjustment. On this particular camera, I enter the Setup Menu, arrow down to AF Fine-Tune and hit OK. In the AF Fine-Tune menu, I see the setting is off. I click right to turn it on. Next I will arrow down to “Saved Value” as you can see there is nothing there right now. Arrowing right again will take me into the saved value settings where I can modify them. Take a look at the final image, looks a lot like the ruler on the calibration device right!? Since my focus is falling below (or to the front of the 0) I am going to make my adjustment upwards to get closer to the 0. I picked +3 to see how far that got me. You’ll also notice within that last menu that the camera recognized what lens is on it. It will automatically save my calibration profile for the lens and recall it when the lens is put on.
It’s time to take another test shot and see how we are doing. Still not the best. You can see a big improvement, it looks more like the focus is falling between 1 & 2, but we still aren’t at 0.
Time to adjust again. Go back into your AF Adjustment menu and try again. This time I went up to +5.
I saved with OK and took one more test shot. There we have it. My focus is looking good at 0! The small square matrix is also looking the sharpest it’s looked all along. This may take a few tries making adjustments little by little, but it really is simple once you’ve don’t it a couple of times.
You might be wondering why or when these little adjustments are so important. You will really need to make these adjustments if you like shooting at wider apertures (read about aperture here.) Portrait photography is the biggest thing that comes to mind for me. You would also need wide apertures if you are photographing indoors without additional lighting, depending on your artistic preferences etc. At smaller apertures, these differences will become less noticeable to maybe completely unnoticeable. For instance if I’m photographing interiors for a real estate listing, I want everything to be in focus, I would use a narrow aperture and this wouldn’t come into play. Landscape photographers also often shoot at more narrow apertures so it may not affect them so much.
Let’s take a look at some “portraits” as an example below. I don’t have a person with me today, so Anna will have to help me out 😉
This image is right after calibration. I focused on her eye, just like I would a person, and take a look at how sharp her eyes look.
I went back to the uncalibrated settings for this next photo. Remember my focus was falling forward of my focus point on the lens calibration device? I’ve circled a few points that I feel look most in focus. I set my focus on her eye again, just like the picture above.
I don’t know about you, but when I look at an image like this, I feel like my eyes start going a little blurry trying to find where the focus is. Now if you look at the areas I circled, some of them, especially the crown look really in focus. It looks like the crown is sitting back from her eyes, but I said my focus was falling forward. Remember the spots now that look like they are in focus.
When she’s turned to the side, I can see the crown is actually sitting in front of her eyes. Furthermore, the areas I had identified as looking most in focus are all on that same focal plane, slightly in front of where I had focused. I’m using my widest aperture here so remember my focal plane will be really small. Imagine the difference if this had been an actual person. One of these days I’ll try to go through the exercise using a model and I’ll post an update!
Hope this helps resolve some of your focusing issues!
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