Thursday, December 21, 2017

Have you ever tried using your camera's auto focus micro adjustments for your lenses?

A couple of months ago I was contacted by a company call Reikan Technology, asking if I would like to try their FoCal software which would assist in fine tuning the microadjustments of my lenses. At that time I had two thoughts going through my head, and they were:

* I have never really used the microadjustments before, so do I need this?
* The software sounds really interesting and if it can painlessly help me fine tune my lenses, I am interested in knowing more.

I have to admit that testing this solution was not too high on my list as I entered the holiday season and am in preparation mode for the upcoming Olympics. But last weekend I had a little free time and decided to give FoCal a try. What I found was quite interesting.

What are micro adjustments?

Let me start by discussing the camera's ability to make micro adjustments to your lenses. Over time, your lens may start to fall out of calibration and your focus may end up being slightly off. I remember having this problem with my Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS II lens at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. My lens was back focusing (which means that it was focusing a little behind my subject) and not tack sharp on the athlete I was trying to capture. Since Canon Professional Services is at every Olympics, I gave them my lens to have them calibrate it (while using one of their loaners in the mean time). But since most of us do not have CPS reps hanging around our homes or studios, we may have to do some of this work ourselves.

Inside most DSLR camera menus, you will find a menu option called "AF Microadjustments" (it si called this on Canon cameras - it may be AF fine-tune on your Nikon camera).  Inside this menu, you can fine tune the focus parameters of each lens that you own. If you have a zoom lens, you can make adjustments to the wide end and the telephoto end of the lens. The goal is to make these micro adjustments so that your lens is giving you the absolute sharpest images you can get.

Do I need to use this software to make micro adjustments to my lens?

Before I talk about the FoCal software, let me first tell you that you can make micro adjustments to your lenses manually. The cheapest and easiest way is to lay a ruler out on your table, put your camera and lens on a tripod, and then, when shooting down the length of the ruler, focus on a specific mark (ie. the 2 inch marker). You take a photo, zoom in on it, and look to make sure that your focal point is tack sharp and not the area directly in front or behind your spot.

How does the FoCal software work and is it better than the manual method? 

First, I installed the software on my desktop Macintosh. After installing the software and reading the instructions, I went to their web site, downloaded their target and printed it on my Canon Pro-1000 printer. Like they recommended, I printed the target on matte paper so that glare would not be an issue. I then set up the software and prepared to connect the camera to the computer via a USB 3.0 cable. It was at this point that I realized that it would be easier to install the software on my Macbook Pro so that I could move the computer around with the camera as I performed the tests. I then installed the same software on my laptop and prepared for the tests. I should mention that the software runs on both Macintosh and Windows machines, and does work with both Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras.

One of the things that FoCal does really well, is give guidance for doing a proper lens test. The software will evaluate the distance between the camera and target, as well as determine if there is enough light to perform a lens calibration with good results. When I first started testing the software, it was in the evening and there was not enough light on the printed target, so I waited until the next morning to give it a proper try.

I started with my Canon 5D Mark IV body and the Canon 24-70mm 2.8 II lens. For the first test, I set the lens to it's widest setting (24mm). With the camera and lens mounted solidly on my Gitzo Mountaineer tripod, and aimed at the center of the target I had printed, I then connected the camera to my laptop using a USB 3.0 cable. The software was smart enough to tell me that the target was the incorrect distance from the camera, so I moved it closer. Then the testing began.

The software took control of the camera and changed many of the settings for the tests. (Note: I was relieved to see that my settings were saved and sent back to the camera at the end of the tests.) It was fun to watch the software firing the camera over and over. Then I would get a dialog box on my Mac as well as a voice prompt telling me how to adjust the microadjustments on the camera.

This process repeated itself 4 or 5 times before I was given the recommended microadjustment for the wide focal range of this lens. I then repeated the process at the telephoto end of the lens (70mm).

When both tests were done, I then moved on to testing my Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS II lens, Canon 100-400mm II lens and Canon 16-35mm III lens. And I did all these tests on my Canon 1D X Mark II and Canon 5D Mark IV cameras.

After testing my Canon 1D X Mark II with the 70-200 2.8mm IS II lens (since this is my most used combination), I decided to take some photos of the target with the microadjustment set to 0 (like it has been forever) and then set to -12 like FoCal suggested.

I then downloaded the images and compared the two photos on my computer to see if the microadjustments helped. If you click on the image below, you will be able to see the larger image and see the difference between the 0 adjustment (left) and the -12 adjustment (right).

You can click on the image to get a full resolution view

Although the differences are subtle, there is definitely a sharper image on the right. And being a picky photographer who wants everything as sharp as possible, this is a good thing.

Does this mean that I don't need to have my camera manufacturer adjust my lenses?

After going through this exhaustive process, I wondered if this would negate the need to have Canon adjust my lenses (which I usually do whenever I am at an event where CPS is present, like the Olympics or when I speak at the Canon facility in Southern California). After talking to some friends of mine who are pretty technical, I have come to a conclusion. This test will definitely help me get sharp images, but it only tests the far ends of the focal length of the lens. In other words, for a lens like my 70-200mm, I am testing the results at 70mm and at 200mm, but everything in between. Canon is able to make physical adjustments in the lens to get me the very best calibration possible. So...for those times when I have may of my lenses at a CPS event, that will still be my preferred method.  But for all those times in between, I think that FoCal will be used to give me peace of mind, knowing that my lenses are giving what I paid for, super sharp images.

Are there any downsides to using the FoCal software?

As I mentioned earlier, I tested many different lenses with the software and then repeated all of them on each camera body. Because most of lenses are zoom lenses, I had to test each of them at their wide and telephoto focal lengths. This took a couple of hours for me to complete. So, it is not a trivial process.

Is the software worth $139?

Honestly, in a world where us photographers are spending a lot of money on cameras, lenses, lighting accessories and so much more, I think that this price is very reasonable for the results I got. I paid a lot of money for these cameras and lenses and did so for a reason -  I want the best images I can get! Using programs like FoCal will give me a little more confidence that my cameras and lenses are working at their optimum performance.

You can purchase the software from B&H photo here. There are different versions of the FoCal software, but I recommend the PRO version since it lets you calibrate lenses beyond 400mm, run extra tests and run and save calibration reports.  And I should mention, as is always the case, I have not been paid by the company to write this blog.

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Anonymous said...

A typo? Didn't know there was a 24-70 f/2.8 IS lens.

Unknown said...

Hi Jeff, great article. I have use Focal for a number of years for all my lens/camera combinations. I think it helps you get the most out of your equipment. I haven't noticed my sharpness changing but maybe I will test my 70-200 again to see if it has. said...

This is a fantastic website and I cannot recommend you guys enough Full of useful resource and great layout very easy on the eyes. Please do keep up this great work.

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Randy Raszler said...

Since these micro adjustments are saved to your camera, I assume you will need to remove them or recalibrate each time your lenses are adjusted by CPS. For most of us, this isn't very often, it ever. Jeff, it sounds like you have CPS adjust your lenses frequently, so be sure you don't have a setting saved to your camera that negates the work CPS does.

Unknown said...

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