Check out our Lens Calibration 101 guide on why and how to adjust your lenses!
There are a lot of different reasons your images might not be as sharp as you want. Dirty equipment, the wrong camera settings or even your shooting stance can affect the sharpness of your images. But if you find that you are consistently missing focus even after correcting everything else, your lens might need adjusted. In Lens Calibration 1010, we’ll talk about why we get soft images, how to determine if lens calibration can help, and how to get your lenses back on track with calibration!
Why are your images soft?
There are a lot of different reasons you might have blurry, or soft images. It’s easy to blame your equipment and decide your lenses need calibrated. But most of the time, our images are soft because of user error.
- Blurry images often result from:
- Dirty lenses or camera sensors
- Shutter speeds too slow to stop motion
- Shutter speeds to slow to prevent camera shake
- Using the wrong focal point for your depth of field
- Using the right aperture for your desired depth of field
- Not letting the camera achieve focus before firing the shutter
- Not using the correct vibration reduction or image stabilization settings
- Holding your camera incorrectly or standing incorrectly
- Poor quality equipment
- Lens needs calibration
As you can see, there are a lot of culprits when it comes to blurry images and missed focus. New photographers often jump straight to lens calibration. They spend the time or money to calibrate their lenses only to have the same issues with focus a week later.
How do you know if your lens needs calibrating?
So how can you tell if your lens needs calibrating? Here are some telltale signs that lens calibration might be in order!
You recently got a new lens and it’s not as sharp as you’d like.
Lenses aren’t always perfectly sharp coming from the manufacturer. The manufacturers aren’t aiming for perfection when it comes to lens sharpness, they are aiming that the lenses are within an acceptable range of sharpness. You might need to calibrate your lens to fine-tune its focus to your liking.
Lens calibration is also dependent on your camera. If you got a new camera, you’ll want to calibrate your lenses to your new camera body as well.
You recently dropped your lens or you’ve been treating it roughly for a while and now focus seems off.
Elements in your lens can shift over time, affecting focus. Calibrating your lens tells your camera how to fix those small shifts. If you’ve ever sighted in a scope on a firearm, it’s the same concept.
You find you are consistently missing focus in the same way on every image.
Pull up a few images where you felt your focus was off and examine them. How is the focus off? Is your focus consistently falling in front or behind your focal point? If so, you should calibrate your lens.
If you are missing focus but not consistently in the same way, that’s not a lens calibration issue. That’s your technique. For example, in one photo, there’s some blur to the side of your subject (probably motion blur from shutter speed that is too slow). In another photo, your dog’s eyes are sharp but his nose is out of focus (softness from too wide of an aperture for your desired depth of field). Lens calibration won’t fix those issues.
The good news is we’ve got some awesome tutorials to help you improve your photography techniques and fix your blurry images. Here are a few you might want to check out.
- Everything You Need to Know About Getting Sharp Images
- 4 Main Reasons You Get Blurry Photos (And how to fix them!)
- How to Prevent Blurry Photos
How does lens calibration work?
Okay, you’ve determined you need to calibrate your lenses. So how does it work?
Your camera has a setting which allows you to tweak the focus of a lens. You aren’t actually changing anything in the lens. Instead, you’re fine-tuning the communication between the camera and the lens.
Your focus can shift forward of your focused area or behind your focused area. When you calibrate your lens, you adjust the camera so the actual focus of the lens matches the where the camera focus. It’s kind of like exposure compensation if you’re familiar with that. Your telling the camera “Focus where you normally would, but come forward 5 increments to match the lens.”
Those adjustments are specific to each lens and camera. So calibrating one lens doesn’t fix the focusing issues of another lens. And calibrating a lens to one camera body doesn’t ensure perfect focus with that lens and a second camera body.
How much does it cost to calibrate your lens?
You can send your lenses out to be professionally calibrated. It costs anywhere from about $25 to $75 a lens depending on your area and how many lenses you want to be calibrated. If you don’t have a local camera store, you’ll also need to calculate your mileage or shipping into those costs.
If you want to calibrate your lens at home, it’s about $10 for a lens calibration tool, plus your time and effort.
How to calibrate your lens yourself
Even if you don’t have focusing issues, you might benefit from a lens calibration session! It will allow you to fine-tune your focus and get the most out of your lens and camera!
The bad news is not every camera body will allow you to calibrate your lenses yourself. Many entry-level cameras don’t allow you to fine-tine your lenses. And some lenses need an additional piece of equipment to calibrate it, like the Sigma series which requires a tuning dock.
Check your manual to see if your camera allows lens calibration. Here’s what the different camera manufacturer’s call it:
- Canon – AF Microadjustment
- Nikon – AF Fine Tune
- Olympus – AF Focus Adjust
- Pentax – AF Adjustment
- Sony – AF Micro Adjustment
Step 1 – Choose a Lens calibration tool
There are several different calibration tools available. Here are a few options to get you started, but really any of them will work. The good news is even the inexpensive ones work really well, so don’t feel like you need to spend $100 to get this done.
- DSLRKit Lens Focus Calibration Tool (2 pack). This is the one I use. I think I spent $7 for 2.
- J Christina Photography Tool Focus Pyramid Autofocus Lens Calibration tool
- Datacolor SpyderLenCal Autofocus Calibration Aid
You can also download a focus chart online to use, or make a focus tool using a ruler. I opted to use a pre-made tool.
Step 2 – Gather your equipment
To calibrate your lens, you’ll need a calibration tool, a tripod (or another way to keep your camera steady and level) and your camera body and lens. You’ll also need a computer and monitor to review the images on to really see where your focus is falling. If you can tether your camera and computer, it definitely speeds up the process! A remote also works really well to ensure you aren’t jiggling the camera when you fire the shutter.
Step 3 – The process
- Put your calibration tool on a flat surface in good light. You can do this outside if there’s no wind to blow your tool around! If you have one of the more sophisticated tools, you can mount it to a light stand.
- Mount your camera to your tripod and align the camera with the tool. Make sure your camera is level from side to side and front to back. Use the widest aperture you can. Also, make sure your lens is far enough away from the tool to account for your minimum focusing distance.
- Take your initial shot focusing on the main focal point on the calibration tool. Then review that image on your computer. Let’s call this your benchmark image.
- Evaluate the image for focus. Is your focus falling forward of your focus point? Behind your focus point?
- Use your camera’s adjustment settings to fine-tune your focus. The exact menu settings and location vary by camera, so consult your manual on how to fine-tune or make micro-focus adjustments.
- Once you have your initial adjustment made, take another picture and evaluate your focus. Repeat this process until you have the focus exactly where you want it.
Let’s see an example
Below is my benchmark image that I took with my Nikon D500 and my 100 mm Tokina f/2.8 lens. I hadn’t noticed any sharpness issues with the lens, but was calibrating all my lenses as part of writing this tutorial.
As you can see, my focus is off just a tiny by. The 0 isn’t the sharpest part of the image, it’s more like down around the -1. That means my camera is forward focusing just a tiny bit. One of the other clue to look for is the color of your grid and numbers. Areas in focus will be neutral colored. Here, you can see that as I move away from the focal point of the camera, the numbers start to get green or magenta. You can use the color picker in Lightroom to help you find the sharpest part of your image, too!
There, that’s better. I used the fine-tune adjustment tool on my computer to adjust this lens’ focus by -1. Now my focus is falling where it should!
You don’t have to calibrate all of your lenses at once. But I figure if I have everything all set up, I might as well go ahead and calibrate all my lenses to both of my camera bodies. For a single lens, it takes about 10 minutes if I’m not shooting tethered and the lens needs some adjustment.
See lens calibration in action
I think that the easiest way to learn how to calibrate your lens is to see it in action. Below is the video I used to learn how to calibrate my lens (the Nikon version). I’ll also include a link to a few other videos using different brands of cameras.
What about zoom lenses? What focal length should I calibrate at?
Zoom lenses get a little tricky because you have multiple focal lengths. Most cameras only support a single adjustment setting for the entire lens. You might find that your ideal focus varies depending on whether the lens is zoomed in or zoomed out.
Frustrating, yes. But your lens will still benefit from calibration. I calibrate my zoom lenses at the longest focal length because that’s where I’ll notice the discrepancies in focus the most.
Some new camera bodies allow two-point adjustments. If your body is equipped with that setting, you’ll want to calibrate zoom lenses at the shortest and longest focal lengths.
How often should I calibrate my lenses?
There’s no right answer on how often you should perform lens calibration. I know some seriously fastidious folks who calibrate once or twice a month. Others only calibrate if they start to notice a problem. I probably fall somewhere in the middle. I usually calibrate twice a year, once at the end of the summer and once around February, right before my busy seasons start. Otherwise, I don’t calibrate unless I notice a problem.
Lens calibration isn’t perfect
You won’t get your focus absolutely perfect no matter what you do. There are simply too many variables and the camera’s focus fine-tuning tools can’t be that specific. For instance, you might find your focus varies slightly depending on what aperture you use or how far your camera is from the calibration tool. Don’t try to account for all those variances because you can’t. You’ll drive yourself absolutely crackers even trying.
But don’t just toss in the towel, either. Calibrating your lens as a single focal length and aperture will likely improve the focusing issues you are having and allow you to improve your sharpness.
And remember that lenses will slip or lose focus over time for lots of different reasons. Lens calibration is not a fix-it-and-forget it solution. You’ll need to calibrate regularly to keep your lens and camera working well together!
What happens if calibrating your lenses doesn’t help
Occasionally, even calibrating your lenses doesn’t solve focusing issues. In that case, there might be something going on with your camera or lens.
If you are noticing focusing issues with a single lens, get your lens looked at. If you seem to be having focusing issues with multiple lenses, it’s probably your camera. In that case, make an appointment with your local camera store or send your camera in for repair.
Lens calibration is a necessary evil
Lens calibration is a lot like going to the dentist. It’s not something I particularly like to do, but afterward, I better about things.
I hate calibrating my lenses, not because it’s hard, but because it’s tedious. I’d much rather spend my time doing something fun like editing dinosaur feet onto the legs of a basketball player who didn’t wear shoes to the group session.
But it’s a necessary evil to ensure I get the best results I can out of my gear. After all, we have hundreds if not thousands of dollars wrapped up in our camera and lenses. So why wouldn’t we make sure our gear is performing optimally? Learn how to do lens calibration yourself and you will love the results, if not the process.