Last Chance to Preorder and SAVE $50 on Photographing the Couple Workshop

How To Calibrate Your Lenses | A Simple Fix For Blurry Images

November 6th 2015 11:40 AM

Why Are My Images Blurry?

One of the most popular questions I receive from other photographers is, “Why are my images blurry?” Out of all the questions I get, this one is the most troubling, because 9 out of 10 times, it’s the same reason – missed focus. Once I explain that the focus is off or missed, I ask if they have calibrated their lenses. Almost every time, the answer is surprisingly no. Not only have most not calibrated their lenses, but most simply don’t know how to do so. I’ve learned that most photographers assume that when they buy a lens, whether brand new or used, that the Auto Focus is going to be accurate when using it. What most don’t realize is that is rarely the case, resulting in what most consider to be “blurry” images.

[LEARN: How to Shoot Killer Wedding Details]

Jay_Cassario_focus_pyramid-0001

How To Calibrate Your Lenses

Calibrating your lenses is actually very simple, and it is very important to help you get the most out of that expensive lens! I know that this is something a lot of you already do, and have your own method of doing it, but I know that there are a lot of you out there that have  never calibrated your lenses and don’t know how. The bottom line is, lenses need to be calibrated to each camera so you can get sharp images and accurate focusing. Simply assuming that your lenses and camera, or cameras, are accurate when autofocusing is a huge risk. I would bet that if you’ve never checked, chances are your lenses need to be adjusted.

Jay_Cassario_Lens_Calibration-0001

I don’t have a single lens, whether Canon or Nikon, that didn’t need at least a slight adjustment. That’s right, each and every lens I own has been micro adjusted in-camera to have an accurate and pinpoint autofocus. Right out of the box, on each camera I own was either slightly front or back focusing. Some were off by a good amount and needed drastic adjusting.

Get a Calibrator

Most photographers simply don’t understand how the process works, or think that it’s a risky adjustment that they could screw up. The good new is, it’s a very simple process, and it is something that can be turned on or off. Nothing bad can happen, I promise! You don’t need to send your lens or camera into the local camera shop to be adjusted. You don’t need to buy a special calibrating software or even a fancy and expensive calibrating kit. None of these are needed to simply calibrate your lenses; you don’t even need a ton of time. All that’s needed is about 20 minutes and a $25 focus pyramid. Sure, there are other pricier options, or you could make one with a ruler, but the focus pyramid is what I use, and it gets the job done perfectly.

Jay_Cassario_Lens_Calibration-0003

Lens is front focusing

Set Up Your Camera and Calibrator On Stable Surfaces

To calibrate your lenses, set your camera up on a tripod, or flat surface like a table, and set the focus pyramid on a level surface about 6 feet away. I usually set it up at a distance that I typically shoot from, that way I know it’s accurate at the distance I shoot at the most. Either way, there is only one global setting, so once you make an adjustment and get it focusing on point, it “should” be good at any distance. The take home here is not to stress out about the distance from the pyramid. Make sure that Live View is not on, and only focus using your viewfinder. Live View uses a different autofocus system, and any adjustments you make won’t be noticeable when using Live View. Keep it turned off through the entire process.

[Free Tutorial: 4 Lightroom CC Features You Need to Know]

While looking through the viewfinder, focus on the center line of the focus pyramid, shooting with the lens set at its widest aperture. Hit play and zoom in to see where the focus hits. It can be a little tough at first, but using the numbers above and below the center line, you should be able to see where it focused and where the sharpest lines are. Once you see whether it is front focusing or back focusing, you can go into your camera settings and make the necessary adjustments to make it accurate. The default it zero, so looking at the image above, I started with a +3. I then took another test shot, and it was still slightly off. I then made it +5, and it was accurately focusing on the center line like I wanted it to. So, keep taking test shots until you have the center line perfectly in focus. That’s it. Simple as that, no more blurry images.

Jay_Cassario_Lens_Calibration-0002

+ 5 adjustment making it accurate

Menu Settings For Nikon

For Nikon, it’s under the wrench or setup menu. It’s labeled as AF fine-tune and has a diagram showing you where you are moving the focus point. You want to only change the saved value, and make sure that the fine-tune is turned on. It will remember the changes each time you put that lens on, so you should only have to adjust it once.

Jay_Cassario_Lens_Calibration-0011

Jay_Cassario_Lens_Calibration-0012

Jay_Cassario_Lens_Calibration-0013

Menu Settings For Canon

For Canon cameras, it’s very similar. You make the changes in the Function then Auto Focus settings, and the rest is the same as when done with to a Nikon body. Remember, though, if you have multiple cameras, you are making the adjustment in the camera, not the lens, so you need to calibrate each lens on each camera.

Jay_Cassario_Lens_Calibration-0010

About

Jay Cassario is a fulltime photographer from South Jersey, and owner of the wedding, engagement, and portrait photography studio Twisted Oaks.

WEBSITE: Jay Cassario
Personal Facebook: Jay Cassario
Business Facebook: Twisted Oaks Studio
Google Plus: Jay’s Google +
Twitter: @JayCassario

Comments [41]

Please or register to post a comment.

  1. Michael Howley

    I’m delighted that this subject has arisen. Until 2004 I shot film and my main camera was a Bronica SQAi where everything was manual. Since then I have shot Nikon DSLRs, which I find to be brilliant but, I have never taken to auto focus.

    I use two Nikkor zooms (24-70 and 70-200) and, most of the time they are great except, occasionally, when some shots slip out of focus slightly. I used to be convinced it was me and I hankered back to split image prisms and manual focus.

    I shoot mainly weddings and portraits and, after 35 years + as a pro, I do understand that people are variables and they occasionally sway backwards and forwards. However, people haven’t taken up swaying since 2004, it’s an activity that some people mastered decades ago.

    I rarely shoot wide open (f2.8) for this very reason plus the fact that, in comparison to most of the world, the light in the UK is rarely visible!

    I was considering having my lenses professionally calibrated but, from reading this, it would seem that my cameras (full frame Nikons) need sorting every time I change a lens or even focal length.

    I now know that I should inform my subjects that I am trialling a super variable soft focus lens when shooting their images and that they are entering a super bagatelle game which will, occasionally, result in wonderfully artistic images.

    | |
  2. Puja Reddy

    Hey Michele and Sieyon – Maybe, this video will help you get the answers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnywVqecJNI&t=1s

    | |
  3. Michele Saucier

    What if your camera doesn’t have the AF fine tune option? Does that mean I have to send it in?

    | |
  4. sieyon lee tung

    hi … if you calibrate for one lens … would that setting carry over to other lens? potentially messing up other lens focus?

    | |
  5. Lee Yang

    Hi. I had done this many times on my lenses. And what I found the most problematic are the zoom lenses. For example, with the newest Canon 70-200, I would adjust for the 70mm, then the 200mm. When I come back to test the 70mm, it is completely off. Fixing the 70mm again, now the 200mm is off. What are your thoughts on this? It is frustrating as heck. Also, do you know if the focal distance have any relationship to the adjustments? It would focus fine at 100mm at 10′. But focusing at 100′, it’s completely off. Would we have to adjust it everytime we focus on different distances? …

    | |
  6. Luke Morreau

    Hi Jay. If i focus far left my image is crisp. If i focus far right my image is out say +5. Is there any logical reason for this?

    | |
  7. David Bruno

    Hi, Jay – could you say something about the initial setup? I have read somewhere else that the plane of the camera has to be aligned with the plane of the pyramid. I don’t think doing this by eye would be good enough, so what is your procedure or method?

    | |
  8. Sean Tatalovich

    Just bought it good review.

    | |
  9. Julius trepkevicius

    nice review Jay.

    | |
  10. Irene Lingenfelter

    well since i didn’t realize that this could be a huge issue, after reading the thread it does seem that there is a lot to consider. However, the article did shed some light on the fact that this is a possibility. I think I will just do some of my own tests to see if it is landing where i think it should. Thank you for the beginners insight . :)

    | |
    • Stephen Glass

      It’ll drive you nuts trying to dope it out when you do have a problem so you’re wise to be proactive. Tripod and some sort of very sharply printed material. The aforementioned wedge thing is good. certainly convenient. But also just a bent index card with some marks on it taped to the top of an apple box.
      also work on the obvious… find out which focus sensor points are cross type and how far to the edge do they go. It’s not good to focus and recompose but in some conditions you’ll get better results if you stay with a cross type sensor as close as you can get, then recompose.

      | |
  11. Stephen Glass

    FoCal is what the software is called! http://www.reikan.co.uk/focalweb/
    The version I used reacted with each camera differently in terms of how automated the process could be. So it looks like it is available in “hands free” mode now for most camera models issued in the last year or two. So you can spend up to $180. It is informative. I don’t recommend it but if you look into it just how the software works you’ll see that calibrating af is not just a target at one distance with your cursor set to the center.
    also there’s a number of reasons why someone’s focus might be off. I still see people using center cursor point then recomposing. Not a big deal if you’re shooting f/9, huge deal if you’re shooting wide open. Not as much a deal if your shooting wide open full length, or wide open headshot with the same lens. Because again, it does matter how close you are.
    So my point is this. Will a $25 target fix your focus issues? It depends what your focus issues are.

    | |
  12. Stephen Glass

    Jay, this is a good intro article. It’s overly simplistic. It does matter how close you are to the target. I’m glad you’re getting good results that’s what counts. It’s a different game with primes I agree. I think the thing to keep in mind is that auto focus is not 100%. It varies for different reasons under different circumstances. There are many issues that effect auto focus and I just think the article doesn’t really address those. Like everything in photography “it depends”.
    Even now when shooting my 70-200 on my D750 I get better results zoomed towards the telephoto end then the 70mm end. So what do I calibrate for? I calibrate for what I use the most because that’s the best I can do. But when I calibrate it isn’t going to fix all the issues because af is far from perfect. It goes without saying that this does not apply to a prime because they don’t zoom. So of course it won’t be an issue. Yet still there are more issues with primes and you should calibrate them at the distance you use them the most.

    The other issue to keep in mind is how far can any given lens resolve and what your megapixel count is. If you’re using a Nikon 70-200mm at 200mm it’s not going to resolve down to 36 mp on a D810. It will always appear a tad soft and be better or worse with the normal variations in auto focus.
    Look around on the DXO site.
    OH…. and here’s the other thing the article doesn’t mention. IT MATTERS WHAT FOCUS POINT YOU ARE USING! Some cameras have inherent issues with certain parts of the AF sensor. And this is my whole point. It’s a very complex issue. I think you should just be aware that if someone is trying to dope out AF issues that using a target, and I think the $25 target is as good as the Lens Align because I have them both, is just a start. You can calibrate it and it may or may not help out in the field because it’s an incredibly freakin’ complex issue. I bought some software program and it turns out it worked well. It was around $200. It basically automated af calibration. But it would rack the focus after each take, it used a special target, it averaged the math for you… but my point is when the thing was done it would actually show you what portion of your sensor would be problematic and what portions would be the most accurate. I got pissed and asked for my money back, which they did, because I thought it was bogus. Well it turned out it was the D800 being a sucky camera that was the issue. I can’t remember the name of the program.

    So my bottom line is just that it’s SO much more complex than you’re making it. This article just barely scratches the surface of having af issues and calibrating due to those af issues. So that’s all I’m trying to say.

    | |
  13. Stephen Glass

    I went through focus issues with my D800. For the first year I only used it in the studio and didn’t really have problems. Then I started to take it on editorial assignments where it simply didn’t focus well. The end of that story is that the D800 did not have a good focus system for low light. It took numerous calls to Nikon tech support to hear a tech finally say that. What is amazing is that the techs couldn’t even trouble shoot it over the phone well. What amazed me is how little is known about AF by anyone. There’s actually a separate sensor responsible for it.
    However during the troubleshooting on my own I learned a good deal about this topic. I bought various types of software and read numerous articles on it. It turns out that the AF on any lens but especially a telephoto zoom lens performs differently at different focal lengths. So if you fine tune your 70-200mm at 100 it may or may not focus well zoomed all the way out to 200mm.
    The other surprising issue, and this via DXO Labs, is that most telephoto lenses do not resolve down to 36 MP. I believe the only one that does is the newest Canon 70-200. Most test out to around the 24 MP range. The resolution of any lens depends on the focal length and aperture settings.
    Anyway…. I could go on…. But the bottom line is that this article is overly simplistic in my opinion. Buying a $25 cardboard target and dutifully calibrating each lens isn’t going to help unless you do it with a broader knowledge base. I’m a portrait photographer. So I’m dealing in the 105mm to 200mm range much of the time. You don’t notice the issues when you’re using a 24-70mm. Or a wider angle.
    Unfortunately the only fix for my D800 was to sell it! It’s an inferior camera in low light.

    | |
    • Jay Cassario

      Stephen, when you are shooting with primes, especially wide open, its very noticeable with wide angle lenses. This article was written to help those get a general understanding of something that most are unaware of, and as you can read in the comments, it is enough to make a huge difference. This is all you need to calibrate most lenses, and calibrate them accurately. I am 100% confident in my lens calibration using this method.

      | |
  14. Barry Cunningham

    Does the Focus Pyramid have any advantages over the DSLRKIT Lens Focus Calibration Tool Alignment Ruler Folding Card, which is less than 1/4 the price and has slightly better reviews on Amazon?

    | |
  15. Dave Fowler

    Just took a look at the new T6 body from Canon, doesn’t seem to allow us to set this, or have I missed something?
    I have heard about finding where your lens is sharpest at a particular F setting, is this similar? So i’ll take a group of pictures focused on a spot a set distance and compare the various F settings to see with image was sharpest at the focal point (not the whole image).

    | |
  16. David Weikel

    Great article and great comments! This really got me to thinking about my lenses. I have Nikon 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 and there have been times the images just didn’t look sharp and I wondered if I had a bad lens. This may be the answer to my conundrum! Thanks everyone!

    | |
  17. Jay Cassario

    I did a little extra research and found that some newer camera bodies not only support auto-focus lens calibration but also allow for two separate settings per lens. This gives one the ability to set a zoom lens for example a (70-200), for 70mm and then also at 200mm and the camera will make the adjustment automatically base on zoom. If this advanced feature is not available then as you indicated, setting at your most used mm (zoom) will provide the best results.

    | |
  18. Greg Thomas

    What about mirrorless cameras like the Sony A7ii? How do you fine tune the focus for them?

    | |
    • Dave Haynie

      This is only an issue for DSLRs. In a DSLR, the PDAF sensor is a separate sensor, not part of the image sensor. The lens is calibrated to match PDAF and image sensor focus, but it’s not always perfect.

      In a mirrorless, all focus sensors, whether CDAF or OSPDAF, are on-sensor. So you’re always focusing at the exactly sensor plane. Most of these use hybrid AF, where the OSPDAF sensor is used for fast focusing (a single PDAF measurement can accurately tell, not just whether the image is out of focus, but in which direction and by how much), the CDAF sensor used to accurately dial in that last little bit. So no calibration needed.

      | |
  19. Peter McWade

    Wow, never even heard of this. I do learn something new most every day. Each day I strive to be better than the day before. I checked on my camera, but it did not allow, but I have to read up on the process first. My 85mm Batis is just spot on from the box. I can’t see that it needs any calibration. On the other hand, the A7 Kit lens needs some calibration. It’s hard to nail focus when in autofocus. My camera is the A7R.

    | |
  20. Branko Sreckovic

    What to say…
    I have been plagued with untunable D7000 body. That was really pain in the a..
    Cannot have so clear memory on the generations before. My D70s didn’t have Fine Tune Opt. then again it was NOT necessary.
    We all pay to much price for “instantism”.
    Cheers

    | |
  21. John Flora

    Don’t forget, if you use teleconverters each body/lens/tc combination has to be calibrated as well.

    | |
  22. Jay Cassario

    Sarah, you calibrate the camera body to each lens, but you only have to do it once because the camera will save the calibration and recognize the lens each time you put it on. Hope that makes sense :)

    | |
  23. sarah brownlow

    hi all excuse the ignorance here but I couldn’t understand if you calibrate each lens or just your camera body. and if you calibrate each lens and each one is different do you need to adjust these settings each time you change lens? hopefully not, that would be a right pain!!

    | |
    • Michael Ireland

      You calibrate each lens to the camera once. Your camera will save the setting for future use even if you change lenses.

      | |
  24. Natoyi Lively

    This article is missing important information: NOT ALL CAMERAS HAVE THIS OPTION. My old 60 D (2010) doesn’t have a micro adjust option, at least the older rebels as well lacked it. when i was shopping for cameras, the 7d and up had it, 60d and below didn’t. So make sure your camera has this option. if your going to buy a camera, check if this feature is available, and decide how important it is to you, you may need to spend a little more money to get a camera with this.

    | |
    • Jay Cassario

      The lower end camera bodies might not have the ability to make the adjustments, but you can still check to see if it needs adjusting… and get it fixed by the manufacturer. Bottom line, and the take home here, is that it is very easy to test the accuracy of your AF with each lens. Whether you make the adjustment in-camera, or send it in, you are still getting it fixed. Most photographers that ask me about their blurry images don’t even know that a lens and camera need to be calibrated, nor do they know that the AF isn’t automatically on point right out of the box. So, yes, you are correct, not every camera body has this capability, but if it doesn’t… you still need to check and have it repaired if it is off. There is no point of shoot with a lens that isn’t focusing accurately.

      | |
  25. Danny Useche

    Just a quick question. If one were to calibrate a 70-200mm or a 24-70mm. What focal length should one use to calibrate?

    | |
    • Joseph Cha

      There are two schools of thought on this, one is to calibrate in the middle (so on a 24-70, that’s about 50mm). The other school calibrates at the most telephoto focal length, because that’s when the DOF is shallowest.

      | |
    • adam sanford

      Or you get a Sigma with the dock and calibrate your brains out.

      (You have more options with that than the onboard Canon AFMA)

      | |
    • Jay Cassario

      Adam, I have that dock and used it once, haven’t used it since… and I shoot a lot of Sigma lenses. I found that even with their lenses, once I had it calibrated at one distance, it was pretty much good the whole way. I didn’t see much, or any difference using it. However, with that being said, my Sigma lenses are by far off the most. My 24mm Art is currently sitting at +19 on my D750, and plus +18 on the other. That doesn’t necessarily say that its a problem with Sigma though, because my most expensive Nikon lens, the 85mm f/1.4G is currently sitting at +16 and +14 on those same D750s, and something similar on my Df.

      | |
  26. Peter Barta

    Thanks Jay, does this work the same with zoom. At work we use Nikon and an arrangements of zoom: 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200. I have had issues with the 24-70 and tried to use the LensAlign but with no success. I have done your methods with the primes we use which is an easy process. But do the zooms work the same way; if so, what mm do you calibrate it at? Thanks! -Peter

    | |
    • Jay Cassario

      I’ve done both methods that Joe mentions below, both worked fine, but zooming in to give the shallowest DOF seemed the easier way for me

      | |
  27. adam sanford

    Jay, thanks.

    A lot of the recommended distances (as multipliers of the focal length) to the test target are vexing for me, esp. on wider focal length glass. At those recommended distances, I set everything up but my 5D3’s AF points (or the illuminated box corresponding to the AF point) can span a good 3-4 fine increment markings on a ruler or test chart.

    So what’s your preferred distance for, say, a 35mm prime on a FF rig? And you do you use a different (more coarse) target for wider focal lengths so that ‘AF box overlap’ problem isn’t an issue?

    | |
    • Jay Cassario

      Hey Adam,
      I know what you mean about the focus box covering a few of the lines on the pyramid, and its just the nature of the beast, you have to really pay attention to the numbers on the chart. I like that the pyramid has the numbers, like the 5, 10, 15, and 20. I compare the numbers on the top to the ones on the bottom to see where the focus line is. As far as using a lens like a 35mm or even a 24mm, I get a little closer to the pyramid so that the focus line is a little more thin. Obviously with a 24mm lens, even wide open at 1.4, the line isn’t going to be that crystal clear, which is where the numbers come into play even more. If it slightly off with a 35 or 24mm lens, standing 6 feet away, the focus plane isnt overly thin so you can get away with being off a tad. Calibrating is much more critical when it comes to 50mm and 85mm primes, or even longer, where the focus plane is close to razor thin. When your lens is off a hair at those focal lengths, shot wide open, you will struggle to get sharp images. Hopefully that makes sense. Ive gotten pretty quick at calibrating my lenses now, especially since I do a lot of lens testing and reviewing. The first thing I always do it calibrate.

      | |
    • Matthew Saville

      Adam, when in doubt, calibrate for your most used shooting distance.

      For me, on a 35 prime, that’d be probably a waist-up candid environment, or a full-body portrait. So, 5-15 ft. But that’s a big range.

      Therefore, I recommend checking your calibration at quite a few different distances. Calibrate your lens perfectly for your preferred shooting distance, but then double check it at 25-50 ft or something crazy like that, because on a wide angle 2.8 zoom, or a medium-wide f/1.4 prime, you could be completely throwing your lenses out of whack for near-infinity focusing. Just a +2 calibration could cause a huge difference at greater distances, but almost zero difference at very close distances. (I suspect calibration does not work in a completely linear fashion, +20 does not correspond to +20mm or +20cm, I think it is more of a percentage measurement, maybe even with some sort of bell curve thrown in too.

      And, unfortunately, if you have a lens that is giving you tons of trouble at close distances when calibrated to work at far distances, or vice-vesa, well, it just plain needs to be serviced. That is, unless you have Sigma Global Vision lenses, and a USB dock. :-D

      Personally, BTW, I don’t use focus calibration charts. I use a tree in a park. I find that, of all the foreground-to-background transitions I’ve ever seen, GRASS gives me by far the most “holy crap, THAT’S where focus is!” effect. ;-) Also, turn your in-camera sharpening all the way up when shooting test shots, it helps sharp focus really stand out…

      | |
    • adam sanford

      Great comments, guys. Appreciated.

      | |
    • Donatas Vaiciulis

      Hey Adam,
      I agree with MATTHEW SAVILLE comment. Adjustment/focus pyramid for me is also not working well. Almost all lenses very near focus pyramid shows good results, but when I stand in my shooting distance pictures are out of focus. So now already few years I am calibrating like Matthew, in my garden or on the beach in preferred shooting distance. Only I use big white (or other strong color) bottle. It is easy to see where is focus on sand or grass, than making + or – adjustment in camera and I get very accurate focus.

      | |