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FoCal Lens Calibration Software

[Editor’s Note.  We hope everyone had an enjoyable three day weekend, and making sure to remember the men and women who gave their lives in service of our country.  Here’s another great piece by Ben Hendel, this time talking about an interesting bit of software used for calibrating your lenses.  You need to be following Ben on Instagram.  He got a chance to take two big lenses into Animal Kingdom recently and got some GREAT photos.  So jealous of the opportunity Ben had.  Thanks again Ben for the article! ].

 

High-end cameras cost a lot of money and you get a great product for them. Same thing goes with lenses. But what if I told you that if you just bolt your new-and-shiny lens to your new-and-shiny camera, that you aren’t getting everything you’ve paid for? Because of production variables and tolerances, not every camera and lens leaves the factory “perfect.” The camera body manufacturers know this, and they build in a way to fine-tune your camera body to your lenses. On my Nikon, this is called AF Fine-Tune, and is usually called AF Microadjustment (AFMA) on a Canon.

Disclaimer: NOT ALL CAMERAS SUPPORT THIS FEATURE. It is usually found in higher end models. My D7000 had it, my D60 did not. [Editor’s note, my Canon 60D does NOT have this feature. Guess that saves me from getting the FoCal software myself. Will keep this in mind for the next camera I get.]

Modern cameras can hold multiple lens profiles. As you can see, my camera can hold 12 different adjustment values in memory, each one tied to a particular lens. If you have more than 12 lenses, well, you’re richer than I am. Spread the wealth, eh? I accept PayPal. If you rent a lot of lenses, you may want to keep half an eye on how many values you’re storing and clear them out occasionally. I know I need to do that with the values from tuning the Sigma 150-600mm.

Photo May 26, 8 38 13 PM

In the past, this has been a manual process. You’d set up a target, take a picture, and decide whether you were back-focusing (your actual focus-point is behind where you wanted it to be) or front-focusing (just the opposite of back-focusing). Then, you’d dial in a setting that reflected this, and compare the images to see if it was better or worse. Repeat until you found a value you liked, or until you gouged out both of your eyes with a used grapefruit spoon.

However, there is now a company in the UK called Reikan who makes a wonderful piece of software called FoCal.

Double disclaimer: Reikan did not contact any member of the Disney Photography Blog and ask us to write this review. We were not provided with a free piece of software, and we are not compensated in any manner by Reikan or any company because of this review. Got it? Good.

FoCal is a piece of software that makes automatically calibrating your camera body to your camera lenses, so long as you shoot Nikon or Canon. And even then, not all cameras are supported by FoCal. To see if your body is supported, please visit this website: http://www.reikan.co.uk/focalweb/index.php/why/camera-compatibility/ . Even then, if you shoot Nikon, automatic calibration mode is not supported. This shouldn’t steer you away from the software, but it may save you a couple bucks not buying the super powerful full-featured edition when some of those fancy features don’t work for your camera.
First, you’ll need to set up a target. FoCal provides you with a PDF to print out, and recommends you print it on good card stock instead of plain white office paper. They say that ink bleeds into office paper too much, and this prevents FoCal from getting sharpness readings right. Once you’ve set up your target an appropriate distance away, you set your camera up on a tripod and go through the most frustrating process for me. When choosing where to place your target (mine is on the back of the front door of my house so I can use the long hallway to calibrate long lenses), you’ll want to choose an area with a lot of light. Alternatively, you can just have a 3 D-cell MagLight hanging around and point it at the target while FoCal is doing its thing. Don’t judge me. It works.
Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 8.34.55 PM

I hate aiming the camera at the target. It must be aimed just-so, and I always tend to overshoot when adjusting the ballhead on my tripod. It also likely doesn’t help that most of the lenses I’ve calibrated recently are super-telephotos, and so I’m halfway across my house, trying to aim at a 2.5 inch center, with a heavy lens-and-camera combination.

That’s the hardest bit. FoCal will tell you when it is happy about your aim, and from there, does the vast majority of the work for you. Frankly, on a Canon, it likely does all the work for you. It takes pictures, changes the AFMA automatically, compares the shots, and repeats until it dials in the sharpest, most accurate possible autofocus value. If you’re shooting a Nikon, it’s a little bit more user-interactive. FoCal still takes pictures for you, and it still compares them for you, but you’ll have to adjust the AF Fine-Tune value on your own. Be gentle when you do, because if you nudge the camera off the target-point, your comparison data will be useless and you’ll have to start over.

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There is a fantastic amount of data that FoCal gives you while it is working. This particular lens required very little adjustment. It only required a +1 Fine Tune in order to be considered sharp and accurate. I’ve had other lenses that live in the +17 to +19 realm like my Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8. Before FoCal, I could focus on the nose of a Princess during a parade and “miss” focus because the lens was back-focusing so much. Adjusting that lens made a world of difference.
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After about 5 minutes of actual work, FoCal said it was done. It gave me a new value, and a lovely set of charts to go with them. I set that value in my AF Fine-Tune menu, and was ready to go for a day of shooting. There is also the option to Save Reports of what your lens correction looked like. I’ve attached, via links at the bottom of this review, those reports from the Sigma 150-600mm and the Nikon 200-500mm so you can see a little bit more of the data that FoCal can produce for you.

This is software I highly recommend, for anybody who is serious about getting the absolute most out of their camera and lenses. Whenever I get a new lens, the first thing I do is calibrate it. I’ll never miss another shot because my lens doesn’t understand what my camera body means by “in focus.”

Here are is a link to what the report looks like that FoCal generates.
Sigma 150-600:  150-600mm f_5-6.3_600mm
Nikon 200-500: 200-500mm f_5.6_500mm

Renting Gear

Let’s face it, photography isn’t exactly the cheapest hobby to get in to.  The camera bodies themselves are expensive to start with and then you need to throw in tripods, bags (especially if you’re Alan) and then there is the glass.  Virtually the sky is the limit when it comes to how much the glass can cost us.  When I watch football games on Sunday I’m always doing the mental math on how much money I see when I see the sideline photographers…….that one’s $2,000, that one’s $7,000, ooh look, there’s the $10,000 lens.  🙂

One of the ways around this is renting lenses.  Professional photographers do it all of the time as a way to bootstrap their businesses.  If you only need a specific lens for a single job, rent it for now until you have enough work to pay for the lens.  We can use the same practice as amateurs when it comes to our vacation trips and there are plenty of places to help us out.

For a few years, there was a service that would deliver lenses right to your hotel room at Walt Disney World.  Kingdom Camera Rentals, however has closed down since then so that isn’t an option any more.  Thankfully there are still a lot of great options available to you.

FantasyMoonSmall

The moon shines above one of the New Fantasyland turrets.  

In addition to Kingdom Camera Rentals, I’ve gotten gear from the folks at BorrowLenses.com.  With Borrow Lenses, you select the gear you want, how long you want it and the gear is shipped to you in excellent packaging with a prepaid UPS label to send the lens back to them at the end of the rental period.  I’ve rented the Canon 400 F/2.8 (a $10,000 lens) to shoot my stepson’s high school football games and I highly recommend the experience.  LensRentals.com comes highly recommended too, but I haven’t personally used them before.  I do like all the lens reviews that the owner puts up with each piece of gear that he rents out.

The downside to renting gear is that if you are only renting it for your vacation period, you are at the parks on vacation and trying to figure out how to best use this new, temporarily at least, addition to your bag.  That’s one of the reasons I like to rent a piece of gear for a bit longer and get it several days before the assignment or the vacation.  It gives me a couple of days to get more familiar with it.

The corollary to this theory is buying the gear you want to rent, and then quickly selling it again on eBay.  I’ve done this too.  Next time you have some time to kill hunt around eBay and look at what good lenses are going for. They tend to hold their value pretty well.  If you can get the gear on sale (when say Canon or Nikon is offering a good rebate) you can turn around and sell the lens back once the sale is off for at or more than you originally paid for the lens sometimes.  Even if you can’t time it right with a sale, you can still keep the lens longer (say a month or two) and still make out ahead versus what the rental price would be for keeping the lens that long.   It gives you more time to get familiar with the gear before your trip, which can mean higher quality photos on your vacation.  It just depends how comfortable you are selling on eBay.  The more expensive the lens, the more cautious buyers are going to be if you aren’t an active eBay seller.  Just think about it, would you buy a $2-$5,000 item off of eBay from someone with no sales history?

So what say you?  Have you rented gear before for a trip?  Have you done the buy new and flip it on eBay trick before?  Let us know in hte comments.   We know there are lots of people reading the blog, so hit the read more and leave a note in the comments.

Also, if you are going to be ordering from Amazon.com anyway, please consider following this link.  It doesn’t cost you anything but we earn a very small commission and it helps support the site.

Side Note

If you are looking for inspiration on what you can do with your photography when you aren’t in the parks, please direct your attention to site contributor Alan Rappaport’s series – The LEGO Awakens.  Alan is recreating still shots from Star Wars – The Force Awakens with Legos.  His shots are truly inspiring and his behind the scenes posts on how he’s getting them are fascinating. Bonus points, there’s a Disney theme park tie in!  He’s using the Pepper’s Ghost effect (as utilized in the Haunted Mansion) in his work.  Check it out!!!!