Lens calibration yes or no

Lens calibration yes or no ?
As you probably have read in last weeks posts about the ColorMunki and the FAQ about calibrations I’m a huge supporter of calibration. Today a topic some people don’t think about, or maybe not even know about, the lens….. calibration.

Now some people will claim that this is a minor thing, and don’t get me wrong they will get great images (or at least it could be that they get great images) but when you want to deliver continuity and use actions for certain looks in Photoshop/Lightroom (etc) and want that all your images look the same you will have to take some steps in your workflow.

It all starts with the colorchecker.
I’m using the Colorchecker Passport from X-rite, just shoot it as the first image in a session and you will have a perfect starting point to build from. Creating the profile is “easy peasy”, just use the fully automated plugin in Lightroom or if that doesn’t work use the desktop software. The only “problem” with the profiles the colorchecker passport creates is that they are only usable in software that supports DCP profiles (Lightroom and Photoshop), but don’t be too sad… in Capture one or aperture you can still use the graypatches for removing colorcasts and at least have a good starting point. In my opinion this is the least you can do, well ok, a whitebalance card is actually the least you can do, but seeing the pricing of the colorchecker passport I think it’s a no-brainer.


The next step that you really should do is calibrating the monitor, you can buy a “cheap” filterbased meter or an accurate spectrometer like the ColorMunki (see the review from last week). If you print yourself, at least use the right profiles with the right paper, the printer manufacturer often supplies this. Or if you want to do it really right, especially handy when you use non standard ink or an older printer, or are (like me) just very picky about quality, use the ColorMunki again, it can build a custom profile for your printer/paper/ink combination. Now that we have all this in order we can take it up a notch.


Calibrating the lightmeter.
I’ve written many articles on this and you can find them by selecting the menu option on the right called “lightmeter”.
But the quickest way (if you own a Sekonic meter that supports their software) is to use your colorchecker passport (or other compatible card) and use the supplied Sekonic software.
If you don’t own a meter that supports their software you can always use an 18% graycard and make sure the spike in the histogram reads app 128.128.128, remember this is IN your retouch software, IN the color space you use AND with the curves you use in your RAW workflow. There is a lot of debate about whether it should read 128.128.128 or something else so during the Photokina I decided to ask it to someone who really knows everything about this kind of stuff and he confirmed that the method works as long as you use it in the matter I say, he actually claimed it was app but that’s nitpicking 😀


So now we have a fully calibrated workflow…. Meaning if we meter the scene, take the shot it will show up correctly on our monitor (when we attach the profile from the colorchecker) and when we print it will also look as close to the original as possible (monitor and print are always a bit different).


So now we’re done right?
Well sorry actually no……
Did you ever (like me) read a lens review were a certain lens was destroyed by the reviewer due to softness and the competing lens was much sharper, while in your opinion you get great results?


Well that happens to me all the time, and I think in most cases it’s due to the fault of the reviewer, and trust me I’m not talking about the labs or the well known testing sites (I guess they will do what I’m telling you now). What a lot of people don’t seem to realize is that the combination of lens and camera are not always a perfect match, far from that. Maybe you heard the terms like back focusing and front focusing on some occasions? What this means is that when you focus on someone’s eyes it could be that the nose is in focus and the eyes are not. Now imaging this happening in a review but not that bad. I’ve seen some reviews where the reviewer was bashing a lens while I thought that his examples were actually not that far apart, the only difference was that brand A was pin sharp on the eye ball and brand B was pin sharp on the eye lashes. When you’re sure you focused on the eye ball you will select brand B as the clear winner of course…. Well that might be a big mistake.


In modern cameras there’s often a setting called “microadjustments”, what this does is it let’s you “calibrate” your camera/lens combination so that the focus “hits” the spot you want. Some cameras will allow you to do this for the general setting only but cameras like for example the Canon 5DMKIII will let you do it for the Wide end and Tele end of your lens. With the more advanced cameras, it will remember the lens but also if you use convertors or if you use a lens with a different serial number.


How it works
It actually couldn’t be more simple.
The first method is a simple do it your self but it’s rough.
Take three bottles put them in a row and focus on the middle one and see what your focus does… well that actually is not so good.
Better is to use a ruler and place this under an angle, like a 45 degree angle. Now focus on the middle of ruler and make sure that the camera and the focus point is as level as possible now check the focus in your camera or tethering software and you can exactly see where the focus falls, now that you have this information you can start adjusting the microadjustments and make sure that the focus is exactly on the point you focus on.


If you want to do it a bit more “professional” I can really advise the Spyder lenscalibrator, which I use myself and trust me it has solved many problems for my students who were complaining about their focus and did not even know they had the micro adjustment options in their camera.
The only thing you really have to take in mind is to shoot from a tripod, preferable remote triggering the camera (mirror lockup if you want to be really precise) and make sure that the camera your focus point is as level as possible, and shoot wide open.


The whole process will take you app under 5 minutes per lens, so imaging having all your lenses calibrated within 20 minutes and nail focus everytime…. And when you don’t you know it’s not your fault.
Remember that remark about the review?
Recently I bought a Tamron 24-70 f2.8 VC and seeing some reviews from this lens I saw a huge difference from people claiming it was pin sharp to people claiming it was too soft so they sold it. The first thing I did was take some test shots of course and I have to be honest… I was not blown away, but that was not due to the lens but the focusing, and when I threw in the lens calibrator it became clear why. On my 5DMKIII I need app -15 on the wide end and +18 on the tele end, seeing that 20 is the maximum this is pretty much. But after the calibration I became very happy with the lens because it’s really very nice and pinsharp after calibration.


Now when I compare this to my 70-200 f2.8 IS L (canon) which only needs a +2 and -3 calibration you can image what my review would look like when I would have compared both lenses without doing the calibration 😀


So when you are serious about your images, and without any doubt when you shoot a lot of shallow depth of field stuff make sure you check if your camera has the micro adjustment option and invest in a ruler (three bottles) or the spyder lens calibration tool and check your lenses. And if you don’t have that option make sure you do the test anyway because it might become clear to you that it’s not you but the lens/camera that makes your images not as expected.
Most camera repair centers will calibrate your lens/camera combination (at a fee) if you don’t have the micro adjustments in your camera, however if you own a lot of glass it COULD be wise to upgrade to a camera with this option, but you have to decide this for your self.
Now to make it more “fun” why not share your results here, just tell us if your lenses were “off” and if you could correct it.


Good luck…
Oh and please don’t blame me if you start seeing things that normally never bothered you 😀

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  • David Gunzenhauser

    Frank, thank you very much for this post. As mentioned the other day I knew nothing of this and I am so excited to dust off those lenses that have not been focusing as I think they should and give them another try!!!

  • Hi Frank, Good stuff as usual. I came across this free totally acurate method some time ago (when 5d2 was released) on Northlight Images website which uses patterns on an LCD monitor Northlight There’s a full explanation and it’s free.

  • Johan Schmidt

    how do you calibrate for both ends of a zoom?

    • Depends on your camera, some do only general, some do general per lens and some do T and W from Tele and Wide.

  • Marc Ilford

    Hehe, form your prevous posts I already had the idea that you were anal about calibration, now I am sure :). Now you are the professional, long time in business but what confuses me is the following. Looking at your portfolio most of those images there which you show have been post-processed in a very “see-able” manner no critique! I admire your work, however, one can hardly label those as “natural’ looking. So why bother with color checkers etc.

    Monitor calibration I can understand, making sure what comes out of the printer matches what is on the screen, but what does the color check does exaclty? matching how it looks in real life with how it looks on screen (SOOC)? If so then again the question, why bother if you in process them in such a manner that colors go all about the spectrum anyway. What am I missing?

    Now about lens calibration…that might be the case with my lens, close to wide open, in the wide range is it bizar soft, no matter what I tried, I was thinking it was the lens fault (which still may be the case) but who knows it might be a lens calibration issue…thanks for bringing up yet another variable 🙂

    • Hi,
      If you read my blog (sometimes maybe between the lines, but certainly most of the time just in the open) you can see that I strongly believe in using the colorcheckers indeed, now why…

      You are 100% right I change the color/tint of my images, however to get this correct in a series, or over a period of time…. I need a solid/repeatable basis 😀

      Meaning… I have to shoot the colorchecker, especially with the more “advanced” tonings like the vintage looks with a bit of magenta in the shadow areas this is vital, the more you add/change the look the more it becomes important that you use the colorchecker to have the exact same base over and over again.

      On the “live in Boston” DVD/Download I tell the story of 2 architects, both amazingly talented and they build beautiful buildings, however one uses a solid foundation and one uses none… when an earthquake happens one will loose all, the other none. (depending on the earth quake of course :D).

      IF you don’t calibrate you can still get amazing images, better than mine probably, BUT if you have to repeat it over and over again, or a client wants “that look” you really have to have some sort of basis that’s 100% (or as close as you can get) to neutral.

      • Marc Ilford

        Thx frank,

        I think I get it now, for consistency over time. Say you shoot a series now with a typical processing, and the client wants the same look in 2018 you’ll be able to delivery an 100% identical look.

        Leads me to another question: What kind of clients are your current and main assignment base? Although I’m big fan of your look, most images in the fashion magazines I see (then again I hardly ever see a lote of fashion magazines) have a far less dark, and more high key punchy look. Just wondering what your client base is?

        • Hi,
          I mainly teach, but when we shoot for clients it varies from portfolio sessions, artists, celebrities to fashion designers.

          We don’t do a lot of magazines.

          BTW check out Vogue for some amazing (and also more darker) photography.

    • Jan Van Steen

      I learned to use the colorchecker on Frank’s workshops and use it all the time now! The sensor of your camera is not as sensitive for every frequency of the light spectrum. My Canon 5DII e.g. is less sensitive for blue than for red and green. The software compares the colors from the picture you have taken to the colorvalues that it are supposed to be. These differences are kept in a file they call ‘a camera profile’ and you apply that to all the pictures you take. That way the colors are always exact what they shoud be.
      All colors are made up with red, green and blue (RGB). So the more blue is in the color, the bigger the effect it has on my pictures.
      When you do fashion or product photography, the designer wants the colors in the photo to be exact the same as the object or dress.
      I have pictures with e.g. red and orange that are much more distinct after I used the colorchecker. I see more detail in hair and so on… I can 100% recommend it!
      And even if you want to apply software filters on you photo’s, you always start form perfect colors…

  • Mharda

    Hello Frank,

    I have had my lenses calibrated at Chipclean………..

    PENTAX DA* 16-50mm -03
    TAMRON 10-24mm +10
    SIGMA 24mm -05
    PENTAX F1.4 50mm -05
    PENTAX Ltd 70mm -09
    TAMRON 90mm 0
    PENTAX DA* 50-135mm +03
    SIGMA 70-200mm 0
    SIGMA 120-400 -10

    – The TAMRON (one of the cheapest lenses) was ‘best in focus’;

    – my SIGMA 120-400 needed -10 (max with my K5) but should prob have had some more.

    My conclusion: money (lens worth) says nothing about calibration level…

    • thanks, that’s my opinion also.
      If in doubt of your lens, always check this.

  • Steve Kalman

    I have a Canon 60D which I love but doesn’t have the calibration option. However, it does have live view and I have a hoodman loupe. For those images where I care whether it is the eyeball or eyelash such as macro work, I use the loupe. Problem solved (as best I can).

    For other things, like photowalks, I just use a bigger depth of field to hide the small focusing error. (f/8 seems to work fine)

  • I started doing lens calibration about a year ago and was amazed at the difference. The shots where I thought I was spot on with my focus hadn’t been quite right, but after calibration were perfect. It’s very simple once you’ve done it once, and now when I get a new camera body, it’s one of the first things I do.

  • mymorna

    I’ll definitely check this out, if possible on my camera. I experience this problem a lot with my Canon 70-200mm F4 IS and my Canon 40mm F2.8…

  • patrick iven

    some weeks ago during a shoot I did see my tamron 17-55 f2.8 was not on focus; so I have calibrated it and now I am pretty happy with the result – so lens calibration yes for me now

  • Hi Frank

    Just bought my LensCal and had a “fun” time shooting a bunch of test shots with my 5DMk2 and my primary lenses (24-70 2.8, 70-200 2.8, 85 1.8, 50 1.4 and 35 2.0). Thought I’d got this all sorted out but having read a few different posts on the subject I’m now completely confused. Can you help?

    Summary of confusion: I’m trying to work out which of the images I shot for each lens shows the correct AF adjustment setting. I know you get more depth of field behind the focal point but several posts suggest that you find the setting that balances the sharpness of the lines both in front and behind the 0. If that’s true then the correct setting would appear more like the backfocussing samples in the instructions/online samples.

    I’ve put all the shots for each lens in the following SkyDrive folder for you and anyone else who wants to look. They go from -5 to +5 for each lens (a bit more for the 35mm). Each of the files is named appropriately.


    Help me Obi-Wan Doorhof – you’re my only hope!


    Thanks for this and all you do on a daily basis. It’s much much appreciated.

    Chris Rowe

    • What I do Is check to focus on the zero points anything in front or behind I will try to get is even as possible but the zero point is the most important part for me

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