Lens Calibrating A DSLR Is Easy and Fun – Don't Be A Chicken – Just DO IT – Peter Gregg

Lots of new DSLR cameras have a feature that lets you calibrate individual lenses without having to send them to factory service to get the job done. This is a huge step forward in making the modern DSLR more usable for all of us. Just a year or so ago, to get a lens calibrated together with your camera required a round-trip to the service center nearest you and that could amount to lots of time you had to be without your equipment – a bummer.

Now DSLR cameras like the Nikon D300, the Canon 50D and other “staple” mainstream cameras are coming with the ability to calibrate the equipment at home. Pro camera bodies like my Nikon D3X, the D3, the Canon 1 series have added this feature a while ago. I am going to describe a fairly simple and stress free way to get it done.

More great words and pictures after the jump.

To start with, when you calibrate your lens(s) don’t be scared. Yes, your camera can smell your fear :) it knows you are intimidated and that you are cowering up to the job. It really is not that bad and I am going to help you to do it right now.

There are products on the market that cost megabucks to help you accomplish this job and if throwing money at something simple like this task is your thing maybe I need to come up with a $100 gizmo that helps you to do it. In fact, I may open a service where you can ship me your camera and lens and I will calibrate it for you for a $50 fee :) I am just kidding folks, put your packing tape away – put that tape FAR away – lol.

First things first though, make sure you camera HAS the feature to do this job. It will be awfully funny to be calibrating your lenses if there are no calibration choices on your camera’s menu! Okay, that’s out of the way, let’s move on.

You will need a tripod, some scotch tape, a simple cheap garden thermometer from Walmart or the Dollar Store, your camera and lenses. Here is the garden thermometer I picked up for a buck:

I know it’s a tough brand to find – it says GARDEN THERMOMETER at the top of the package :) Take your 4 year old with you, they will aid you in finding this highly specialized tool.

Take the thermometer out of the package and look for a way to stand it up on it’s side so it is fairly level and standing straight up without leaning. I did this with some simple scotch tape. I put a strip of tape about 3 or 4 inches long on the plastic “lip” of the thermometer’s housing and just taped it down to the kitchen table. Pick an area with plenty of available light as you don’t want to have to mess with lighting issues here.

After it is taped to the table and standing, position yourself so you are at a 45 degree angle (actually your camera, not you) to the thermometer. You will be using the big 0 on the temperature scale to focus on with your camera’s auto focus to take a reading of your cameras ability to focus properly.

Put your camera on the tripod and level the camera. I grabbed my little cheapee tripod (the one I “lend” to people when they say “can I borrow your tripod”? Sure you can, here it is – lol).

Here is a shot of the world’s best DSLR camera on a $39 tripod – talk about living life on the edge :)


Believe it or not, my cheap-cheap tripod from Target has a built in leveling bubble:

Once the camera is level, don’t tilt it anymore. The tripod has an arm that loosens that lets you aim up or down (which is how you leveled your tripod – hello) so don’ “un-level” the camera by moving that. Instead, raise or lower the camera using the rotation arm until your center focus point is smack dab on the big fat 0 on the thermometer.

Then I did a custom white balance to not have to fiddle with exposures and white balance, this is an important step folks need to do much more often with their DSLR camera’s than they are currently doing.

There are lots of tools to do this, I use the Colorright Max Portrait model and I find it is the best white balance tool available at the moment. I recommend this tool to people who ask me about proper and accurate color balance.

Using the Nikon D3X (what – you don’t have an extra D3X laying around the house???) or use the camera you have (remember it HAS to have the calibration feature already built in). I also used my Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens. It is a very nice and very sharp lens.

Here is my first test shot before I changed ANY setting in the auto-focus calibration menu:

Well, I think I can safely say that the camera and lens together is front focusing! this means if I focus on an eye of a human body (a person) my REAL focus point will be out in FRONT of them someplace. Yuck. I will be walking around thinking I am making soft looking pictures, but they really aren’t. they are simply out of focus.

Using the calibration menu in the camera now, I don’t really know which way is which, on Canon it is one way, and on Nikon it is the other way. So I pick a direction and dial it in.

Here is the next picture taken with -5 dialed in. I figured the focus needs to go backward so a -5 would be a good test to see what happens. Remember, I am always supposed to be focusing on the big 0:

Oops, it got worse. I don’t think I need a rocket scientist, or a Nikon technician to tell me THAT picture is just plain worse!!! Even my grandma can tell me that. You may think I am being a little silly, but I am trying to point out and show you not to be scared of doing this. it isn’t a mystery and it isn’t scary to do. The second picture is just plain Jane worse than the first one. this should tell you I went in the wrong direction, right?  Right??? Are you getting it, it’s not hard, picture A is better than picture B – whatever I did in picture B – DON’T DO THAT AGAIN :)

So now I go the OTHER way and dial in a +5 and it gets better – and I feel better too. I continue the trial and error method until I get a fairly sharp number sequence on BOTH sides of the big fat 0 that I should have been focusing on. My final result comes out like this:

Both of number 10′s look good on each side of the big fat 0 and both of the number 20′s are starting to look a bit less than perfect. The final number for this exercise for the Nikon 85mm 1.8 lens is a +10.

 In reality, now that I am siting here in my office writing this, I have to admit the right side seems to be getting favored over the left which means the camera will have a hair (and I mean JUST a hair) more sharpness in front of the focus point. This is not bad as this mean I have a better chance of the nose being in focus if I am focusing on an eye at f/1.8.

I am going to do the same thing with all my lenses. Here is the sequence for my 50mm G f/1.4 lens:

This lens is front focusing too. Now I am starting to think the camera is generally front focusing, but don’t let that throw you, just finish the exercise and tune in each of your lenses.

Since I now have discovered the back-focusing means I have to dial in a + number on the camera’s calibration scale, I am going to put in a +5 to see what happens:

Better right? But I think you and I would agree that maybe a “little bit”
more is needed. The final result winds up at a +12:

When you go through all your lenses you will have accomplished fine tuning your lenses to be the best they can be. You “soft” pictures may take on a much sharper look and I know I am pretty pleased with myself and my equipment when I know it is working the best it can be doing.

Orchids have very little surface to focus on and the center – or “the throat” needs to be tack sharp. Let’s take my newly calibrated 85mm Nikkor lens out for a spin and see how she does in the real world. I am trying to focus on the center throat part of this white miniature orchid that is still on the plant:

That was the whole picture, now let’s see it at 100 percent zoom to see if that tender spot is tack sharp or if calibrating the lenses was in vain . . .

It’s tack sharp – success!! All the pictures including this orchid pix was processed in Lightroom from a raw file. The orchid picture goes on to be a sharpened shot.

Here is the new Canon 50D camera with a calibrated lens with this picture zoomed in to 200 PERCENT!!!!

Calibrating your lenses is worth the time it takes to do it. You don’t really need any special equipment and you get a rather large garden thermometer as a bonus when you are done. The real bonus comes to you with much sharper pictures and that will certainly put a big smile on your face.

To buy a custom calibration for your camera and lens the price will be $780 USD plus shipping and handling charges of $120.00 payable by cash or electronic bank transfer.


Oops – If the link does not work, re-read this article and get in there and do it – I KNOW you can do it, believe in yourself, the results will make you smile :)

Happy shooting and see you online!!

Peter Gregg

Click on a tab to select how you'd like to leave your comment

Leave A Comment...