While I have been active as a photographer in the Raleigh-Durham area for several years, I’ve allowed this blog to languish. I’ve jotted down several ideas over the years, but few have turned into writing. I’m keenly aware that in the interim, YouTube has become one of the dominant forces in communicating ideas. And I may begin creating content for that platform, but first I had to actually sit down and write something that wasn’t just another e-mail, quote for a job, or some other administrative task that all too often becomes the “main” reason for sitting in front of a screen. Sure, editing through photos happens, too, in-between sessions with Quickbooks! Also, life happens.
I can be a very technical photographer. I like to know about the latest tools. Some call what I do “gear acquisition syndrome” however I am also fanatic about selling gear that hasn’t worked for me / I no longer use to friends, on Craigslist, and on eBay. This is something I began to write in September 2018. More than a year later, I think there are things that will help those trying to make decisions regarding the equipment they will take them on their own paths forward. Spoiler alert: I switched to Sony in March 2019. Furthermore, I do use affiliate links to certain gear. If you find my articles helpful, please consider making purchases via these links.
My greatest fault, and my strength, is that I am a passionate generalist. It’s a very expensive career path to be equipped for nature photography (wildlife and landscape), travel photography, wedding and event photography, studio portrait photography, and studio-on-location photography. It’s a tangled web, and it has made some of my equipment choices really difficult. Oh, and I did I mention I’ve shot Canon since the age of 10? I’m heavily invested in that system and currently debating abandoning some of these tools in favor of different ones. While I never spoke formal vows, the idea of leaving behind the system that ushered me into this crazy world of image-making feels like a trial separation that could lead to divorce all the same.
I traded in a futon for a printer and I’m reprinting my book!
Of Prints and Re-prints:
I’ve hinted for a couple weeks that big changes are happening at our little house in Durham, North Carolina. For the past two weeks I’ve been furiously printing some of my best photographs of Grinnell College in anticipation of commencement and my five-year reunion. I’ve gone through a box of Ilford Gold Fibre Silk as well as my ever-reliable roll of Epson Luster. So lately I’ve been dusting off my skills at cutting down matte and foam board to matte 24 8×10″ prints, 12 11×14″ prints, as well as some 12×18″ and panoramic photographs. And before sending it all out, I’m trying to give them all SKU codes as I learn Quickbooks Pro‘s inventory system on-the-fly for my new business. Gotta keep it legit for the IRS…it is that time of year after all!
What’s that about a new business? Well, it’s not completely off the ground yet, but I’m becoming a limited liability company in the state of North Carolina. I’ve been a sole proprietor since 2006 and while it has been fun, it was time for a change. When it takes effect, this Web site will go through a few changes, and a new domain name will become the primary, although I have no intention to give up david-kennedy.com.
Furthermore, I contacted Regent Published Services, Ltd., the company that printed A Portrait of Grinnell: The Architecture and Landscape of Grinnell College in 2006, to get a quote for printing 2,000 copies. The book has been out of print since 2008, but will be back on the shelves by the end of May 2011. I’m frustrated because I’ll miss commencement by only two weeks, but the book will be stocked in time for reunion. I’ll have information for those interested in pre-ordering soon.
I’ve ramped up production of prints because I finally have a photo printer at my home office. Choosing a printer was a key business decision: while making prints is something I enjoy and am quite skilled at, I know many talented photographers who find the art of printing to be more than vexing. Making prints for other photographers will be part of my business model, so I needed something fairly large. Unfortunately, this meant that the futon in my office (that was a good “guest bed”) simply had to go!
In my custom print store I plan to offer a variety of gloss and matte papers that most online printers simply don’t carry, like Gold Fibre Silk and Entrada Rag. I don’t intend to be the next Mpix–I won’t make prints on the side of coffee mugs or canvas wraps. Nor will I even attempt to compete with FedEx Office and make signage or banners. Instead, I’ll cater to serious photographers who would like to have direct contact with the person making the prints either for their clients or their personal portfolios. And as of March 17, 2011, when I looked out the front door to see FedEx Freight show up in our narrow street, I’ll be able to make those prints on rolls of paper up to 44 inches wide using a Hewlett-Packard Designjet Z3200 Photo printer!
While I believe that customer service should be important to all businesses great and small, it’s clear that it isn’t always the case. So when a company does something for one of its customers that is above and beyond all expectations, it’s a good feeling. It’s also something that should be recognized by the end customer and held up as an example of loyalty-earning service. There was a lot of complaining two years ago, when Canon Professional Services transitioned into a fee-based, tiered program.
I recall a few people asking why they should have to pay for “better service,” and I scratched my head. The airlines have had a tiered fee structure for years: pay the base rate and sit in coach, but pay them several dollars more, sit in business class, and get better service. Pay even larger sums, and sit in first class with an even greater level of service. I had only been a member of CPS for a year when they changed up the program, but I have to say that I’ve seen only improvements in the past two years. Sure, Nikon Professional Services doesn’t charge (yet), but that’s in part because they’ve cut costs by firing some of their beloved NPS representatives, such as Carol Fisher, who used to represent Nikon at photojournalism programs such as the University of Missouri.
So, for the past two years I’ve paid $100 per year and received a discount of 30% on repairs plus several equipment loans for evaluation.
So what is this all about? Last week I sent in my 550 EX Speedlite that I damaged in a shoot for my Advanced Techniques class in my second semester at MU. It’s sat on a shelf for close to two years after I melted its diffuser from an hour of firing at 1:1 on manual. Before asking, the answer is that I wasn’t thinking at the time. One of the last photographs that the flash helped me to make is at the top of this post. Both of my 550 EX flashes were mounted on light stands and firing against the white walls of the mixed martial-arts gym, Hulett House. Of course an hour of shooting at full power will do bad things. But how bad?
While behaving normally under E-TTL II mode, my 550EX that I had labeled “B” (for grouping purposes in wireless flash with the Canon ST-E2 transmitter) would only fire on full power in manual mode. The photo above shows just how badly the Speedlite had been damaged: both are supposed to be firing at 1/16 power, but the only one doing that is the flash on the left. So, after two years of my 550EX “B” Speedlite working only as a paperweight, I decided to send it in to CPS to be repaired and then sell it to recoup the cost of the repair.
I have an odd hang up about broken gear: ultimately, I’d rather fix it and sell it to someone to recoup the repair costs than to let it rot on the shelf indefinitely. This is what I did a few years ago when I bought an Olympus 21mm lens off of eBay that turned out to be woefully scratched. I sent it into a man out in Colorado who gave it a new lens coating and then sold it, barely making up for the cost of the lens plus its repair.
Last Thursday I packed up the 550 EX and shipped it FedEx to Canon’s Newport News, Virginia factory service center. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about living in North Carolina is that FedEx Ground will get a package to Canon overnight. On Friday I approved the repair that was estimated to cost far less than I had mentally prepared for: only $77.
On Monday morning I received an e-mail that the factory was out of parts to repair the (discontinued) 550 EX, so they would be replacing it…with a 580 EX Mk. II Speedlite! I am completely convinced this would not have happened had I not been a member of Canon Professional Services.
Today, my Canon-refurbished 580 EX Mk. II arrived…and it doesn’t have a scratch on it. Sure, am I excited that I received a flash that retails for more than $450 by paying $77 and trading in my old unit? Absolutely. But it would have been far easier for Canon to tell me that they don’t have parts any more and simply ship my old flash back to me in its damaged state. This is the kind of thing that makes me think twice about ever switching brands–my loyalty has been earned with time, but it was renewed once more this afternoon when the package arrived.
Well done, Canon. Kudos on raising the bar for CPS!
As long as cameras have featured autofocus, photographers have complained about its shortcomings: sometimes autofocus (AF) is dead-on, sometimes it focuses ahead of the intended target, and sometimes it focuses behind it. These flaws have been described as front-focus and back-focus, respectively. The reason for the fault in AF is found in the manufacturing process: a camera body’s AF is calibrated to a “standard” lens. However, the lenses that are produced on the assembly line are made within tolerances for deviation. With their higher resolution, DSLR’s have revealed that the tolerances in manufacturing clearly are not as strict as demanding photographers would like.
A few years ago, Michael Tapes of the eponymous Michael Tapes Design was working to create a device that photographers could use to accurately determine if and what type of focusing problems they had with their equipment. Tapes’ vision was that photographers would have proof to show the manufacturer that what they were seeing in their images was not, in fact, user error but the result of equipment. Coincidentally, just as the LensAlign Pro was coming to market, camera manufacturers provided a means to correct front-focus or rear-focus problems in-camera with Autofocus Micro-Adjustments (referred to as AFMA in this review), often buried deep in the user menu. Canon was the first to announce such a feature in its 1D Mark III body, and Nikon quickly followed suit. Note that Nikon refers to this feature as “AF Tune.”
In the fall of 2010, while reviewing a LensAlign Pro on loan from Michael Tapes Design, it was hinted that a new product was coming that would replace the less expensive but discontinued LensAlign Lite. The new unit would offer the same rear-sighting ability as the larger LensAlign Pro, it would ship flat, and it would be more cost effective for the company to produce. In total, these would make it, at least on paper, a win for customers and for the producer. And it would bear a “Mark II” designation that seems quite popular among many manufacturers at the moment.
The LensAlign MkII functions much like its larger stablemate, the LensAlign Pro, so you may wish to refer to my review of the LensAlign Pro (Part One and Part Two) before continuing. Also, if you own a LensAlign MkII, you should consult the LensAlign resources page for documentation and the ever-useful distance tool.
First a prototype and then a final production version of the LensAlign MkII was provided to me by Michael Tapes Design to prepare this review.
The LensAlign MkII is essentially a scaled down LensAlign Pro that weighs in at a mere three ounces. In comparison, the LensAlign Pro is almost four times heavier at 11 ounces. One of the most exciting elements of the design of the MkII is that it shares the rear-sighting system of the LensAlign Pro.
While offering the same accuracy as the Pro model, the MkII’s construction is radically different: the pieces are cut on a precision die and are assembled by the end user. The MkII ships (and can be stored) flat in seven pieces: a sturdy base made of extruded PVC with an aluminum bottom plate and quarter-inch tripod socket, a front and back plate with sights for both standard and macro lenses, and three parts that fit on the side to keep the front and back parallel all come to support the most important part of the unit: the ruler.
The components are made of thin polystyrene but they have a lot of “flex” to them; at first I feared if I didn’t put them together correctly they would crack, but they go together quite smoothly. And because the pieces can bend there’s little risk of their breaking during assembly–in fact, the ruler is designed to “bow” into place. I have taken apart and put together both the prototype and the production version multiple times without any problems.
Click through the photos below to see how the LensAlign MkII fits together:
Note that this sequence was made while I was using the prototype of the LensAlign MkII. The final production version is assembled in the same fashion.
Since all of the other pieces come together to support the ruler, I would be remiss not to discuss it. The ruler on the MkII is an inch longer than the Pro’s, as well as half an inch wider, and double-sided with two different patterns. The first side has white numbers within black shapes, and the opposite side has black numbers within white shapes. My preference is for the white-within-black pattern, but users should try both to see which seems to be easiest for them to “read.” However, unlike the Pro, the ruler on the MkII is fixed at a 20-degree angle (Position Three on the Pro).
Initially I thought this might present more of a problem than it really does in practice. With the LensAlign Pro I will use the 20 degree position the most, but will occasionally switch to the 12.5 degree-angle when it seems too much of the ruler is in focus as the harsher angle limits can make the boundaries of the DOF “pop” a bit more. With the MkII the left-most row of numbers can sometimes be obscured by part of the front standard–this happens when calibrating wide angle lenses and macro lenses where the distance from sensor plane to LensAlign is two feet or less. However, the extra width of the MkII’s ruler means that there are more patterns to compare on opposite sides of the 0 Mark, so the difficulty in evaluating the smallest column of numbers is mitigated by comparing the two patterns immediately to the right, as in the photo above.
The LensAlign MkII has both a quarter-inch thread as well as four feet on the bottom for tabletop use. While it would be possible to use the MkII on a table, mounting it on a tripod offers far greater flexibility for making the face of the unit square to the camera. As discussed in the first part of my review of the LensAlign Pro, both the camera and tripod need to be positioned at a distance equal to 25 times the focal length of the lens (for instance, a 100mm lens should be calibrated from 2500mm away, or 8.2 feet). The camera and target are in alignment when the central AF sensor is aimed at the central view port on the LensAlign, with the bulls-eye perfectly centered within. For more details on the process of squaring the target to the camera, Tapes’ recent article about “Using True Parallel Alignment (sighting system) best practices” is a quick but good read.
For my testing of both the prototype and production MkII I attached Arca-Swiss style quick-release plates to make mounting on the tripod an easy affair. Another advantage of using an Arca-Swiss style quick release is that the LensAlign MkII or your camera body can slide from left-to-right within the channel of the quick-release clamp. This can make fine-tuning the position of the red AF target within the bulls-eye a snap and help avoid re-positioning a tripod when a minor adjustment is all that is necessary!
As I discussed in my review of the LensAlign Pro, there are three different ways of evaluating the autofocus performance and subsequent micro-adjustments:
reviewing the images on the camera’s rear screen
taking the flash card inside and reviewing the images on a computer monitor
shooting tethered so that the images appear instantly on a computer.
I’ve found that shooting tethered is the most effective way of working with the LensAlign MkII, but it certainly has its share of disadvantages, among them glare off of the laptop screen when working outside and power and USB cables to avoid tripping over. Simply reviewing the images on the back of the camera may be one of the “fastest” means of calibrating the focus, and it seems to work well most of the time. However, there are times when two or three micro-adjustment settings all look “pretty good” on the rear screen. In a situation like that, importing the JPEG’s (no need to shoot RAW) into Photoshop to use the emboss filter can help to determine which is the best setting.
At the moment I cannot find a way to identify AFMA settings in a photograph’s metadata (evidently Canon DPP software can provide this information on Canon cameras). It is important to be mindful that the MkII does not have an “enumerator” like the Pro (there’s no built-in visual reference for which AFMA was used or how far apart the camera and LensAlign were in a given image), but a sticky note is an easy stop-gap!
I prefer to work indoors, with the camera tethered to my computer when I’m calibrating lenses no longer in focal length than my 70-200mm zoom. I keep Adobe Lightroom open in tethered capture mode and review the JPEGs at 100% on my 24 inch monitor. A standard 16 foot tape measure will suffice for placing the camera and target at appropriate distances whenever working inside. If there’s diffuse light coming in through the window, I’ll use that. However, while I must be tripod-mounted to use the LensAlign, I prefer not to use slow shutter speeds.
So, if my shutter speed dips below 1/100 second using available light I will set up an external flash and bounce it off of the (white) ceiling in my office. Note that the flash is there to help evaluate the ruler, not the front standard, so bouncing off the ceiling is ideal as it will evenly illuminate its surface . Just be sure not to overexpose the ruler!
While I set up a flash wirelessly using an ST-E2 transmitter and a single Canon speedlite mounted on a light stand (unless I’m calibrating the 7D, in which case I will use its built-in wireless flash control), mounting a strobe in the camera hot shoe and bouncing it off the ceiling will work.
When calibrating the AF with a lens longer than 200mm I wait for good weather and set up outdoors, grabbing a 50 foot reel tape measure on my way out the door. I have tried to work tethered with a laptop outdoors, but I’ve found the glare off my laptop screen to be unacceptable. Your mileage may vary as not all screens are the same! I typically try to work off of the camera’s rear screen, but sometimes I have to make a series of images (with sequential changes in AFMA) and take the flash card inside to scrutinize the images on my computer.
I recommend recording individual cameras and lenses and the best AFMA for each combination in a spreadsheet. Include the date that you perform the adjustment! As I discussed in the second part of my LensAlign Pro review, it would behoove users to calibrate their lenses before any major shoot, and then again a month later, and once again three months to the day of the original calibration. This is because the best AFMA for a given camera and lens may change with time–although the change need not be universal. This February both my 5D Mk. II and 1D Mk. III required a change in AFMA with my 70-200mm lens–I calibrated it with a LensAlign MkII prototype over Christmas–but the setting I had found for my 7D last fall with the LensAlign Pro remained “good.”
Compared to Lens Align Pro
While it doesn’t exactly replace the LensAlign Pro, the LensAlign MkII offers the same ability to test and adjust the autofocus performance of DSLR’s as its bigger brother, for for $100 less. Of course there are differences between the two models, but how significant they are is ultimately up to the end user, but even their designer has a preference.
While speaking to me about the design of the new LensAlign, Tapes said: “Personally, I use the MkII: it’s smaller, lighter, easier.” Retail price aside, the fundamental differences between the MkII and the Pro lie in their construction, the ruler angles, the enumerator, and the Long Ruler Kits.
The LensAlign MkII is made of thin, lightweight, and flexible polystyrene; the components are designed to be locked together and taken apart by the end user. The MkII is more portable than the LensAlign Pro, which is made of beefier extruded PVC, assembled at the factory and then laser-tested for accuracy before shipping. (It should never be taken apart since it may no longer be accurate after being reassembled.) To travel with the MkII, simply put its pieces in a rigid envelope and drop it in the bottom of a suitcase with folded pants or other clothes. I simply cannot recommend air travel with the LensAlign Pro.
Rulers & Angles:
The improved, wider ruler pattern makes up for the fixed 20 degree angle on the MkII. On the LensAlign Pro I only use the 20 degree and 12.5 degree positions any ways. Additionally, the MkII’s ruler has a matte surface whereas the Pro’s ruler is highly reflective, making the MkII easier to work with in sunny situations.
This might be the only thing absent on the MkII that makes me nostalgic for its predecessor. The enumerator on the LensAlign Pro can be very helpful when comparing changes to the AFMA on a computer. However, a pad of sticky notes and a pen will do the same thing, if nowhere near as elegantly.
Long Ruler Kits
An optional accessory, the Long Ruler Kit on the LensAlign Pro creates a four-foot ruler. Because the material is nowhere near as rigid, the MkII’s Long Ruler Kit will feature only a two-foot ruler. The idea behind the Long Ruler Kit is that a photographer may set up the target at a greater distance than the recommended 25 times the focal length of the lens. Tapes explains that this can be beneficial for photographers with super-telephoto lenses who often photograph their subjects from great distances and therefore would prefer to calibrate from healthy distances. Not having used one of these kits I cannot speak to their functionality, but I will say that so far I have not felt the need for one in calibrating lenses up to 1000mm in effective focal length (500mm with a 2x TC). If the idea of a four-foot ruler appeals, there is only one choice.
In my review of the LensAlign Pro I wrote that “The good news is that even if LensAlign is the only practical tool available, it’s a good one.” This holds true for the LensAlign MkII: no other company makes a tool that offers the accuracy of the LensAlign family of products. DataColor didn’t try very hard when they came up with the Spyder Lens Cal, and no one else has stepped up to the plate. The LensAlign Pro is a great tool, but an expensive one both for the consumer and the manufacturer. The LensAlign MkII is every bit as accurate and more gentle on consumers’ wallets. Yet, I know there are those who are going to ask whether the product is “worth” the $80 expense.
I think the LensAlign MkII a no-brainer as it helps a bag full of expensive lenses produce the absolute sharpest images they possibly can. Personally, I never knew that the 16mm end of my 16-35mm zoom could resolve the level of detail that it does now that I’ve used a LensAlign; it’s like having an entirely different–and better–lens.
In a world full of hundreds of accessories that are priced in the range of $50-$100, the LensAlign MkII might just be the best value on the shelf. Highly Recommended!
Updated with thoughts about teleconverters and existing lenses…
I don’t have to think about switching to Nikon any more?
For years now Nikon has had one lens that makes nature photographers who use any other brand salivate: the Nikkor 200-400 f/4 VR lens. Well, evidently Canon listened to all the complaints–or realized they could make a killing–and they have come up with their own 200-400 with an interesting trick up its sleeve: a built-in 1.4x teleconverter (I imagine that explains the “hump” on the side of the lens barrel).
No word on what size hole it will leave in your wallet, but it is supposedly shipping this year. Canon made a similar announcement last fall for the development of new 500mm and 600mm lenses, and today Canon has released weights for each (both reduced, the 600mm dramatically so compared to the original 60mm f/4L IS). However, it’s the 200-400 that really has my attention. I’ll try to get on the list at CPS to test one as soon as they start shipping.
To my mind, the biggest question is will this new lens accept teleconverters? Sure, it has a 1.4x built in, but can you put a 2x teleconverter on it so it becomes a 400-800mm f/8? Or stack another 1.4x with the internal teleconverter engaged to have a similar 392-784mm f/8 range? (I mention the latter option because it’s at least possible the image quality would be higher.)
Whither the DO?
At present, the longest lens I own is the 400mm f/4 DO IS. It’s light-weight, extremely compact, and with a little toning the images that it produces are stellar. The lens remains sharp with a 1.4x TC (560mm f/5.6) and with proper technique I’ve made good images with the 2x teleconverter (800mm f/8). Hell, I’ve even stacked teleconverters, although the quality declines noticably at that point. When I heard about the 200-400mm f/4, the first question that popped into my head was whether this would be the lens that replaces the 400mm DO. If it can accept teleconverts, I’d hedge my bet that the answer is “probably.”
But for those who simply want a walk-about zoom lens, there’s already a surprisingly good alternative to the 400mm DO, albeit a stop slower. Last fall, Artie Morris began posting about using the new 70-200mm f/2.8L IS Mk. II with the 2x teleconverter to make a 140-400mm f/5.6 zoom, and I tested the combination myself and was duly impressed.
For a lot of wildlife photography, the new 70-200mm with a 2x, combined with a standard telephoto (400mm, 500mm, 600mm, etc.) will pretty much “do it all.” Does that mean that a dedicated 200-400mm zoom is even necessary anymore–that Canon missed its window of opportunity? Alternatively, are the 400mm DO’s days are over? Only a side-by-side comparison of all three will do.
Canon Press Release
LAKE SUCCESS, N.Y., February 7, 2011 – Canon Inc. today announced the development of a new super-telephoto lens, the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER l.4x, for use with all EOS SLR cameras. A prototype of the new lens will be exhibited at the CP+ tradeshow, held in Pacifico Yokohama, from February 9 – 12, 2011.
The EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER l.4x is being developed as an L-series super-telephoto lens with an integrated 1.4x extender and high-performance Image Stabilizer technology. The new lens will offer exceptional flexibility by incorporating a built-in 1.4x extender that increases the maximum focal length to 560mm for sports and wildlife photography. High-quality images with high levels of resolution and contrast will be possible through the use of advanced optical materials such as fluorite crystal. The new lens will also include dust- and water-resistant construction designed for extended usage under harsh conditions.
Canon will continue to respond to the needs of various users ranging from beginners and advanced amateurs to professional photographers, in an effort to enrich their photographic expression with SLR cameras by continuing to develop attractive new lenses with improved optical technology.
This is a continuation of my two-part review of the LensAlign Pro. You may wish to refer to part one before continuing!
Final Preparation for Testing
So you’re set: you’ve calculated the distance you need, set up your camera on a tripod (and possibly placed LensAlign on another tripod or a sturdy table), and you’ve confirmed LensAlign is square to the camera/lens in Live View or by zooming into a review image. What now? Close the Sight Gate so that your camera cannot focus on the rear standard of the LensAlign. Set the ruler to the third position (20 degrees) for initial testing. Ensure that you are set to you lens’ largest aperture; if you’re calibrating a 50mm f/1.4 lens, you need to be shooting at f/1.4. Expose properly for your lighting situation–you do not want overexpose the ruler!
A Brief Note on Technique
Even though you’ll be working on a tripod at reasonably fast shutter speeds, I find it can help to set the camera in mirror lock-up with a two-second countdown timer when working with 70-200mm lenses and smaller. For larger lenses with tripod collars I switch out the ball head for a gimbal-style head and employ the long-lens techniques I’ve learned from Arthur Morris: I lock down the lens with my arm hooked around the head and down onto the lens while applying pressure to the top of the camera with my forehead as I look through the viewfinder.
To make the test image you will manually rack the focus so it’s blurred, and then have the camera autofocus on the center of the target: you want the camera to have to “work” to get the image in focus. Make an image and review it.
For now, I’m going to assume you are using a prime lens. Check the LensAlign Distance Tool for a calculation of how much DOF should extend in front and back of the focus target (0 mark on the ruler). For this example I will assume the calculation is close to 50-50. The first thing you need to determine when looking at the review image is where the DOF begins and ends, bearing in mind that you want the DOF to split evenly on the top and bottom halves of the ruler.
When you’re reading the ruler, look for noticeable crispness in the numbers, starting with the large ones. Is the “8” sharp on both the top and bottom? How about the “6” or the “4?” Sometimes, the larger numbers are a bit confusing, but as your eye scans the ruler, look at the columns of smaller numbers and ask yourself what is the last number you can read clearly on the top of the ruler, and then look and compare that to the corresponding number on the bottom of the ruler.
If you think the numbers on the ruler are hard to read, or that it is difficult to tell where the boundaries of the DOF lie, try adjusting the ruler angle. Rarely do I use the first (45 degrees) or second (30 degrees) position, but I frequently will make the angle harsher and go to the fourth position (12.5 degrees) to camera. Especially for longer lenses, a shallower angle really helps to clearly spot the boundaries of the DOF. Note that for those who want a longer ruler to judge autofocus on long lenses from greater distances than the proscribed eight feet per 100mm of focal length, the LensAlign Long Ruler Kit gives the Pro a larger focus target and a four-foot long ruler.
If the DOF is pushed to the top half of the ruler, your camera is back-focusing, and you will need to use a negative AFMA correction to “pull” the DOF back down the ruler. If the DOF has mostly sunk to the bottom half of the ruler, your camera is front-focusing, and you will need to use a positive AFMA correction to “push” the DOF up the ruler. If the DOF falls perfectly on both sides of the “0” mark of the ruler, then congratulations, you’re done with this lens, and can move on to the next!
Correcting Front or Back-Focus
Begin with a simple adjustment: one increment in the direction needed to correct the focus. After setting the AFMA in the camera menu, turn the focus ring by hand so that the camera will have to re-acquire focus, and make a new test frame. (If you wish, you may alter the enumerator so that the AFMA is recorded in the frame.) In my experience every lens/camera is different, and responds differently to AFMA corrections. Sometimes, a +1 adjustment appears to have no effect in pushing the DOF up the ruler to correct front-focus, and it may take more drastic increments (+5, +10) to get into the ballpark. Other times, the change is dramatic and +1 or +2 moves the DOF significantly. Start small, and work your way up (or down) the AFMA scale until you find the right setting for your lens.
The following video is an example of one lens/camera combination where changes in AFMA were very, very slight, and it wasn’t until -18 that I found a good balance of the DOF on both sides of the ruler. Here you will see it step-by-step, but in practice, I first attempted -1, then -2, and -5. When no change was apparent, I jumped to -10, and then to -15. From there I went step-by-step until hitting -18, the “sweet spot.”
At 0 AFMA, the back-focus is quite significant, so you will only gradually see the numbers on the bottom half of the ruler come into focus in balance with the focus on the top half of the ruler (achieved at -18 AFMA).
What about zoom lenses?
Put simply, calibrating zoom lenses is a balancing act. Most cameras provide only one AFMA per lens (Olympus seems to be the exception to the rule), but zoom lenses comprise a great number of focal lengths! Test the focus performance of the lens at some of its designated focal lengths marked on the barrel; on a 16-35mm lens, you might test at 16mm, 24mm, and 35mm. Unfortunately, the AFMA that is ideal for one “end” of the zoom range might not be as good for the other. In such circumstances, you will have to make a choice of which one is more important to you for that lens.
For instance, I have both a 16-35mm lens and a 24-70mm lens, and there is obvious overlap between the two. When calibrating my 16-35mm, I found that the ideal AFMA for the 16mm setting resulted in severe front-focusing at 35mm. However, my 24-70mm lens works quite well throughout its zoom range, so I decided to keep the setting on my 16-35mm to make the widest end perform the best, knowing that if I want to zoom in longer than 24mm I will change lenses.
Using the Emboss Filter
Whether reviewing the images on the back of the camera or on a computer, there are times when it is less obvious which AFMA correction offers the very best balance of DOF on both sides of the ruler. When trying to choose between two or three AFMA settings, try loading the photos into Adobe Photoshop and applying the emboss filter with an angle of 135 degrees, a height of 3, at an amount of 100%. The “relief” image you will create can help identify the exact edges of the DOF.
How long does calibration last?
For a while I believed that AFMA is something you could “set and forget.” There are exceptions to this, of course: every time you send in a camera or lens to the manufacturer for service you should put it back on the test bench with the LensAlign. Do not be fooled if the AFMA changes are still in the camera you just had returned from the factory: test and verify for yourself that they still work well. This happened to me in the fall of 2010 when I sent in my Canon 5D Mk. II for a “clean and check” and it was noted that autofocus had been re-calibrated at the factory. The body came back wiped but with AFMA changes still registered, but they were no longer ideal adjustments: I had to calibrate my lenses all over again.
There are times when the ideal AFMA setting may shift for a host of reasons that are beyond a user’s control. It would seem to me that testing AF performance on a quarterly basis is an easy rule of thumb that most users can follow, but for professionals a more proactive approach might be needed.
In talking to Michael Tapes, he offered the following advice: calibrate using LensAlign before any big shoot (travel, a high-paying portrait shoot, etc.) and then again a month later. Wait two months from that day and confirm if the AFMA is still working for your camera/lens combination.
The LensAlign family is products is, for the moment, the only game in town for accurate autofocus micro-adjustment calibration. None of the major camera manufacturers have a consumer product to use with their micro-adjustment-capable cameras, and it wouldn’t appear that any of them intend to fill the void that they created when they released a feature with no corresponding tool. Yes, Datacolor is attempting to compete with the Spyder Lens Cal, but their product has no means of squaring the target to the camera, making it pretty much useless. It simply doesn’t provide the accuracy or repeatability that you find in Michael Tapes’ LensAlign.
The good news is that even if LensAlign is the only practical tool available, it’s a good one. The LensAlign Pro is a very sturdy and capable product: squaring it to the camera is fast, the ruler can be locked into several different angles so you can adjust the experience to your preference, and the handy enumerator makes visual “note taking” of distances and AFMA settings a snap. At $180 the LensAlign Pro is not an inexpensive product, but this is not another injection-molded plastic wonder: each one is assembled by hand individually in the United States and then laser-tested for accuracy.
The disadvantage of the LensAlign Pro is that its sturdiness and size means that it doesn’t travel well: it’s a unit that stays home or can be packed in a car, but air travel is almost entirely out of the question.
Michael Tapes clearly recognized that retail price was an issue for some people, and the size of the LensAlign Pro meant that shipping internationally was a problem for the company, so he created a new stablemate, the LensAlign MKII. The new product sells for $80 and offers much of the same functionality as the LensAlign Pro in addition to packing flat both for shipping and travel. A review of the MKII will be posted here before the end of the month, but in short new product is essentially a scaled-down, less expensive LensAlign Pro. There are some advantages to the bigger brother, however, and as Michael Tapes explained over the phone people will buy the LensAlign Pro if: “They want the enumerator, they want the ruler angles, or they want the 4-foot ruler.”
The bottom line is that if you are serious about getting the sharpest images from your micro-adjustment capable camera, you cannot go wrong with the LensAlign Pro. Highly recommended!
Canon is now offering to modify 5D Mark II and 7D camera bodies with a mode dial that locks in place to prevent the dial from moving accidentally. Unfortunately, it’s not free of charge: $100 per camera body.
You know the frustration: you’ve set your camera to “aperture priority” and then you sling it over your shoulder. You pick it back up to make a quick image and suddenly the viewfinder blacks out far longer than you expected. A second-long exposure in bright daylight? “Oh, ” you realize, “it slipped over to shutter priority which was set for making blurs.” But the decisive moment? It’s long since gone on account of a technical problem.
I’m going to make a broad-spectrum criticism here: the mode dials on pretty much every camera suck because most of them do not lock in any way, shape, or form. Nikon locks the “sub-dial” beneath the mode dial on many of their bodies, but even they are not blameless.
Time to celebrate?
Maybe. I own both bodies, and I’m not really thrilled at the thought of contributing $200 into Canon’s coffers for something that is really a fix, not a “modification.” And I’m disappointed that there’s no suggestion that a locking mode dial will be a standard feature of future camera bodies. Finally, a mod for the 5D Mk. II really gives me pause: this camera was announced over two years ago, so shouldn’t owners be looking for its replacement, not pouring more money into the existing body?
I think this one is worthy of discussion, so what do you think?
Michael Tapes, the entrepreneur who invented the “LensAlign Focus Calibration System” e-mailed me a few weeks back and said that he had a new product coming, but by reading the information I was under a NDA. However, many of the details of the LensAlign MkII, which replaces the LensAlign Lite (I reviewed the LensAlign Pro earlier this fall), are available on Michael’s blog. I just received a prototype yesterday, and will be writing a review of the new product and comparing it to its “bigger brother.” Final production versions will retail for $79.95 and will ship in the United States for $6 as it comes flat/disassembled to fit inside of a Priority Mail envelope. This conceivably means that it can be taken apart easily for travel, something the LensAlign Pro simply cannot do.
Earlier this month, Michael Tapes, president of RawWorkflow, e-mailed me because he saw my mention of Datacolor’s product, aimed to complete with his LensAlign, the Spyder LensCal. He also referenced my account of working briefly with one of his company’s LensAlign Pro units this summer. Michael then offered to have a review copy of the LensAlign Pro sent to me for a closer look at this useful, if somewhat expensive, tool for properly calibrating the autofocus performance of a camera and lens.
While many manufacturers, including Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Olympus, now provide a means for end-users to calibrate the autofocus performance their prosumer and professional cameras via “autofocus microadjustment” (AFMA), none of them offered a tool for making these changes in a meaningful way.
LensAlign, then, is a platform for measuring the focus accuracy of a camera/lens combination. One takes this information and then, if necessary, change the AFMA to shift the depth-of-field (DOF) so that it straddles the “0” mark on the LensAlign ruler. I will explain the overall functionality (although I do not intend to re-create the wheel–the LensAlign manual is on the company’s resources page) and consider why one would purchase such a product.
Debunking the 1:2 Depth of Field Myth
One of my initial concerns about this process is that I’ve heard for years–from anecdotes in photography books to some of my professors in graduate school–that depth of field is split in a 1:2 ratio around the point of focus. That is, 1/3 of the DOF resides in front of where one focuses and the remaining 2/3’s lies behind it. But LensAlign is designed to make the DOF 1:1 in front and back of the focus mark, which seemed to go against the grain. Someone has to be wrong!
In researching this, I found a page of “Common photography myths,” and sure enough, number 14 was that DOF was 1/3 in front and 2/3 in back. Essentially, DOF is mostly 1:1 front to back. However, as magnification is decreased (distance from subject becomes greater, i.e. farther back in the frame), DOF slowly grows to become closer to the 1:2 ratio of lore. Then, as one focuses more towards infinity, the ratio becomes 1:∞, and hyperfocal distance is achieved.
The DOF ratio is not always 1:1, hence my saying “mostly.” For example, with wide-angle lenses, particularly at close distances, the split becomes 40% in front and 60% behind the focus mark. If you want to know more about how depth of field is calculated, you can find the formula here, and a list of known values for the circle of confusion of several camera models can be found here.
All this aside, I suppose if one desires a 1:2 ratio for depth of field, one can use LensAlign to shift it to one’s liking, but it is a choice to alter the way that things are designed to work for one’s creative needs, it is not “the way it should be.”
Inside the Box & Initial Setup
Upon opening up the white clam-shell box, one finds the main unit, and a postcard detailing how to set up the following components: its metal ruler, the “sight gate,” a magnetic on an adhesive strip for the “sight gate,” and four small, cylindrical magnets for use with the LensAlign’s “enumerator.”
The body of the LensAlign Pro is made of four pieces of extruded sheets of PVC that have been cut with a router. Two vertical pieces are parallel to one another–the front containing a the focusing target that also holds the “0” mark of the LensAlign ruler. The rear vertical piece contains the bulls-eyes for making the unit square to the camera position. A third piece is perpendicular to the other two, and keeps them straight. All three are screwed into a square of PVC with a 1/4″ tripod thread in the center. To keep the two focusing pieces parallel to one another, and to prevent them from bending in transit, a length of poster tube is packed between them for shipment. Keep this piece in the event you ever want to travel with LensAlign Pro!
The ruler is a 9.5″ strip of metal, and it is how one gauges the focus calibration of their camera/lens. Every other part of LensAlign is designed to work to support this ruler. So, while in the initial setup the user concentrates on everything except the ruler, during the actual measurement stage, the ruler will be all that matters.
The sight gate is a plastic card that will slide up and down to open and close the bulls-eye’s in the front of the LensAlign. However, to make it slide, one has to adhere a magnetic strip on the back of it (it’s a little odd that the user has to do this, and I assume it has something to do with labor costs to produce LensAlign, but it is a trivial matter to do it one’s self).
Once set up, the main unit could be used on a tabletop, but a 1/4 inch thread allows it to be mounted onto a tripod. One could mount the unit onto a light stand, but for reasons explained later, it is better to have the unit on a tripod head that allows movements, such as a ball head.
The enumerator and the ruler
The ruler has various positions that it can be set to (and held in place by magnets). They range from virtually parallel to the imaging plane to almost perpendicular. However, the LensAlign documentation recommends beginning with the ruler at the third position, and my experience seems to confirm that this is usually a good starting point.
That said, I tend to use the “flatter” ruler positions, 4 and 5, just as frequently as I do position 3. The greater the distance between the camera and the LensAlign, the flatter the ruler should be, as it makes it easier to distinguish the boundaries of the DOF.
The enumerator is not essential for the operation of the LensAlign, but it is a handy feature if one makes a series of images at different AFMA’s and reviews them later on a computer screen, as it provides a visual record of the AFMA setting.
Working with Test Photos
That is to say that there are at least three ways to work with the test photos of the LensAlign: review them immediately on the rear LCD screen and tweak the AFMA on the spot, shoot tethered to a computer and review the pictures in the field with the camera, or make the initial (neutral AFMA) test picture and review it in-camera, and then make a series of incremental AFMA changes and download all of the images to a computer for review.
The advantage of the first option is that it might be a little faster, but the latter two choices tend to be more accurate as they involve larger computer monitors for viewing the test pictures. Hence, if one chooses to review the images on the computer, the enumerator provides an easy reference for the settings used.
Personally, I have tried all three options, and find that they all have their time and place. I don’t have a setup like Joe McNally, but if I did I would shoot tethered for everything. (To make his setup, one needs a tripod, a Manfrotto dual-head “bar” to mount on top of it, a laptop table to mount on one side of the bar, and a tripod head of some kind for the other.) Since I don’t have those parts, I chose to tether only when I was indoors. Outdoors, I find that I can roughly eyeball whether I’m front or back-focused on the rear LCD of the camera. Once I believe that I have found the proper AFMA for the lens I’m using, I’ll bring it inside and check it on my computer monitor.
A Word About Placement
Before one can make a test image to determine any front or back-focus, one must first place the camera and LensAlign on separate platforms, space them, and make them square to one another.
It really helps to have the LensAlign either indoors with indirect lighting, but I suppose if you’re feeling motivated, you could set up flashes to illuminate it. When using it outdoors, be sure to place the unit in shade, or use it on an overcast day. The ruler is extremely reflective, and direct sunlight turns it into a blinding mirror. You want the light falling on the ruler to be even for easy-reading!
The online distance tool helps to determine how far apart the camera should be from the LensAlign, as well as how “deep” the DOF should be with a given focal length and sensor size. This distance can also be calculated manually by multiplying the focal length by 25. So, for a 400mm lens, one would need to be 10,000mm from the target, or 32.8 feet. TIP:A 50-foot reel measuring tape will be very helpful for this step if you own telephoto lenses!
I have also tried calibrating lenses at their minimum focusing distance (MFD) instead of the recommended distance. In a way, it’s easier because one just moves back as far as one needs in order to get LensAlign in focus. Additionally, the target will be larger in the frame the closer one is to it, making the markings on the ruler easier to read. In fact, in my first draft of this review, I suggested that MFD might be all you need. But then I was proven wrong!
My advice for telephoto lenses 400mm and longer would be to first make an adjustment for the MFD, and then back up to the suggested distance to confirm the adjustment. I recently calibrated a 500mm f/4L with my 1D Mark III and discovered that the adjustment made to counteract back-focus at MFD was too extreme, and actually caused front-focus when set at 41 feet from the target.
The first step you should take is use your tripod head (you have to be tripod-mounted) to position the camera at the LensAlign. Aim the center focusing point (the most accurate of the focusing points, irrespective of camera brand or model) at the center bulls-eye of LensAlign. Then, run behind the LensAlign, and looking through the “peep hole” through the center bulls-eye, lock it in position so that you are looking through the center of the lens. Often, you can see light coming in through the viewfinder of the camera through the middle of the lens, which can help to make it just right.Return to the camera, and switch on Live View (or take a picture and review it on the LCD) and zoom in to see if the center bulls-eye is truly centered in its viewing port.
An aside:To my knowledge, every camera that has the ability to make AFMA changes also has live view. However, the LensAlign is helpful even with cameras that do not have this feature, as it can confirm whether or not there is a focus problem with a given lens. If there is a problem, the user can take the data and decide whether the front or back-focus exhibited warrants sending the camera and lens to the manufacturer to be professionally calibrated.
While the LensAlign manual does explain how to make the unit square to a camera, I have found that it helps to pay attention to more than the center bulls-eye, but to consider all of them. Especially at shorter distances and wider focal lengths, the other four bulls-eyes will not be centered in their viewing ports, but making sure that they are symmetrical on opposite sides of the center bulls-eye ensures that the plane of the LensAlign is parallel to the camera’s sensor plane.
Corrections and A note about Keeping Things Level
In the original version of this review, incorrectly stated that the body of the LensAlign is made from black masonite. While it has that apperance, it is actually made from PVC.
Additionally, in the original posting I emphasized that keeping both the camera and LensAlign level, by means of a hot shoe bubble level or otherwise, would be a good idea.
After speaking to Michael Tapes directly, I stand by thinking that it’s helpful to keep things level, but agree that it is not essential for the operation of LensAlign. Hence, I have removed it from the section about aligning the focus target to the camera lens. In fact, he told me that the absence of a level “wasn’t a casual omission.” He believes that adding a level the product would make it appear to the user that being level was part of making the camera and focus target square, when it is not, in fact, a necessary step.
A level camera and a level focusing target will not change the DOF–it’s a constant. Camera lenses do not draw rectangular images, but circular ones, so how the camera is rotated on the lens doesn’t change the DOF. However, I find that leveling both helps in reviewing the images from LensAlign, because my beleaguered brain doesn’t like to look at picture of a ruler that is skewed at a 5° angle.
For me, I find the lack of a level to be my lone frustration with the product. I say this because it is downright annoying to constantly walk back and forth between the camera and the LensAlign while trying to remember to take the level with me each time. When I walked 41 feet out to the 500mm lens that I was trying to make square to the focus target, and realized that the level was still sitting on the back of the LensAlign, I really started grousing!
But to reiterate: it is not necessary to do this extra step of leveling the two devices, I just prefer to work this way, and I think many photographers who will take the time to change the AFMA in their cameras will feel the same as I do that looking at a level measurement tool is easier than looking at one that is tilted, even if the data is the same.
Earlier in the month, Datacolor announced the SpyderLensCal, a product that was a clear imitation of the LensAlign autofocus microadjustment calibration tool from RawWorkflow. Although it would be unfair to dismiss it outright as I’ve not actually worked with one, SpyderLensCal has several shortcomings compared to the LensAlign, including the inability to confirm that it is parallel to the camera.
Now, Datacolor has announced another product that seems to be an homage to a competitor: the SpyderChekr is aimed squarely at X-Rite’s ColorChecker Passport that I reviewed early this year. The gestalt of the two products is the same: a plate of pigmented squares with known color values is embedded into a hinged case to be carried on location and photographed under the lighting conditions for the photo shoot. Then, in RAW conversion either in Adobe Camera RAW or Adobe Lightroom, the photo of the unit is exported to the manufacturer’s software to be profiled. That profile is then applied, at the user’s discretion, to the photos from the shoot.
However, there appears to be a fundamental difference in the way that Datacolor approached the SpyderCheckr compared to the SpyderLensCal: price point. The SpyderLensCal is priced to undercut what has been the only game in town, the LensAlign, and to do so by $20 at an MSRP of $59.00. To get down to that price, Datacolor clearly cut corners. The SpyderCheckr, on the other hand, has been announced at $129.00, a full $30.00 more than the X-Rite product, and actually builds upon the idea of camera calibration by adding some interesting features.
The Datacolor product can be mounted on a tripod, whereas X-Rite’s hinged case was designed to support the color charts, like the fold-out arm in a picture frame. A tripod thread adds versatility. The color charts in Datacolor’s SpyderCheckr can be flipped over to reveal gray-balance targets. That means that one could photograph the necessary color chart for camera calibration and a greay-balance target in the same frame. X-Rite’s passport does include a gray-balance target, but it is mounted opposite the color charts, so they could never be together in the same photograph.
Furthermore, that Datacolor’s color charts are reversible means that they are also user-replaceable should they begin to fade or become scratched. The Datacolor Web site for the SpyderCheckr suggests that these spare color charts will be available for sale “early in 2011.”
There are some differences between the SpyderChekr and the ColorChecker Passport that do not make one superior to the other, but are of interest just the same. First of all, the Datacolor product is physically larger. In fact, I believe it is close to the size of a traditional Gretag-Macbeth (now X-Rite) color chart. This means that it won’t fit in a camera bag quite as easily. Even when I’m not working on a studio shoot, I always carry the X-Rite product in my bag, because it is small and easy to hand-hold. However, I can’t mount it to a tripod (or light stand), so that may be irrelevant for some. Another difference is that X-Rite’s ColorChecker Passport creates DNG profiles for its camera calibration, whereas Datacolor’s software manipulates the Hue/Saturation/Lightness sliders in Adobe Camera RAW / Adobe Lightroom. I’m inclined to believe that DNG profiles may be a better route, but I’m not a technical expert on this particular part of Camera RAW / Lightroom, so I will just offer that they are different routes to achieve the same objective: more faithful color.
Many of the design and operational differences between the two products are actually outlined in a chart on page six of Datacolor’s SpyderCheckr manual, although you’ll notice a natural bias for their own product!
Finally, if you’d like to watch a video explaining the features and the supporting software for Datacolor’s SpyderChekr, you can watch this PhotokinaTV’s video featuring David Tobie, product technology manager for Datacolor: