Review: LensAlign, Spyder LensCal and the importance of AF Fine Tune

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Get your f/1.2 photos in perfect focus

Cameras come with lots and lots of bells and whistles these days, and some of them seem a lot more useful than other. Built-in selective color mode? No thank you. But every once in a while there’s a new feature that changes the game in a big way. Autofocus. Auto-exposure modes. Vibration reduction. To my mind, autofocus fine-tuning is one of these. What is this? Nikon calls it “AF Fine Tune,” and Canon calls it “Focus Micro-Adjust,” but basically it’s simple, and brilliant: It allows your camera to make sure your autofocus actually works up to its full potential.

Lens design is an incredibly complicated process, and like anything in life we can’t aim for perfection, just good enough. The problem is compounded because different cameras, even of the same model, respond to lenses slightly differently, and the lens-maker doesn’t have access to your camera when calibrating in the factory. Generally, most good companies produce results that are, to use a scientific term, good enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll. If you’re taking photos at f/8, it’s highly unlikely you’d ever notice a problem. But especially these days where it’s more and more fashionable to shoot with the razor-thin DoF of f/1.8 or wider, little problems become glaring. If a lens if off by even a couple millimeters, that can be the difference between an eye and an eyelash in focus. An inch? Then it’s the nose in focus, and you’re noticeably off.

In the old days, you were pretty stuck. All you could do is send the lens back to the factory and hope for the best, or actually travel to a lens technician and have them re-calibrate it to your camera. Message boards are filled with horror stories of people who sent a lens back five or six times and still couldn’t get it working right.

But a few years ago, dSLR makers figured out how to change the variances a little bit in-camera. Is the nose in-focus instead of the eye? You can tell the camera to move back an inch with that particular lens. Is the focus going back to the ear? Tell the lens to focus forward a bit. Suddenly, that slightly annoying fast lens you couldn’t quite get right becomes a useful tool. Batches of lenses that had wide reports of focus quality control-issues, like some of the wide, fast Sigma lenses such as the 24mm f/1.8, work just fine, thank you very much.

Perhaps because these work best with fast, professional lenses, and because it’s a bit tricky to get working properly, most camera-makers include this feature at the “advanced amateur” level and beyond. For instance, Nikon has it on the D300s but not the D90 (though they did include it on the D7000), and Canon has it on the 7D but not the D60. It’s such an incredibly useful feature that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it buried in menus with a “WARNING: Only touch if you know what you’re doing!” on even the most basic DSLR models in the future.

The basic working of it is extremely similar across camera lines. Go into the camera function menu with your problematic lens mounted, and you’ll see a chart with pluses and minuses radiating out from zero. These allow you to correct for front- or back-focus to varying degrees. Because modern lenses have CPU chips in them, the camera will even be able to tell two lenses of the same model apart. This is crucial because, to paraphrase Tolstoy: “All perfect lenses are alike; each imperfect lens is imperfect in its own way.”

But the catch is that there’s no automatic way to do this. If there was, the camera could just fix the problem without a chart. Basically you need to shoot, figure out the amount of front-focus or back-focus. And then shoot again and see if your calculations were correct. And most importantly, you want to absolutely make sure that none of the focus problems are due to user error, or just the tricky act of hitting a precise target at f/1.4

If this sounds like a complicated, frustrating process, well … it can be, especially if you have a lot of lenses … even more so if you have to test all of them with multiple cameras. And so a few companies have stepped in with products to make the process easier. I tested both the LensAlign system and Spyder LensCal with a variety of lenses on my Nikon D3s bodies, as well as the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 on the Canon 7D, since a number of people have reported back-focus on this lens with Canon bodies.

Both of these products are trying to perform a very simple task in an effective way, which is to be a good autofocus target and and effective measuring system that will let you see exactly where the plane of focus falls. There are only so many possible configurations for this, and so you can see that when set up they look very similar (LensAlign on left; LensCal on right):

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To eliminate user error, when setting up for use you should use a tripod exactly level with the target so your lens is at a perfect perpendicular. Now, a good lens should be distance-calibrated, meaning that if it focuses accurately at five feet it should focus accurately at 10 feet, but that’s not always the case so I tended to set the lens at the distance I most often shoot with it (closer for the 24mm f/1.4, farther for the 85mm f/1.4, and so on). This also made sure that the lens had a big enough target to focus on, since hitting these from 10 feet away with a 24mm lens won’t be as accurate as you want it to be.

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As you can see, in use these are extremely similar. The LensAlign chart has a lot more to it, which can make it easier to set up a perfectly accurate test. In particular the second bullseye on the right can help you make sure you’re exactly perpendicular, as you’ll want both targets to be tack sharp. But the bells and whistles come at a price. The Spyder is extremely simple to set up. It starts like this:

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You unsnap it and voila! Done. In contrast, the LensAlign comes like this:

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And here are the directions to put it together:

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If you are someone who gets thrown into a murderous rage by Ikea furniture, you might prefer the Spyder.

And of course there is the third option of doing it on your own — which at least is better than nothing. One decent trick is to put a coin on a towel or shag rug and focus on that — the threads of the towel will really show exactly where the focus plane is falling — and in all cases remember that it gets much more accurate as you zoom in on the picture, thanks to the circle of confusion.

If you have just a kit lens, you probably don’t have to worry. If you have one camera and a 50mm f/1.8, you can probably muddle through yourself. But for me, calibrating almost 20 lenses on two D3s’s and a D3, these were invaluable tools. I’ve had lenses rescued from the scrap heap because of focus micro-adjust. If you like shallow depth-of-field or think that you will in the future, this is a feature to watch out for as you buy a camera. It’s not a bad reason to pick up a D7000 over a D90, for example.

Virtually every one of my lenses was improved by this, though in many of the cases it wouldn’t be noticeable in normal usage.

Specs and purchase info:
Spyder LensCal
LensAlign

Review: Sigma 12-24mm Mark II

Specs and Pricing info

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This summer, I looked at the gear I tended to use for weddings — never wider than 24mm, dominated by f/1.4 or f/1.2 primes — and said “Ok, let’s shake this up a bit.” So I chose the Sigma 12-24mm, which on a full-frame camera gives as wide a rectilinear frame as any lens for any system — a 122-degree frame of view. To go wider than that, you have to go fisheye. Moreover, the lens is one of the least light-sensitive professional lenses around — it starts at f/4.5 at the wide end, but if you want to zoom you should just consider it an f/5.6 lens, only letting in 1/16th the light of my 24mm f/1.4.

I’d been having a blast with it, working with new possibilities and limitations, when my pals at B&H asked me if I wanted to review the new version Sigma was releasing. Absolutely — the Mark I Sigma is extremely fun but more than a little quirky, and to get solid performance out of it you generally want to be in the f/11 range, severely limiting use as an indoor available-light lens. I figured the new lens would be more or less identical, but with some new coatings, a bit of new glass, but no major changes.

Then I opened the box. The new lens, even though it has the same basic specs, felt totally different. It’s longer, leaner, and with a wider rear element (the Mark I’s is strangely small). It felt sturdier in the hand, and I could immediately see an improvement in sharpness and vignetting wide-open. This doesn’t mean it’s optically perfect at f/4.5, but it does become more than usable — a real optical challenge at this frame of view.

I don’t often shoot blank walls, but this comparison tells the tale quite well. Below are photos taken with the old and new versions at 12mm f/4.5 with the same 1/4th power bounce flash off a white ceiling, on the left and right respectively:

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Enough said. The white wall shows a far more dramatic result than most real-world applications, but when you look at the Mark I photo, the vignetting is so dramatic that you think you might have put a DX lens on your camera by mistake. Some of the vignetting on the left of the Mark II photo may be from the directionality of the flash combined with the extreme angle of view, but even then the falloff is far more gradual.

Also, the difference in color is interesting, given that these were taken with the same flash at the same intensity, in “Flash” white balance setting. The older Sigma seems to have a turquoise cast to it, especially in the vignette. Now, of course lots of photographers pay lots of money for Photoshop actions to create vignetting that looks sort of like that, so there’s no saying what’s better. But I strongly prefer the new version.

In terms of basic usage, it’s hard to tell any difference between the two, because a lens set to 12mm f/5.6 has such a deep depth-of-field already that autofocus is almost an afterthought. If you love bokeh in all of your images, this isn’t the lens for you.

But what sort of things IS this lens good for? Well, it’s wide. Really, really, really wide. So wide that anyone placed near the corners of its pictures looks like Jabba the Hutt. Like with a fisheye, shooting at 12mm is generally something you’ll want to do sparingly, but when used right it can give really dramatic accents.

For instance, it’s hard to find a better lens to show off the interior of a particularly ornate church:

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And while subjects too close to you or too close to the edges of the frame will look clownish, with the right placing you can get a great deal of a scene in the frame without looking crazy. Here you can see a lot of the scene, including the same little peninsula I’m standing on, but it doesn’t scream “Crazy wide!!”

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And the same here, because the human elements are close to the center of the frame:

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The real strength of it is to see commonplace scenes in very different ways. Because it’s so wide, every parallel line instead becomes something converging toward a perspective — which might drive architects crazy, but can also make for interesting compositions:

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Not to mention the sort of “reverse compression,” where your subjects can fit into any frame or arch or space that would normally be too large:

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Sigma has done a greg job with the revamp of this lens — there are always going to be lots of challenges from shooting ultra, ultra-wide, but with the new model at least the challenges are just coming from perspective instead of lens design.

If this sounds up your alley, purchase it here.

Review: Sony NEX-5n

For my needs, at least, dSLRs have reached a tipping point. With the release of Canon 1D-X and Nikon having the still-astonishing D3s, the major workhorse companies are both now producing cameras as good as I could possibly want them to be. Can I imagine better? Very easily, but in most ways the improvements are so far up the curve of diminishing returns to be irrelevant. Yes, one day we’ll have cameras that shoot at ISO 1,000,000 — but that doesn’t matter so much when ISO 10,000 allows me to shoot moving people at the very limits of what my own eyes can actually see.

But these systems do have one problem — they’re freaking huge. I’m writing this from airports in Aruba, Miami, and New Orleans, and the whole way I’ve been lugging a 45-pound backpack of camera gear. In one of the tiny side pockets, taking up less space than any of my autofocus lenses? Sony’s latest mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera, the NEX-5n.

Even though the NEX-5n is an update to the “lesser” of Sony’s NEX cameras, it’s been getting a lot of attention, and for good reason. First, like the NEX 5 before it, it’s small. REALLY small. “Glorified lens cap” small. Even though it has an APS-C-sized sensor, as big as the sensors in all but the highest-end DSLRs, its body is no bigger than a point and shoot, especially when paired with the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens. But because of how close the sensor is to the mount, you can use adapters to put lenses from almost any system on it (at least if you don’t mind losing autofocus.) So it can be as small or as big as you want it to be :

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Sony made a couple of improvements over the NEX 5 that seem small at first, but make the camera a surprising joy to use. First is the addition of a touch-screen, which to smartphone addicts makes menu-diving a lot easier, especially when the camera has a small lens mounted. (The trade-off is that you have to do menu-diving for things that I’d rather have be represented by physical dials, such as changing modes, ISO, and white balance.) The second is the support of an optional electronic viewfinder. My need for a good viewfinder is one of the reasons I’d never considered a NEX 5 as an alternative to my Fuji X100, and the articulating high-resolution viewfinder is a joy to use (though it adds to the overall price).

Lastly, they changed the sensor to the same base design that has been praised in the Nikon D7000 for its great color and low noise — competing strongly against the Nikon D700 and 5D Mark II even though it has less than half the light-gathering area! Since the viewfinder allows extremely accurate focusing with wide-aperture lenses and in dark situations presents an image brighter than your eyes can easily see, when you put an f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens on this camera you have a still fairly-compact camera that can absolutely see in the dark. Here, paired with a 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, the NEX 5n could easily photograph a street musician sitting in shadow in the dead of night (ISO 2000):

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If “workhorse dSLRs” have reached maturity, mirrorless cameras are still in their awkward teens: They have so much potential, but each one brings their own quirks. The 5n is no exception — at different times it left me jumping around excitedly and scratching my head in frustration.

This is the fundamental temptation of the system for me: Since the viewfinder makes manual-focus so easy and accurate except for tracking irregular movement, and since you can put almost ANY lens on this camera with an adapter, I can have a camera that is as simple and compact or as versatile as I need in most situations. With the 16mm pancake I have a point and shoot with great manual control and good performance at medium apertures (it’s not bad wide-open, but nothing to write home about).

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Then I can add the E-mount 55-210mm zoom lens, which is about the size and shape of a Red Bull can, and get decent telephoto in a compact kit (at least if you leave off the hood). The 55-210 is a slow lens, being only f/6.3 at the long end, so the ISO capability will help here a lot.

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I actually shot this from a fast-moving speedboat, using the “reduce motion blur” function that shoots 10 frames in a second and picks the least blurry one. Generally not my favorite gimmick, since I like to choose my favorite frame, but you never know when you’ll be shooting at 315mm-equivalent from the side of a speedboat.

THEN, of course, I can add an adapter and put on Nikon lenses. With a more pixel-dense sensor, this is a better macro camera than my D3s, paired with the 60mm f/2.8 G:

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With the 45mm f/2.8 PC-E, I can create tilt-shift images without a big camera hanging on my neck (select lenses can fit in my small shoulder bag, but my D3s sure can’t):

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And with my 58mm f/1.2, I can capture scenes in almost no light at all (and can easily see them with the EVF viewfinder). This was at ISO 3200, f/1.2, 1/8th of a second:

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So it’s all amazing, right? Well, like I said, these systems are still in their awkward teenager phase. Most glaring is the flash system. Instead of a normal hot-shoe, it has some proprietary weirdness that makes third-party flashes impossible, and if you’re using that separate viewfinder I like so much, then you can’t use any sort of flash at all! This is essentially the anti-Strobist camera. Also the viewfinder adds to the cost and keeps it from being truly pocketable, so you’ll need to decide whether it’s worth it for you (for me, it is).

The other big thing is that, compared to the competing Micro-4/3rds standard, the current lens system is deeply underwhelming. The only truly compact lens is the 16mm f/2.8, and it’s a decent but not stellar performer. Sony has committed to a lot more lenses coming soon, including a Zeiss 24mm I’m excited about. That lens alone would make this camera a strong competitor against the Fuji X100, but it won’t be cheap.

So the system will continue to grow and strengthen throughout the next year, but the mirrorless competitors aren’t being quiet. Just today, Panasonic released the GX1, which looks like a really strong camera, and Fuji is currently developing a professional mirrorless system that should have an even bigger sensor than the NEX cameras. If you don’t need professional flash, enjoy manual focus, and want a versatile system with a bigger sensor than micro-4/3rds, this camera might be for you, and it has a lot of happy new owners. But it will also be very interesting to see where we are in a year from now, and some of those awkward teenage quirks have gone away.

MORE IMAGES:

16mm f/2.8 (three-image pano)
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55-210mm:
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35mm f/1.4, 30-second exposure:
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16mm f/2.8 “sweep pano” mode:

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