Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Reikan FoCal Lens adjust system

FoCal MA Focus Optimizing System
A couple of days before Christmas I decided to get myself a new toy for my photography passion.  This time, it was the Reikan FoCal Automatic Lens Calibrator.  I cannot recall ever having had an easier time making a purchase online.  Not only was the purchase quick via Paypal, but I received my 2nd email that contained the license within a few seconds after receiving the confirmation email from Paypal (which in itself was about 3 seconds after clicking on the PAY NOW button).
The install is very easy and I chose the Windows 7 version for my needs.  Some Microsoft computers may need to install the Microsoft DotNet 4 frameworks and the install checks for this automatically. After that, I ran the program, copied the key that was sent to my email, pasted it and restarted the program.  Next, I connected a long USB cable to my computer and then the D4, turned the camera on and it was seen within a couple of seconds and I was ready to start calibrating my lenses.

Using the app seems pretty intuitive, though I did read the quick start PDF as I was setting things up.  The longest part of this setting up process is making sure that the chart that you print out, is on the same plane as the lens and then placing the camera at the proper distance to the chart (I used the formula of focal length X 50, then divided by 10 to give me the centimeters distance from the chart to the base of the camera... close enough, for example, a 50mm lens is 50mm times 50 = 2500 divided by 10 equals 250 centimeters distance from camera to your printed out chart on the wall ).

First, as I suspected, doing it manually with a lot of patience can get you close, but not spot on unless you had some luck. Some examples... with two hours of work doing it manually, I deduced that a -10 was needed with my Nikkor 24-70 lens.  The FoCal application told me -7 was the proper optimized result.  With this tool, it lets you get it right the first time with no effort and no guessing, which basically that is what you are doing when using the manual method.  Either you are guessing, or you have some very incredible eyes!

The one thing that should be noted is that anytime we start playing with micro adjustments, it should be kept in mind that the best distance between the lens and your target is the average distance that you take pictures at normally using that lens. Reikan suggests a certain distance (25-50 times the focal length of the lens), but for my style especially with the shorter lenses, this seemed much too close and could throw off my focus more than help it.  Well, as I later learned, that 50X number seems to work really well.  How well?  Read the rest of this blog post to see!

The first four that I decided to try were the Sigma 50mm F/1.4, the Sigma 20mm F/1.8, the Nikkor 85mm F/1.4 and the Nikkor 24-70 F/2.8 lenses.  I chose them because I had the room in my basement to properly set the distance from chart to camera.  Longer lenses require more room, and I will need to find another way to set things up to optimize lenses like my Nikkor 70-200 or Nikkor 135mm F/2 due to space limitations on my end.
After having used this tool now for these four lenses, I have nothing but praise for it.  If you had the chance and bought the top of the line PRO version, you have more tools, amongst them, the Aperture Sharpness testing tool, which is just awesome! 
Now, as an example, I *thought* Ihad a really good idea of what apertures where my Sigma 50mm worked well and where it was previously ok but not great, but after doing the Aperture Sharpness Test, I did not realize just how much of a drop F/1.4 was when compared to something like F/2.
Though it measured as the least sharp aperture at F/1.4, this lens measured surprisingly excellent between F/2 to F/9 and very good between F/1.6 to F/13... but what surprised me is that the peak is at a surprisingly low F/4.  Had someone asked me where the sweet spot for this lens was, I would have sworn all day that it was closer to F/8. 

This is all knowledge that is just great to know!

With a zoom lens, things become a touch more complex, but my feelings are that one is going to have to compromise and choose at what focal length you shoot the most.  In my case, with the 24-70, I am going smack in the middle (at around 46mm), but for the 70-200, I am thinking that I want to be somewhere around the 125mm range. Distances needed are going to be a little beyond my room in the basement at the longer focal ranges, so as mentioned, I may have to do that one in a location that offers me more room.  I could do it outside, but this week, it's out of the question, unless I want to shovel a lot of snow out of my way between the camera and computer... LOL.

The process is not 100% automated with the Nikon D4 like it would be with other cameras, but the only thing I had to do is change the MA adjustment (to a setting the program told me to set it to), several times per lens test, and hit the ENTER key or click the OK button, it did all the rest.  The average time to do a lens was about 3-5 minutes.

So, initial impressions... I am very pleased with it and in the process I learned something new about my equipment and that is something that is NEVER a bad thing.

Used properly, this software and method deserves my double thumbs up. :-)

NOTE: Just to add, there are a few caveats for proper use... you need to be using Windows 7 (either 64 or 32 bit versions). There is a beta out for the Apple folks. I am not sure how the XP people would fare, I would email Reikan or do some serious research and read what they say on their website before plunking down any money... just in case.       
Anyone care to see a few pictures of shots taken after optimization?  Well here you go, because as they say, the "proof is in the pudding"!
All shots were taken with my Nikon D4 at ISO 1600, and each lens was used wide open at it's largest aperture.  Also each photo is shown twice, once the entire picture, and the second a tight crop on the focus point.  Zoom settings used varied between 200-350 percent (yes, thats 200-350%), so you can get a real close look at how well the shot focused.
First lens, the 50mm F/1.4 DC EX by Sigma. Traditionally, I would avoid the F/1.4 aperture as I found it just a little too soft, but as I learned, this was not so much because this lens is soft wide open, as much as it was an issue with the focus being off just a touch.  The before and after shots that I saw were easily visible at 100% and there was a nice advantage after calibration.  I am not going to post the before and after shots simply because the before shots are not representative of what your same lenses may be doing on your camera, but the "after" shots, should be equal to or sharper, if you have the same lenses calibrated the same way and assuming that your lenses are in proper functioning order.
Just a note here... when uploading to Blogger, it shrinks the shots that you see on a page (and also likely loses some quality as it resized them for "blog sized usage"), but if you click on the pic, you should see the larger size that I made available.  The "full sized" shot is reduced but large enough to give you an idea, and the zoomed in shot is just the 200-350 percent sized zoomed in shot.  It should be pretty obvious which is which.

There was a question that if you calibrated the lenses at distances where you did not normally shoot at, would the lens be optimized at one distance and then be far off at the other end?  Well, though we used the "50X" suggestion, and then took the above photos at near minimum focus distance of the lens, that the  further away you went, the worse your focus would be.  Looking below, it is evident that my shots are still as sharp further away as they are when close, and for me, that was a nice surprise.

The next lens was the 20mm lens, and this one has the ability to focus REALLY close, and so I tested this one both close and then really close, with equally satisfying results after calibration.

The next lens was the Nikkor 85mm F/1.4 and with this lens, I was really interested in seeing how it would focus both near and far after optimization.  The first 4 photos are with the lens really pushed to be taken at near minimum focus distance.  The last two are of a single shot taken to across the room some 25-30 feet away and I zoomed in quite a bit more to show that at both ends of the spectrum, we have some very clear shots.  Again, feel free to click on the pics to see them in their larger states, and especially, the zoomed in ones at their much higher magnification levels.

So, is the Reikan FoCal lens adjustment tool a good investment?  For me, it was a MUCH appreciated addition to my kit.  A few notes about the system... first, though the version I bought (the PRO version) is listed as 70 pounds (thats British Sterling) on their main site, you can get it for 1/2 that price from their website at THIS WEB ADDRESS.  This is where I bought mine from.  Note, that I do not know how long this site will be valid, but if you are planning to get it and this site is available... click on that link that I provided above.
What about those other tools that I mentioned?  Well, to add some frosting to the cake, the FoCal software can output all the results for you in PDF format, so you get to see where your camera optimized in terms of it's micro adjustment scale.  Other tools include things like checking for AF consistency, aperture sharpness, a cool dust analysis tool, checking focus across multiple points and more.

Here is a screen capture of a small part of the SEVERAL page PDF file that is created.  This one shows the aperture sharpness levels relative to other apertures that your lens has.

Bottom line... I love it!

Edit:  Well, after taking all the time to write this post and upload the pictures and what not, I went back the next day and looked at the photos as they appear on the blog page, and I am a little disappointed.  Blogger seems to want to compress all the photos here and indeed there is a disappointing visible drop in quality. 

I wish there was an option somewhere that said "trust me, I want the photos seen at the sizes and resolutions that I have chosen!" mode.  So, I have to ask that you not really fully judge the final results as they are displayed here, but to see them in the sizes that I originally wished them to be at on my Flickr page at THIS link.  Flickr does some funky stuff to the shots as well, but they are a bit better than I am allowed to show here.