GhettoCAL: A DIY Lens Calibration Tool for Microadjustment-Enabled DSLRs


It’s fairly well known that not all lenses are created equal. Put that in combination with manufacturing variables and lenses don’t always perfectly align with the camera mount. Generally the differences are minor and for the most part negligible, but I buy old Minolta lenses from eBay and I want to get the best bang for buck out of them.

I started making micro adjustments to my lens/camera combinations when I first got Sony’s a77, and have now micro adjusted all my lenses for the a99 and D3. After reading what the Internet had to offer regarding “micro adjustment” or the “fine tune” functions higher level DSLRs offer, I quickly printed off some charts similar to rulers and taped them to my wall to start making adjustments.

I noticed an immediate benefit, especially to my prime lenses. A good majority of my lenses had been back focusing, and strangely the new Sony 16-50mm f/2.8 front focused by quite a bit. I no longer have that lens but it’s known to be a high performing lens, and can I just say how much sharper it got after the micro adjustment? So sharp that if you gave it a glance you might bleed.

Anyway, I recently invested in a new (used) DSLR and a really used lens that I knew needed adjustment. I was getting pretty annoyed with printing sheets off and taping it to my wall, then angling my camera at a 45 degree on a tripod. Yep, I’m THAT lazy.

So I decided to open up Adobe Illustrator and make a nice little reusable tool to get the job done quickly. Simply place it on a flat/level surface with your DSLR on a tripod, focus on the target and take a picture with the lens aperture wide open. Reference the ruler to the right and you should be able to see where the depth of field is, and whether or not your lens/camera combination is preferring to back or front focus. There’s a lot of information on how/what/why people do this so I won’t go into that, this post is about how to make your own “GhettoCAL” target.

GhettoCAL_Step1 copy

Here are the ingredients you’ll need:

  • Foam core
  • Ruler
  • Printer
  • X-Acto knife
  • Double sided and regular scotch tape
  • Cutting board (unless you don’t mind cuts on your desk)
  • Paper clip
  • ~15-20 minutes (if you’re not jacked up on coffee)

First, print out the PDF template I’ve linked HERE.

Get a piece of foam core and use double sided tape to position and hold the template over the foam core board. Be sure to put the tape under specific components (target, base, ruler etc.)

I designed the template so the edges of the components end at the edge of the paper, so you not only retain a perfectly straight line but you also have one less side to cut (see what I mean about me being lazy? Some call it efficient, I’m more honest.)

You want to cut with 3-4 careful strokes over the same line (trust me, it works out infinitely better this way).

GhettoCAL_Step2 copy

Once you’re done knocking out the pieces, use the scotch tape and tape down the edges of the template to the foam core, you want a clean level surface that won’t catch on something and rip your cool project. I don’t know about you but I only want to do this once.

GhettoCAL_Step3 copy

Match the “Insert” tab with the slot cutout on the base. This is where Illustrator was incredibly useful, I made sure the sizing was right so it wasn’t a loose but solid fit.

GhettoCAL_Step4 copy

You don’t have to do this next step, but I included a piece designed to be back support for the target. I just like the psychological comfort of knowing the structure has more support. If you so choose you can take the piece labeled “Target Back Rest” and tape that to the back of the target. Be careful to put the 90 degree side on the back of the target and the base.

GhettoCAL_Step5 copy

Take the paper clip and insert it into the side of the target indicated “Pin Guide”, now insert the other end into the ruler, being careful to match the lines.

GhettoCAL_Step6 copy

You don’t have to match the lines exactly but if you don’t, you need to make a mental note that “0″ on the ruler will likely not be functional as the center point. You’ll have to figure out depending on what line is “level” with the target, that that line will then become your “correct” focal point matching the plane of the target. (When I look on my target/ruler below from side the “0″ line is on the same plane as the target, that’s how I’ll know focusing on the target will match the “0″ point of the ruler.)

GhettoCAL_Step8 copy

Now put the final pin between the “base” and bottom of the “ruler” where it indicates “Pin Guide”. It’s just to hold the pieces in place and again reinforce the overall structure. It’s not even a good solution, as I ended up adding a bit of tape on the bottom of the base and ruler to hold it in place more.

GhettoCAL_Step9 copy

And there you have it, the GhettoCAL.

Here’s a blown up image of the Nikon D3 and Nikkor 28-105 f/3.5-4.5D combo at 105mm: it looks like the lens front focuses slightly.

D3_Compare copy

Remember, these targets work well with primes and high-end zooms. Lower end zooms with variable apertures and long focal ranges generally will have multiple issues, and calibrating for a front focus at 105mm might cause the lens to back focus at 28mm.

Don’t consider this an end all be all, it’s a guideline to approximate with and compromise to get improved results from otherwise “unknown” combinations.

About the author: David Liang is a photographer who specializes in studio, portrait, and fashion photography. Visit his website here and his blog here. This article was originally published here.

  • CrackerJacker

    This is awesome! Thanks for sharing. I love me a good craft project (and useful, too)!

  • Andrew Morgan

    This is fantastic. I have calibrated my lenses the hard way, meaning, without this setup. Going to have to try it out.

  • BarkingGhost

    It is unfortunate that DSLR’s cannot seem to calibrate themselves. The Nikon reference someone else provided clearly indicates that the camera has no clue what it is supposed to be focusing on. I would think with some sort of spot/center-weight focusing point, the camera would know, and then use whatever programming routine to self-calibrate, but apparently these cameras are still stupid.

  • Ken Elliott

    Well, these cameras are not “smart”. They are simple machines. They have limitations. Our job as photographers is to know the machine, understand the limitations and use methods that works with the tool.

  • David Liang

    Thank goodness Petapixel republished my article here. I’m not sure what happened but my entire blog database is corrupt now. My portfolio site is still up but the entire blog is done. I’m rebuilding the page and I don’t even know if I want to re-write some of my old posts or just start fresh. ….. I’m not a webmaster but I should have known to backup my site…

  • Csaba

    The camera knows exactly what it is focusing on. The reason why they give you the option for fine-tuning your DSLR is because the AF sensor in the camera is not equivalent to the image sensor of the camera. And that is why even the slightest misalignment of those sensors or a lens element (in the lens) will cause inaccurate focusing. The technology what you wish for does not exist with optical viewfinders just yet. It only exist with live view shooting.

  • Jimmy

    This is a very useful tool, and it’s unfortunate that so many armchair/forum shooters who never print (or know how to use a camera), scoff at the fact that most lenses/cameras/AF need this.

  • Ken

    thanks, just what I’m looking for.

  • Deirdre

    Thanks for this (and David — so sorry about your site — hope you got that fixed).
    Any tips on how to print it? If I print borderless, it cuts off a tiny bit. If I print to fit, it makes it all a little smaller so the measurements are off.

  • Deirdre

    I figured something out (printed it borderless at 99%). All set. Thanks!

  • D. Lambert

    This would probably be great if I could get the PDF without a spam-laden download manager wrapped around it. It’s a PDF, right? Like I really need a download manager for that??

  • JohnC2012

    there is no spam…click the link then click download top right, it downloads the pdf fine. Don’t see anyone else with a problem…perhaps your computer is already riddled with malware?