Your kit is the lifeblood of your business, so ensuring that it is in top condition is surely a big part of your obligation when you accept paying clients. I take my entire kit to be serviced once a year, usually in the winter and I thought I was doing enough but this year I've been noticing that I'm losing a significant amount of images where the focus is just slightly too far out. Now I'm from the old days of film and I actually find the 'sharpness' of digital a little too much.. who actually wants to see every single pore and line right? But recently I've been wondering if I should have my kit looked at for focusing issues. I have some lenses that I regularly use that are over 10 years old and although they have been well worth the investment, the cameras and technology involved in being a digital shooter has moved on. When I thought about it, I'd actually only updated my camera software once.
I'm pretty trigger happy so although focus issues were not at the point where I was delivering shoddy work, there was definitely the odd killer shot that was missing focus and there is only so much that you can get away with as 'creative'. Like this shot from a recent wedding. I actually delivered both of these images to the couple as I love the emotion in them but you can clearly see where I've missed focus in the second one a little bit too much and it's her shoulder that is the sharpest part of the image. I often shoot wide open at F2 or below, in fact this shot is F1.4 and at those apertures, there really is not a lot of focus to play with. I also use back button focus pretty much all of the time and so need my kit to be able to cope with this.
So like most photography issues I might have, I carried out a scientific poll....
and started a thread in the Farmers Facebook group to see what everyone else does. So some clever clogs manage to do this quite happily themselves but it sounded so complicated that when I heard about a service where they take your kit and do this for you, I decided to look into it some more.
Camera Focus Support Services has been started up by photographer Jon Mullins for people like me, who would rather outsource this delicate procedure. So how does it all work?
This time of year I shoot a lot of commercial and editorial work so my main concern initially was about how long does it take? I don't want to be without my entire kit for days and days at any one point but I picked a quieter time and figured if I had to, I could shoot a food job that was booked in with my Fuji. You book your time in via the CFSS website and they ask you to also choose a suitable time for the courier to arrive. This first visit is to drop off the pelican case that you then pack your kit into. It has padlocks and even comes with a roll of packing tape for the outer box so you don't have to scrabble around for that. I had mine delivered on a Friday so I still shot a wedding on the Saturday and packed the case on the Sunday. So on Monday the courier came back and took the box, Jon carried out the work on the Tuesday and boom!!!! The courier came back with everything on the Wednesday morning (anyone else humming a Craig David song now?).
So what happens to the kit? Yes here is the science bit ...
DSLR Canon & Nikon Cameras and lenses are manufactured as single items and mostly sold as such and all will have a variance in their calibration. Inside the menu system on these cameras the manufacturers have incorporated an Micro adjustment /AF-Fine Tune system (-20/+20) because they recognise there is a need to tune each individual lens to each individual camera for optimum focus performance. The degree to which your lenses and bodies are out of focus harmony varies on each individual one and therein lies the problem. One lens could be what is called back focusing - meaning the part of the image actually sharp is behind the point where the reassuring camera focus beep has said it's fine or it could be the opposite and be in focus way in front of what your focusing on - front focusing.
If you shoot wide open with apertures of f2.8 or larger, the depth of field could be down to as little as 2 cms, this is where variation during manufacture becomes most apparent. Focusing on a person’s eye in a portrait, the actual part in focus could be the ear or nose. Incredibly frustrating if that moment you photographed is not in focus. In wedding photography these moments are fleeting and you need to be confident your focus is accurate, reliable and repeatable. To correct for this variation your DSLR camera and lens combination needs to be focus calibrated together using the cameras inbuilt Micro adjustment / AF-Fine Tune facility and an independent focus calibration tool in a consistent calibration environment with correct light on a test target and correct testing distances for lens lengths. Specialised calibration for Macro lenses and long lenses is achieved from years of experience.
The enhanced tests provide an extra level of information not provided in the calibration test:
Aperture Sharpness Test The aperture sharpness test will determine which aperture gives the sharpest image for each lens tested. This is achieved by taking test shots at each aperture setting on the lens and then analysing the results. This test will also show the difference in quality between the best aperture and wide open aperture.
Autofocus (AF) Consistency Test The autofocus (AF) consistency test allows you to review the consistency of the camera’s AF system throughout a number of identical defocus/focus test shots. The results will show the repeatability of the cameras AF system for each camera/lens setup, also giving the ideal AF Micro Adjustment / Fine Tune value to use for each camera/lens combination.
What is Back Button Focus (BBF)?
When you press the shutter button half way down on a DSLR camera the metering activates along with the cameras autofocus system. When you press the shutter button a further halfway the picture is taken. Back button focus will take the focus function away from the shutter button and assigns it to another button on the back of the camera. The new back button (AF) will then activate the autofocus system independently of the shutter button which activates metering and ﬁres the shutter to take the picture.
With back button focus you can set focus and it will stay set until you decide to change it. The beneﬁt of this is that you can ﬁre the shutter as many times as you want with the subject in focus as long as the subject hasn’t moved. You won’t miss that unrepeatable split second ‘moment’ due to the camera re-focusing.
AI Servo / AF- Continuous The two main types of autofocus on a camera are one shot and AI Servo on a Canon and AF-Single (AF-S) and AF-Continuous (AF-C) on a Nikon.
One shot is when you press the shutter button half way or press your assigned back button focus button, your focus will be set once on the subject you are aiming at. If you have a moving subject or you move you will have to refocus.
Another way of focusing called AI-Servo (Canon) or AF-Continuous (Nikon) can be used instead. This focusing method actually tracks focusing on moving subjects. With a fast moving subject coming straight at you, using one or more focus points kept on the subject in AI Servo/ AF-Continuous mode and a fast shutter speed, a high percentage of shots will be sharply in focus.
AI Servo/AF-Continuous when combined with back button focus can signiﬁcantly increase the amount of usable images in focus and also help to reduce post production time spent trying to salvaging out of focus images.
So what's the verdict? Well it was scary seeing how many adjustments were made to my lenses when I opened the report. I did an all day fashion shoot the week after my kit came back and looking through the previews, I can't see any that will get binned because of focus so I'm really happy that I decided to send them off. The whole thing is very pain free and although I'm never going to be the photographer who wants super sharp all the time, I do love that now I can shoot with any softness as a creative decision, not a mistake. It also means time saved in post production and it's very reassuring to know that my cameras' software is now up to date.
So what's the cost? They offer a range of levels according to how much kit you have and of course this is for either Canon or Nikon DSLRs. I found the whole process very slick and I'm impressed with the results. They are also now offering a little bonus to help you understand your focus more. The Platinum Consultancy Service can be bolted onto to any package for an extra £39. Big thanks to Jon at Camera Focus Support Services, if you think this might be of benefit to you, head over to their site and tell them Photography Farm sent you. (Also thanks to Malteser for inspecting the Pelican case each time!)