Wild Bird Photography – Calibrate Your Birding Lens

One of the ways for you to get super sharp bird photos is to know your gear like you know how crazy you are.

WARNING: This blog may have OFFENSIVE content if you have been feeling miserably lately. You may opt to skip reading this blog in its entirety, else, read at your own RISK!

Recently, my workhorse, the Canon 50D, was admitted to the hospital due to sprained shutter mechanism (one of the consumable/replaceable parts of a Canon DSLR). Advertised by Canon to have 100,000 shutter, I was only able to consume around 65,000 shots when intermittent issues popped up with increasing frequency. First was the black vertical arc appearing on my photos against extreme backlights and the last one was the intermittent Error 30 during 6fps bursts. I must have overused it to the point of exhaustion. But I thought there are 35000 shutters more left for me? Aaah, the beauty of advertising.

To cut the story short, I had the shutter mechanism transplanted with brand new parts. It took Canon Philippines a week to fix it and now I have another 65,000 shutters to boot. My Canon 50D is now back in action.

The core of this blog though was the consequence of having a brand new piece of mechanism in my birding rig. As soon as I got it back to working condition, I suspected that some shots were off in terms of sharpness that I used to have. I thought that the only way to get confirmation of this sharpness issue is to go out birding and have the gears tested and re-calibrated if indeed sharpness was off.

Unknown to many, bodies and lenses that you buy, aren’t perfect. The moment you have your lens mated with a camera, you may have brought with it some problems. The mating of the camera body and a lens produces unique combinations. Sometimes both are perfect combinations, sometimes both needs some tuning so minute imperfections are threshed out. One of the most important concern that a birder needs to look at his gears is ‘auto-focusing’. Having perfect ‘focus’ delivers super sharp images. In bird photography, having a mis-focusing rig, however minute, gives you images that are sharp but are not extremely sharp.

So if you really want extreme sharpness, you should know how to calibrate your camera and your lens to achieve perfect focus. You do calibration when one of these things happen:

  • after you combine a body and a lens (right after you have bought the set)
  • when something in the combination has changed (in my case, some mechanism that might affect focusing was replaced)
  • during some regular tune-ups (I typically re-tune my rig once every 6 months)
  • when you suspect sharpness is an issue

The good news is that, it is very easy to have your rig finely tuned to achieve perfect focusing. First, you just need to know if your camera body has some feature that allows you to calibrate auto-focus. My Canon 50D has one and it is called Micro Focus Adjustment (MFA). I would suggest at this point that you check your camera’s user’s manual if indeed your camera supports this. If you camera doesn’t have this feature, sorry, you may have to bring your rig to your service center for proper tuning. If you happen to have this feature, check the manual on how to use the feature. this might differ from camera to camera depending on brand and models.

As a bird photographer though this is how I calibrated my camera and lens upon suspecting some sharpness issue caused maybe by the installation of a brand new shutter mechanism.

NOTE: I purposely went to Angono, Rizal yesterday to shoot the Philippine Eagle-Owl and at the same time recalibrate my camera and lens to achieve perfect focusing. This is how I did the tuning:

  1. Mount your gear on a sturdy tripod. You must not move your tripod during the entire calibration process.
  2. There is no better substitute than to use the REAL THING and do it outdoors! Use bird feathers when calibrating your gears. Feather details are what you are after so using a feather would give exactly the same feedback as shooting birds. Since the Philippine Eagle-Owl is readily available yesterday, I ‘plucked’ a feather from it and use it for calibration. Place the feather at exactly just a bit right outside your MFD (minimum focusing distance). If you can’t get a feather, you are not a resourceful bird photographer. I suggest you shoot landscapes and sunsets.
  3. Format your cam’s media card.
  4. Set Timer mode to shoot. 2 seconds would do. Go for 10 if you want.
  5. Set rig to LIVEVIEW, lens at wide open and set to its longest focal length. Zoom in to the feather @ maximum magnification (10x for my Canon 50D). Focus manually or using contrast-detection focusing. This will enable you to have a visual confirmation on the sharpness of feather details via your cam’s LCD screen. Then shoot! Be sure that you produce an ultra sharp image using this process. Repeat Step 5 until you are able to produce a single ultra sharp image. This ultra sharp image will be used as your guide in achieving perfect focusing. Be sure to delete the ones that are not as sharp as can be. Retain only one image that is the sharpest.
  6. Set lens to auto focusing mode. Set the proper limiter (mine @ 3.5 meters) if your lens have these switches. Set lens wide open and its longest focal length (for zoom).
  7. Set MFA to zero and shoot at the feather. Using your cam’s LCD, view and compare the output from your previously saved ultra sharp image that was earlier taken via LIVEVIEW. If you happen to have the same ultra sharpness between the two images, then congratulations for having a perfectly tuned and focusing rig and your tuning is DONE. However, if sharpness is doubtful, you may either increase or decrease MFA setting and repeat Step 7. DO this until you achieve the same level of sharpness as the one you had using LIVEVIEW.
  8. After you are done, only then you can move the tripod. If you have moved your tripod during the process, then you consider repeating from Step 1.

Here is the result of my calibration earlier using a real Philippine Eagle-Owl feather in Angono, Rizal. Click on the photo for high-resolution viewing.

Prior to my cam’s shutter mechanism getting replaced, my MFA setting was at +4. Long ago, it was at +8. Now with its brand new shutter, it is at +12.

This is all folks! I hope this article has given you an idea on how to know your gears better.

NOTE: No birds were harmed during the calibration process.

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