How to do Autofocus Fine Tuning on Your Nikon DSLR

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Most of the time your equipment does a great job, but every once in a while you may find that under certain circumstances, your photos may seem a little soft. Although there are no less than a million reasons why this might be, it may simply be that your lens isn’t focusing where it’s supposed to.

You may be thinking that if this is the case, isn’t something seriously wrong? Not necessarily.

Some cameras are equipped with a feature to tweak the accuracy of its autofocus – Nikon calls this autofocus fine tuning.

Depth of field

Autofocus fine tuning allows you to dial in the autofocus accuracy of a camera/lens combination.

What is autofocus fine tuning?

Camera lenses are built, and tuned, to fairly exacting standards and do what they are supposed to pretty well, even lower-end lenses. However, there is a window, albeit fairly minute, that focus tuning parameters fit into. If the lens’ tuning falls right in the middle of that window, the focus will be spot on, but it’s not uncommon for the focus to be at either end of that window while still meeting quality control standards.

What this means is that in the majority of shooting situations you are going to end up with sharp results. In some situations when you are pushing the accuracy limits of the lens, such as macro photography or shooting at wide apertures, you may discover that the lens focuses a little in front or behind the focus point you’ve chosen. Maybe you’ve seen this shooting a close-up portrait at a wide aperture – although you are trying to get the subject’s eyes in the focus plane, you keep getting their eyebrows or ears sharp instead.

Why use it?

This is where lens fine tuning comes into play. What this feature does is allow you to dial in the accuracy of the lens/camera focus point even more precisely than it already is. If you haven’t noticed any problems with your setup, or mostly shoot at smaller apertures, going through this process may be unnecessary.

This feature can be found on Nikon bodies from the D7000 up and Canon bodies from the 50D and up, as well as several Sony, Olympus, and Pentax cameras.

Fine tuning settings are specific to the lens/camera combination and once you tune a lens, the camera saves the setting, which it reverts to anytime you mount that lens. Although you need to use a CPU lens to reap the full benefits of autofocus fine tuning, older analog or third party lenses can be fine tuned, and the settings saved manually on Nikon DSLRs.

What you need

  • A tripod
  • A newspaper or magazine printed with a small font
  • A table
  • A well lit room

How to do it

Step 1 – Mount your camera on the tripod and adjust it so the lens is about two feet above table level. The idea is to have the lens pointed at the newspaper at about a 30-degree angle.

Set up for autofocus fine tuning.

The setup to adjust autofocus fine tuning is fairly simple.

Step 2 – It is recommended to set the zoom (if using a zoom lens) to the focal length and distance which you use most often.

Step 3 – Set the camera to single-point, single-servo autofocus (AF-S for Nikon, One-Shot for Canon)

Step 4 – Open the lens to one stop down from its widest aperture (e.g. set an f/2.8 lens to f/4) and the middle of its zoom range (if it’s a zoom lens).

Step 5 – Place the focus point in the middle of the frame (center dot). I prefer to align the focus point with something recognizable like a letter of bold text among normal text.

Focus point in the center of the frame

With autofocus set to AF-S (one-shot), single-point, place the focus point in the center of the frame.

TIP: A helpful method is to turn on Live View and place the small dot in the middle of the focus box on a letter of text. Zoom in the view (NOT the lens) which gives you a more precise center point than the small box seen through the view finder. Turn off Live View to continue.

Using live view to align focus point

Using Live View helps to line up your focus point more precisely.

Step 6 – Set the self-timer on the camera to at least five seconds to allow the camera to stabilize after pressing the shutter button.

Step 7 – Turn off any stabilization either in-lens or in-camera.

Step 8 – Make sure focus points are enabled on playback: Menu>Playback Menu>Playback display options>Focus point>Done>OK

Focus point on preview

Enabling focus point on image preview allows you to see where the focus was set when the picture was taken.

Step 9 – Defocus the lens manually and then engage autofocus until it locks onto the focus point and press the shutter button.

Step 10 – Review the image and zoom in to check the accuracy of the focus point. Do this a few times for verification.

Checking focus point accuracy

Preview the image and zoom in to check the accuracy of the focus point.

If it appears that sharpness is centered on the focus point, great, your lens’ focus is accurate and you’re good to go. If not, continue reading.

Step 11 – To adjust the autofocus fine tune go to: Menu>Setup menu>AF fine-tune>AF fine-tune (On/Off) and turn it on. Go back and select Saved value.

Fine tuning autofocus

The menu location of autofocus fine tuning.

Your lens’ information should be displayed in the upper left corner and the fine-tune adjust on the right.

Step 12 – Positive numbers correct for back-focusing (focusing behind the focus point) and negative numbers correct for front-focusing.

Adjusting autofocus fine tuning

Positive values adjust the focus point away from the camera while negative values move it closer.

Remember, this is called “fine-tuning” so the increments are pretty small – a +1 is hardly noticeable.

Step 13 – After each adjustment, defocus the lens manually and repeat the steps above until you hit the sweet spot.

The settings you have applied to a specific CPU lens are saved, and are loaded automatically anytime that lens is mounted to your camera. With non-CPU lenses, you can create a profile for that lens which you can then save and revert to manually when that lens is used.

If your lens’ focus still fails to hit the mark after attempting autofocus fine-tuning, either go old-school and use manual focus if it’s practical, or you will need to send your lens in to have it calibrated with a special machine.

If you use a brand other than Nikon check your camera manual to see if your model has this feature and how to use it.

Good luck and may your images be as sharp as my witticisms – hopefully much sharper.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Jeremie Schatz is a freelance photographer, photojournalist, journalist, copyeditor and videographer for a variety of clients and companies in the United States and Thailand. Find his portfolio of colorful images and more of his writing at Exposed World Photography and on Facebook.

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  • I’ve used lensalign to fine tune my AF. It’s an expensive item but it’s so easy.

  • Thanks for this great article! Although I don’t shoot with a Nikon (I use Pentax instead), it was still very interesting to read up about it!!

    Thanks
    NVeal
    http://www.solihullphotography.com

  • Talon Humphrey

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  • Jeremie

    LensAlign is definitely a good options for those who require the highest accuracy out of their lenses. Thanks for mentioning that.

  • Tirta Dewata

    Thanks for the article…I’ve tried this several times…but not as on your technique by putting in tripod…I will try this for sure –
    ———————————————-
    http://wedding.mylocalcity.net/

  • Frank

    After seeing some of my recent photo’s I had some doubts, and decided to check my lenses using the method from your article…to find out that my 24-70mm f2.8 Nikkon lens was about 6/20 points out of focus !! thanks

  • Yair Sagiv

    Thanks for the informative article!
    Fine tuning my lenses’ auto-focus was on my “to do” list for far too long.
    But after my recent photo shoot I’ve decided there’s no way out of it 🙂
    Do you have to repeat the process for every CPU lens you have?
    If the settings are different for different lenses how does the camera know which calibration to use?

  • Yair Sagiv

    After studying this further, I found a few problems:
    1 – The focus point wouldn’t show on my LCD image preview, even though the appropriate menu option is chose. Has any of you encountered this problem as well?
    2 – I wonder how the fine tuning affects the rest of the auto focus points. If you choose only the center point when fine tuning, how do you know if the rest of the 51 focus points are being calibrated (on the D800?)
    3 – Speaking of the D800, there might be a manufacturing problem which we can’t solve by fine tuning the auto focus. More on this over here:
    http://www.dslrbodies.com/cameras/camera-articles/image-quality/d800-autofocus-problem.html

  • Jon Whitaker

    I have a Nikon D7100 and have calibrated all of my lenses to the body using the AF Fine Tune feature. I have a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 and just bought a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8. I noticed that the first couple of images we not tack sharp and went into my menu settings to calibrate the lens (after taking some test shots with the same chart used to calibrate the other lenses).

    When looking at the lens profiles in the AF fine tune menu….the camera thinks that the new 24-70mm is the 70-200mm. Know of a solution?

    Any way to manually enter a new lens profile?

    Thanks in advance!

  • Thomas Bell

    I am confused, but am reading this early morning. Step 2 says: “It is recommended to set the zoom (if using a zoom lens) to the focal length and distance which you use most often.” Step 4 says: “Open the lens to one stop down from its widest aperture (e.g. set an f/2.8 lens to f/4) and the middle of its zoom range (if it’s a zoom lens).” Which is better, the focal length I am most apt to use or the middle of the zoom range? Thanks and thank you for all of the wonderful articles!!

  • Harold Mayo

    FoCal by Reiken is a quick and easy option if you have several lenses.

  • Ralph Mastrangelo

    Unfortunately, you’re out of luck. I had the same issue with my D750 and Tamron 24-70 and 70-200 lenses. I also had the same issue with both lenses on my D7000. I contacted both Nikon and Tamron support, and neither company, particulary Nikon, expressed any interest or desire to find a fix.

    As you’ll note below, this has been a known issue since at least from 2013.
    http://forum.nikonrumors.com/discussion/1380/problem-with-tamron-lenses-on-d800/p1

    Btw, I ended up selling my Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 for the Nikon 70-200 f/4.

  • David Edwards

    What happens if every lens you attach to your camera is way off? Could it be the camera needs recalibration? I teach at a school and I know the camera and lens combination I originally wanted to check with this article became very off after it was dropped on it’s face. The glass survived the fall, but the camera was consistently out of focus with this lens attached. I was able to conduct your tests and that lens had to be adjusted a full 20 points and probably would have benefited from a few more. I proceeded to check other lenses and they appeared to be quite off as well. Just wondering if I am chasing the wind with this and I should be sending the camera off instead.

  • Ralph Mastrangelo

    I just reread this article. The following sounds contradictory:

    Step 12 – Positive numbers correct for back-focusing (focusing behind the focus point) and negative numbers correct for front-focusing.

    Adjusting autofocus fine tuning
    Positive values adjust the focus point away from the camera while negative values move it closer.

  • Nikographer

    seems like the most important part of the article is wrong….

  • kmrod

    i know it’s been 10 months but to answer your question, if you dropped the camera, a certified nikon service place can re-calibrate the camera for you.

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