What’s special about the Lensbaby Velvet 56 and is it for you?

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Usually, when you buy a new lens you are trying to get a wider angle or maybe more of a telephoto view, but with some lenses, you are trying to get more of a special effect. The Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens (price it out on Amazon.com or B&H Photo) is one of those. You can almost get normal images, but it is far better for giving you soft focus ones, not to mention some great blurred backgrounds, or to give you the bokeh effect.

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The Lensbaby Velvet 56

A portrait lens and more

If you look around at reviews you see it described everywhere more as a portrait lens, but it can be used for so much more. It is a 56mm fixed lens with manual focusing and you basically get a lens very similar to a 50mm, but with some differences.

There is a range of apertures from f/1.6 to f/16 and each one creates a different effect. When you use the widest, f/1.6, you get very soft images, and the more you close it down the sharper it gets. The wider settings help you get that soft focus and bokeh look.

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Flower from the garden.

Size and quality

It is reasonably compact, though made from metal it is heavier than other lenses in the same range. My Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens is much lighter than the Velvet 56 f/1.6. You can tell when you are holding it that there is quite a bit of metal in it, as it ‘s cold to the touch. It is bigger than the Nikon lens, but not by much. It also has a very cool metal lens cap.

Painterly effects

Without a doubt, this lens is known for its effects and one that is highly desirable is the painterly result. The wide apertures give images that look as though they were painted. Some say they can get the same type of image in Photoshop, but it would never have the same softness.

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A flower shot with a wide aperture giving it a very soft focus look.

Works on a full frame or cropped sensor

It is a lens for a full frame camera, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it with your cropped sensor if that is what you have. If you do have the latter, in theory, you should be able to get closer to your subject as well.

It is also available for a number of different mounts, so whether you have a DSLR or a mirrorless camera you can find it for your model.

The different apertures

As stated, each aperture gives you a different effect to your image. Play around with those. As you start changing them and closing down the aperture, the image in the viewfinder does start to get darker. It is because not as much light is coming through, however, it doesn’t affect your final image, as long as you have the correct exposure.

Your camera won’t recognize the lens and you will have to change the aperture the old fashioned way, with the aperture ring on the lens. This also means that when you look at your metadata on your computer you will have no idea what setting you used. If it is important then you should record it as you take photos.

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Flinders Street Station, with a wide aperture, then around f/8 and the third at f/16. See how the image slowly comes into focus.

Manual focusing

One of the aspects that a few people seem concerned about is that it’s a manual focus lens. Perhaps it is just the people that I hang around with, and as we are getting older our eyesight is affected. But having to manually focus is one thing that is (or seems) much harder.

It does take some getting used to, but it gets easier the more you do it. With most macro lenses you always seem to get the best results when you manually focus, though, so perhaps that shouldn’t be considered an issue.

When you are using wide apertures, even with macros, you are going to get very soft images which will mean you will never get very sharp images with this lens. In some ways, that can make it a lot easier to focus as the sharpness isn’t as important. This is how you get the painterly effect.

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A close up image of the clocks and sign of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne.

Landscapes

Doing distance shots can be tricky as everything can appear too blurry. You really need to play around with the aperture to get the best effect. However, as stated previously if you play around with them you can get more in focus. The downside is once you close it down you lose the special effect of the lens and the softness it creates.

In reality ,you wouldn’t really use this lens for landscapes or architecture. I would use it mostly for macro, it really shines for that. It is too soft for landscapes and architecture if you ask me. But people do it, and you get some great effects, but it is never going to work like a normal lens, which is the point I suppose.

What would you use the Lensbaby Velvet 56 for?

For many, it is a great lens for portraits. Photographing people and getting great bokeh behind the subject is very desirable. As most portraits are done in an intimate environment, meaning the photographer is very close to the subject, the softness of the lens can enhance that and add an artistic feel to the images.

Like portraiture, macro photography is another great use for the Lensbaby Velvet 56. You can get very close to flowers and can create some very painterly images using different apertures. The lens is also suitable for attaching extension tubes and close-up filters to use with it. I’ve used the extension tubes on it. Plus, from time to time, I put on a 5+ close-up filter on to allow me to get even closer.

When you are focusing on a subject, if it is further away than  3-4 meters (9.8-13.1 feet) then the lens will be focused at infinity. So you don’t have to worry about focusing for landscape or architecture shots, just twist the focus ring all the way to the right so it is on infinity and shoot. It is only when your subject is closer that you need to start manually focusing the lens more critically.

It is good to use the soft focus look on subjects up close. But it doesn’t look as good when objects are further away, like large buildings, though that may be something that you like, so it’s your call.

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Using the aperture to focus on one part of the image, in this case, the lock and chain.

One of the things I have found with architecture and city shots it that while it does a great blurred effect, it can make the images seem busier than normal. While some may not like that, you could make it work for you. If you keep trying you can get some interesting images. You might even get images that give everything a tilt-shift look, so the city looks miniature.

It is about experimenting, trying on different subjects to see what works best for you and which you like the best.

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A night view of the city with the aperture opened up a little gives it an almosttilt-shiftt look.

The price

The price of most 50mm lenses are around two to three hundred dollars, whereas the Velvet 56mm is a bit more expensive, selling for around $500 USD. However, if you like the specific types of photography mentioned in this article, then the money spent on it would be worth it.

Is it for you?

There is no doubt that you have to get used to it, but most people will fall in love with the lens straight away. It is good to play and experiment with and the more you do, the more you will discover. It could be a great way to add something new to your photography. I think it is amazing, and I love using it for macro photography.

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A flower photographed with the Velvet 56.

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Leanne Cole is a fine art photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. She loves Melbourne and photographing it, along with other parts of the state. She likes doing architectural and environmental photography. You can find her on her website or on Instagram.

  • Stacey

    I recently saw another article about this lens that made me interested in it, so your article is very timely. I love the effect, and you have demonstrated it excellently here especially with the flower images but its so expensive here in NZ! I struggle to justify that cost for a niche effect, but I really like it.

  • Having had this lens for over a year now, I can say that it is absolutely one of my favorite lenses. I love the fact that it can come very, very close to being a “normal” lens, and then with just a change or 2, provide those gorgeous dreamy images that Lensbaby is so famous for. There is a learning curve, no doubt, but once beyond that, the possibilities are truly endless.

  • I know what you mean about the cost Stacey, it is the same here in Australia, I guess it comes down to how often you would use it. I’ve spent more money on other lenses that I don’t use often. I use this one every week, often several times a week. I love macro photography, so for me, it is a must have and so glad it is in the kit. I hope you can find a way to get it. thanks.

  • It is one of mine too Lisa. Absolutely, I like that I can take normal photos with it as well, but my favourite is using it for macro. Like you said, the images can be so dreamy. Thanks for sharing your experiences and love for the lens Lisa.

  • june.crowell

    Get paid 90 dollars each day for working on the net from your home office for few hrs everyday… Get paid regularly weekly… All you need is a personal computer, access to the internet, plus some spare-time… http://korta.nu/NDe

  • walwit

    Too little the area in focus on most of the pictures here for my taste.

  • I guess that is what it comes down to in the end, our own personal taste. I love it, and I like it for some specific things. I wouldn’t use it for everything, but I like the way it puts some lovely focus or highlights a particular area.

  • Jay L

    Leanne, do you know of any less expensive lenses similar to the Velvet 56 that have a similar effect- even considering imports or knock-offs?

  • Sorry Jay, I don’t know any, though you can get what they call the composer pro, and it can take different lens, it is a lot cheaper, you can get some lovely photos with the composer pro and the sweet 50. They are also from Lensbaby. That is all I can think of, sorry.

  • Jay L

    Thank you! The Velvet 56 creates gorgeous photos though.

  • It really does, it is by far my favourite lens for macro, once it is on the camera, I don’t want to take it off.

  • Jay L

    I shoot figurative sculptures , anywhere from close up to 10-20 feet away. You think it will work for that?

  • I don’t know, how far is 20 feet in metres, lol, It could work, but to be honest I really don’t know. If want to do distance stuff you really have to close the aperture down.

  • Jay L

    20 feet is about 6 or 7 meters. I looked up Velvet 56 on Flickr, and its nice looking at the variety of work there, even landscapes . I think I’ll take the plunge!

  • That’s great Jay, I’m sure you will love it, and it does give you a different effect. Let me know how you go with it.

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