Lensbaby Composer (Review)

Lensbaby Composer (Review)

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The debate still rages regarding what effects you can achieve digitally in post production and which ones you have to get from specialized glass.  Tools like Photoshop have certainly come a long way in their various blurring and sharpening algorithms as well as many other techniques that were previously only possible to do in camera or the darkroom.  Purists however, will tell you that if you want creamy bokeh, nice blurred backgrounds, tack sharp images, tilt-shifted images or natural looking selective focus, it all comes down to what lens you are using.  For this reason, companies like Lensbaby are enjoying more success than ever before.  I’ve been familiar with their products for awhile, but when I saw their new Lensbaby lineup I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one to see what that baby was capable of.

First things first.  The Lensbaby is not your all-purpose lens.  In fact, for those photographers who prefer edge to edge sharpness and clarity, I recommend staying away from these products all together.  If you’re a control freak, again, stay away.  This lens is about getting a raw and vintage look, one that may look like someone spilled water on your prints or touched your lens with a greasy finger or bumped you in the middle of pushing the shutter.  Throw in the fact that there is no digital aperture control and no auto-focus and you might wonder why anyone would use this lens at all.  However, that is like asking why paint when you can photograph, or why write when you can film.  These lenses let you step beyond the normal bounds of photography and create unique shots you may not have expected or would have been otherwise impossible.  And the best part is you did it the old fashioned way–in your camera and not your computer.  Once you know it’s application, you’ll fall in love with this lens.

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Currently the Lensbaby lineup consists of three products: the Muse, the Composer and the Control Freak.  Along with these are four optic lenses that drop inside for different effects.  All three of the lenses work on the same basic principle of pivoting your lens in relation to the camera’s sensor via a ball-and-socket joint. This creates a sweet spot of focus while blurring and skewing other areas of the image even though they are the same distance from your lens. 

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Think about that for a second.  Depth of field principles dictate that everything in the same focal plane will be in the same focus. This lens bends this rule literally by bending the light entering your camera, creating extreme spherical and chromatic distortions that you can control.  What’s really cool is, similar to pinhole cameras and those of yesteryear, these lenses are completely analog.  There is no communication going on between the lens and your camera.  No focusing, no aperture control, no VER or any of that fancy stuff.  In fact, the aperture can only be set by dropping a magnetic disk in front of the lens with holes cut out in various sizes.  How cool is that?  You get to handle your apertures and see their relationship with one another.  Included are discs for f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, with f/2 being the default.  Keep in mind that the larger the aperture, the smaller the sweet spot that will be in focus, and vice-versa.  If you want to get really crazy, try using the star and heart shaped apertures or even order a blank to custom cut your own.

I won’t go into the drop-in optics too much, but they are designed to recreate effects such as old Holga cameras, pinhole cameras and plastic lenses. Their website has a cool page that lets you view the same image taken with each of the different optics and apertures.  Very cool.

Field results
I prefer the Composer for its ease of use.  The first time I took this lens out, it was for a family photo shoot in a park.  I wasn’t sure how the results would be, so I only took it on my spare camera body.  Thank goodness.  From about 15 shots I took with it, only 3 or 4 were up to my standards.  The other 11 amounted to user error in one way or another.  It’s been ages since I shot in manual focus mode, and I felt somewhat out of practice.  In addition, controlling the sweet spot added to the difficulty mostly because this was my first go at it.  Subsequent shots have improved steadily and I’m starting to break myself from reliance on my camera.  I also found that its much easier to get your feet wet with this lens when shooting still objects and landscapes.  Below are a few examples.

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The lens seems to have roughly a 50mm equivalent, perfect for many situations.  They also have a few screw-on lens adapters that give you telephoto or wide results as well.  I tried the 0.42x Super Wide Angle Converter and highly recommend it.  It opened up the lens to 21mm and creates a macro-esque features allowing focus as close as 2.75 inces; perfect for flowers, rings and other objects that would benefit from the unique selective focus of this lens.  If you’re going to buy the lensbaby, buy this adapter.  Here are a few of the results all taken from our second outing with this lens.

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Bottom line

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.  Price as tested: Lens $270, Wide adapter $75.  A bit pricey, but what isn’t with this hobby?

Recommend for:

  • Photographers that want to get more artistic vintage shots and push themselves into new areas of the art.
  • Photographers looking for a unique images that stand out from those in a field of ever increasing competitors.
  • Photographers that buy the latest gadgets to be the cool kid on the block.

Not recommended for:

  • Photographers just starting to build their lens collection.
  • Photographers who do little more than portrait work.
  • Photographers who avoid fully manual settings.

The Lensbaby is available in several different lens mounts: Canon EF (EOS), Nikon F, Minolta Maxxum/Sony Alpha, Pentax K, Olympus Four Thirds System.  Check out the lensbaby website for video tutorials from other professions using their products and the stunning results you can achieve.  As a bonus, here is a short video entirely with a Canon and a Lensbaby.

Grab one for yourself at Amazon

Last Day Dream [HD] from Chris Milk on Vimeo.

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Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Irina August 27, 2011 12:04 am

    I am looking for a lensbaby - never used before, but the I would like to use this concept in portrait photography. I found several models produced by Lensbaby, compatible with Canon 5D Marc II, but I am struggling to getting examples the lens produces to make my final choice of the model ... Any advice from your behalf ?
    Irina

  • Paul August 14, 2011 06:55 pm

    I've had a Composer for about a month now, and I love it.
    It has all been said before, but carrying the Lensbaby helps you to create that vintage look as you shoot, not afterwards on the computer. And yes, you aither love it, or couldn't care less about it.
    People bitching that the same effect can be created by Photoshop aren't photographers in my opinion, they're photoshoppers. Being a good photographer imho means being able to put the idea you have into a photo, not to make a photo and create your idea on a computer.
    Don't get me wrong, being good in Photoshop is great, and comes in handy sometimes, but it has nothing to do with making good (or even great) photos.

  • ModelCitizen April 20, 2010 11:15 am

    I'd felt that the Lensbaby was a gimmick. I still do, but I now have one (the Muse) and it actually puts fun back into photography. I can't speak for the other models, but the Muse requires a little skill to get the shot you want as it's all manual as far as focusing and setting the "sweet spot". I agree that some images done with it may be off-putting but, then again, so are many "normal" photos bandied about online these days. Yes, it's not something you'll use all the time, but it does add another element of creativity to photography. As far as trying to replicate the effect in Photoshop...what would be the point then?

    Note: If you have small hands/short fingers, you may have trouble controlling the Muse as you have to be able to hold it in position for focusing and tilting while pressing the shutter button. If that's the case, then The Composer may be your best option.

  • Gordon McKinlay November 15, 2009 12:52 am

    Great review. I've been looking at getting one of these for ages and wasn't sure what to go for. I now have a far clearer idea of what I am looking for. Off I go to order the composer.

  • ekant October 18, 2009 04:26 pm

    I am from india and i study in 8th grade. I enjoyed your photography but idon't how to do it .I am learing from
    Dr Deepak sir .Iwant some tip that how you focs the lens and what lens you used it.

  • Chas October 18, 2009 12:29 pm

    I agree this lens is not for everyone. Keep in mind the shots here were done on the first and second day with the lens. I'm really having fun with it. @Julian, your attitude stifles experimentation and pushing the art. I'm glad Lumière, Eastman, and Muybridge didn't listen to your type as they pushed photography into new territories. There isn't only one style with this hobby. Sheesh.

  • Steve A October 18, 2009 11:49 am

    i dont own one of these but from the shots i've seen from others, I dont think this review does the lens baby justice.

    To those among us who ask "why not just use blur in photoshop?" - its very much an afterthought by that point, using a lensbaby allows you to see the shots differently as you are taking them. Its a very different thought process.

    The composer is definitely on my xmas list :)

  • venkman October 17, 2009 07:32 am

    i love my lensbaby 2.0 :)

    http://www.flickr.com/search/?ss=1&w=97921834%40N00&q=lensbaby&m=text

  • JulianHt October 16, 2009 02:54 pm

    First of all, why fool around with some cheap plastic lens that makes blurred pictures if you can do all these effects and better in Photoshop?

    "Photographers looking for a unique images that stand out from those in a field of ever increasing competitors"

    Don't make me laugh! If you want to stand out better make good pictures that show your unique vision rather than using these cheap tricks that are no more than temporary gimmick
    Cheers,
    Julian

    http://photo.net/photos/JulianHt .

  • Ross October 16, 2009 01:24 pm

    I ? my lensbaby, I currently have a Lensbaby2.0 which is great fun, I now am thinking of getting the Composer and attempting some stop-motion and time-shift videdo with it. Using the lens baby has really helped me understand the manual settings on my camera, and also opens up a lot more creativity in the way you compose photos. I now often see things and think, that'd be great photographed with my Lensbaby. It is also great for food shots because the irrelevent stuff aorund the edges is blurred, and you can get in quite close for a macro shot.

    Check out my lensbaby pics on my Flickr:
    http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=Lensbaby&w=69722871%40N00

  • Sime October 16, 2009 08:10 am

    @ Jes - About $1000.... The image quality between the two is vast, the ability to focus is very different, build quality? the way they work... In short, pretty much everything is different aside of the fact that the focal planes in both cases are able to move in relation to each other.

    Sime

  • alan October 16, 2009 04:29 am

    yeah, i don't understand the draw to these lenses. i like pinhole cameras (and effects) and appreciate analog for sure. but the results from these lensbaby lenses just don't do much of anything for me. i agree with one of the posters above in regards to the motion sickness. i just don't understand why that look would be desired in the first place. i don't really see any use or chamr for the above photos. this is not meant to be offensive to the author as i get the same feelings from the examples on lensbabys website.

  • Ian Pack October 16, 2009 03:05 am

    I've has a Muse for sometime now and it's a great bit of kit. I strongly believe if you can get the effect in camera THEN DO IT! OK, it may sound old fashion, but I'd much rather be out or in the studio creating images than stuck in front of a screen.

  • s October 16, 2009 01:34 am

    I have been wanting one for ages... I think your review has pushed me over the edge... damn the expense I want one !!!

  • SnappyClapper October 16, 2009 12:48 am

    "Motion Sick and Nauseous"

    +1

    Love the idea, just can't look at the pictures.

  • Jes October 15, 2009 11:24 pm

    Just wondering: what is the diffrence between the lensbabies described in theis article, and tiltshift lenses like the Canon TS-E 45MM?
    Do they accomplishe the same thing or is there a distincte difference between the two?

    Jes

  • Thomas Folke Andersen October 15, 2009 08:19 pm

    The Lensbaby is a great lens which can result in a lot of good fun (and some frustrations from time to time) and to me it's a lot more fun to use a tool like this to achieve the blurred soft effect than trying to recreate the effect in Photoshop. The somewhat unexpected results are also a big part of the charm.

    I took my Lensbaby out with its dedicated Macro Kit the other day. You can see the results in Lensbabt Macro Sees Red, Infrared.

  • PRH October 15, 2009 07:38 pm

    I know very little about the lensbaby other than some of the photo's I've seen on this blog, on the DPS forums and on flickr. It looks like some sort of primitive tilt/shift lens. Can it be used as such? With experimentation, can you increase DoF for macro shots or reduce it for that scale model look you see with some cityscape shots?

  • Mei Teng October 15, 2009 03:58 pm

    I don't really dig the results of the photos featured here. So no Lensbaby for me at the moment.

  • Adriana_G October 15, 2009 09:22 am

    Thanks for this review on the Lensbaby. At the moment I'm using the Lensbaby 2.0 that has kindly been lent to me and am totally hooked. I think it's one of those things that you either love or you hate. You get it, or you don't. I love the effects I achieve in camera, very dreamy and vintage and can't imagine life without the Lensbaby! In fact, it's the first lens that I place in my camera case, I find it totally versatile. I'm hoping to see some Lensbaby gear under the Xmas tree this year :D

  • Erle Pereira October 15, 2009 09:12 am

    I know someone who has the MUSE lens above. While i was sceptical initially, the amount of fun that can be had with these lenses is truly incredible.
    Yes, you need too see photography as an art form and enjoy it though, its not for everyone. I know how to use photoshop and you really cant rival the natural-ness of the images that come from these. Plus, this is a lot more fun, and isn't that the whole idea anyway?

    Thanks for a nice post.

    Personally, I'm saving up for the composer. Cant wait to get my hands on one of these.

  • James October 15, 2009 05:23 am

    I would love to see what the lens looks like while hooked up to the camera.

  • sbunting108 October 15, 2009 04:09 am

    Nice review It seems a good idea but as I am a fairly new photographer I will wait a while untill i build up my lense collection more as at the moment I only have a kit lenses and a telephoto lense.

  • editwizard October 15, 2009 03:29 am

    It can be a neat effect sometimes. Maybe its just me but when I look at Lensbaby photos, they just seem to make me motion sick and nauseous!

  • Jones October 15, 2009 02:42 am

    I find the Lensbaby to be a great tool - and I've used it for everything from barns to bands. That said - it's not the first lens I pull from the bag - but it's definitely a welcome addition to the kit.

    And I have to agree with a previous comment - this lens does indeed limit your options - and, I think, that's the point. The LB presents the photographer with a fresh set of challenges, risks, and rewards.

    Then again, I've always had a soft spot for Holgas...

  • Mikko October 15, 2009 01:57 am

    I totally understand using this kind of special lenses. I built a tilt-shift myself for 30 EUR, though. It's a matter of choice and works for some.
    For me, it's because of the fun factor: With a special lens, it's more hands-on. You see the shot the way it is going to come out already at the time you compose it. Some may prefer masking and blurring in Photoshop as a hobby even for bokeh-like effects. I am all for manual there, too and have recently bought several fast vintage MF lenses. Each has their own, unique rendering. It's a hobby, not work. I use way too much computer already at work, so I opt to use it less for my hobbies. :-)

    But, as said, It's each persons own choice - some prefer to spend more time on the field behind the camera. Some prefer to spend more time at home, with their PC and in post-processing - that's cool, too. No option is better or more clever, they are simply different?

  • Aaron October 15, 2009 01:50 am

    The reason you want this lens and not photoshop is because the product is analog, not digital. The analog is an organic product that is genuine in a way that no photoshop edit can ever attain, and the audience can tell the difference. If you really see no point to using the lens over photoshop, you aren't an artist, you're just a snapshot taker.

  • Reznor October 15, 2009 01:28 am

    I never really understood why someone would want to use one of these. You can easily achieve that look with Photoshop. If you use one of these babies, you're stuck with that look. When you use a normal lense, you can decide if you really still want that effect and you have absolute control over the final result. Besides, you still have the normal shot to work with and maybe try other effects. Why spend so much money on something like this? It doesn't expand your options, it limits them. Severely.

  • Danferno October 15, 2009 01:24 am

    "What’s really cool is, similar to pinhole cameras and those of yesteryear, these lenses are completely analog. There is no communication going on between the lens and your camera. No focusing, no aperture control, no VER or any of that fancy stuff. In fact, the aperture can only be set by dropping a magnetic disk in front of the lens with holes cut out in various sizes. How cool is that?"

    How is that cool?