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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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Chas Elliott

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

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