Lensbaby lenses have been out and about for a long while now, but we were just recently able to sit down with a few of the company's best and brightest in order to form our own opinions of the (admittedly overlooked) creative devices. For those unaware, Lensbaby makes a handful of lenses and optics that help users engage in selective focus photography, and frankly, create all sorts of wild images that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to create within Photoshop. There's no question that these are hobby lenses through and through -- you wouldn't want to hinge your business on these -- but are they worth the comparatively low asking prices? Read on to find out.
If you're into lomography, you'll likely be into Lensbaby lenses. Put as simply as possible, the company's stable of lenses, optics and accessories are all engineered to drag out the creative soul you've been stifling for so long, and in our experience, they accomplish that goal. We tested out the Composer lens -- a 50mm device that tilts in order to selectively blur your subject(s) -- and a trio of optics: Double Glass, Fisheye and Soft Focus. One of the many things that makes this system unique is the ability to simply drop a new optic into the lens in order to open up a whole new world of possibilities; in other words, you'll never actually have to change the lens itself (only the drop-in "optic") in order to switch from fisheye to soft focus.
Let's start with the Composer, a $270 lens that can be ordered for use with Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Samsung, Olympus and Panasonic cameras. Said unit ships with an $85 Double Glass optic, which can be tweaked further by a set of included magnetic aperture rings. It should be noted that this lens requires full-on manual control on many cameras (the D90 included), while we were able to shoot in Programmed Auto mode on our splendiferous D3S. We loved the light weight of the lens and the stubby nature, though we did long for an easy way to see when you had the tiltable tube fixed in the center; there's a ring that you can tighten in order to keep it locked, but finding the exact center is practically a crapshoot. Inserting and removing optics from the lens was a cinch, as you simply use the lid of your next lens as the removal and entry tool. We'll be frank -- it took us a minute to figure out how exactly the process worked, but it's certainly intuitive once you stop thinking about the attachment process involved with your standard Nikkor lens and start thinking like a "real artist."
Double Glass impressions
The Double Glass that's included with the Composer was easily our favorite of the optics we tried. Sharpness was way better than expected, and the drop-in aperature rings allowed for all sorts of imagination-filled shots. We tended to prefer the F/4 ring for our style, but we definitely appreciate the options that are bundled in. We should note that the use of this does require a leap of faith from the camera operator, and if you've had your DSLR wheel locked on "Automatic," you'll definitely be outside of your comfort zone in the beginning. Once you work with ISO ranges and shutter speeds, though, you'll quickly learn to appreciate just how much this setup is teaching you about your camera. In fact, we'd argue that using this has the potential to make you a better overall photographer, as the crutch known as "Auto Mode" is forcefully removed. Have a look at some sample shots we snapped with the Double Glass below on our duo of Nikons (all of which are unedited save for resizing).
We were giddy with anticipation before using the 12mm Fisheye optic ($150), but unfortunately, we can't say we came away floored with the performance. Granted, it's a $150 fisheye (compared to "real" fisheye lenses costing hundreds or thousands of dollars), so we can't reasonably expect it to perform at an exceptionally high level. The biggest annoyance was the inability to completely filter out the darkened edges, and the sharpness level was certainly well below the Double Glass that we'd already fallen for. Still, we managed to eke out a few smile- worthy shots in the right circumstances -- have a look below to see if it's your cup of tea.
Soft Focus impressions
Finally, we spent a solid week trying to figure out where the Soft Focus optic fit in our life. Truth be told, we never found it. We suspect this one is designed for those Gone With The Wind shots, but we had a bear of a time finding the right controls needed to extract a pleasant shot. The Double Glass was a far easier (and more forgiving) optic to handle, though we suspect the payoff would be worth it if you really put the time into mastering this guy. Priced at $90, we'd have more difficulty recommended this one, and beyond that, the effect here is far easier to replicate in post-processing than the one seen in the Double Glass. Have a glance at a few sample shots below to see if you agree / disagree.
So, is a Lensbaby system for you? If you're bored with your current crop of lenses, and you've no interest in plunking down over a grand for yet another piece of glass, these lenses and optics are absolutely worth a look. We wouldn't necessarily recommend the Fiseye and Soft Focus optics for everyone, but the Composer -- which ships with the lovely Double Glass optic -- is a winner in our eyes. It opens up a pretty fantastic realm of creative options, and it worked well on both DX and FX bodies that we tested it on (D90 and D3S, respectively). It's important to keep in mind that these are just hobby lenses at heart, but we'll be candid with you -- we had an awful lot of fun shooting through these. Our pup, however, didn't seem to share our enthusiasm.