Product Reviews » Modern Optics for a Retro Look
Everyone who has photographed with a pinhole camera, please stand up! Thought so. For us aging silver-engineers who have used all kinds of film cameras, this was one of the most primitive cameras available. They were usually very affordable, cheaply made and often even the lenses were made of plastic. Essentially they were just a lens with a single hole, through which light poured before striking the film. I bring this up not solely to reminisce, but to introduce a very creative lens manufacturer called Lensbaby. They make a most interesting lens system that can help you achieve many creative effects, including the look of a pinhole camera image.
Lensbaby encourages you to “bend the rules” and explore your own personal perspectives. Their products are collectively called the Lensbaby Creative Effects Lens System. They are well covered on Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, etc.
My Test Run
I had been hearing about Lensbaby products for a while, and they were kind enough to allow me to experiment with a lens. As a working pro, I needed something durable and precise. So they offered me the new Composer Pro lens. Lensbaby lenses are made to fit onto specific cameras, so you must specify which body you have—they have lenses to fit Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, etc.
The Composer Pro lens is made with a high-quality metal swivel ball for smooth tilts and a refined focusing knob. It is a slightly wide 35mm; so it is slightly wide on most full frame bodies, or about a normal 50mm on smaller sensor bodies. It has a range of apertures from f2.5 to f22. It will focus from about 8” to infinity. It is also compatible with the Lensbaby Optic Swap System. This lens is indeed sturdy and smooth; it can be used in still or video photography.
With the Composer Pro lens, the 12-blade aperture allows you a crisp, centered area of sharpness, and an intentional—and controllable—area of blur beyond the 'sweet spot.' By tilting and swiveling the front element of the lens, this sweet spot is moveable. So you have excellent control to select your focus. By changing the apertures, you can decide what you want to be blurry. It is an ideal and somewhat exaggerated way to get an element sharp and sweet, while the rest of the frame visually recedes; this allows your sharp image to pop!
|One of my first images taken with the Composer Pro lens, notice the sharpness of the doghouse and the blurriness of everything else.|
How Does It Work?
Why, you may ask, does this happen? On conventional cameras, the plane of the film or sensor is precisely parallel to the plane of the lens elements. Using the Composer Pro—or a very old fashioned and expensive view camera—you can adjust the plane which you want to be in focus. This is a creative method of making some elements sharp and some out of focus. It is all about creativity!
Once the Composer Pro mounts on the front of your camera, you need to learn how best to use it. You will need to have your camera in manual mode. I suggest that you start with the elements as parallel as possible to your subject. Focus on the desired subject. Then, swivel slowly in different directions and watch what happens. The difference is sometimes subtle and other times dramatic. Once you have the lens where you want it, refocus to get the desired subject in sharp detail. Sometimes, if you have the lens way off center or tilted too far to one side, there will appear to be nothing in focus. So, it takes some getting used to, for sure. The lens may not work coupled to your metering system, so be prepared to meter, expose and adjust exposure settings.
Beside the Composer Pro, Lensbaby offers several other lenses and conversion kits. The Scout gives a simple and centered fish eye look. The Muse has a flexible, fast and loose sweet spot. Then there are a series of interchangeable diaphragms that will inject different effects, like the Soft Focus, Pinhole/Zone or Plastic Optic. Each of these has a different look. The range is amazing. The other lens that I like is the Control Freak. This lens has a series of screw-like adjustments that are great for tabletop or macro photography. It allows you to specify what you want in focus in the sweet spot, lock it in, and shoot, knowing it is all going to be the same for each frame.
Some of the lenses, without a built-in adjustable aperture, take a system of interchangeable apertures, which affect the size of the sweet spot. Other apertures offer you shapes, like stars, swirls, sunbursts, etc. Wild and crazy!
Then there is the 0.42x super wide-angle conversion lens, which almost cuts your lens’s length in half, and allows you to focus as close as 3”. Likewise, the 0.6x wide-angle kit. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the 1.6x telephoto kit. As you might guess, it changes a normal 50mm lens into the equivalent of an 80mm long lens. You can just screw these conversion kits into the front of the Lensbaby optics. Some of the conversions can be a bit tricky as far as compatibility is concerned, so step slowly and carefully here.
I am new to working with this type of lens, having been a longtime pro stuck on fixed lenses. I'm starting to see what this new technology can do though. What I found is that it takes some getting used to, but I'm getting the hang of it. Look at the vertical image of the wind chimes that I shot with the Composer Pro. What I especially like is the way that the central subject matter seems almost 3-D. The chimes are so clearly the critical element, and the background just falls away and recedes. I love this 3-D look!
|Macro photography takes on a new look when it incorporates the sharp subject focus and blurry backgrounds created by a Lensbaby lens.|
The more conventional macro-like image of the flower is nice for a close-up look. The two flowers are a fraction of an inch away from each other. One is sharp; one is blurred.
So now it is time to get crazy and inventive. Look at the Lensbaby website, see what their lenses can do for your creativity. The lenses range in list price from about $89 to $300. Let me know how it goes, and be creative!
Follow the light…f-stop