Friday, October 15, 2010

The Lensbaby

The Lensbaby company makes a very interesting line of lenses. The latest and greatest incarnations have interchangeable optics and a variety of accessories available. Three current models are all variations of the very first: a tilting lens for SLR/DSLR cameras with basic, old fashioned optics. The images produced by a Lensbaby are sharp in the center with progressively more softness, optical distortion and color aberrations towards the frame edges.

The size of the central “sweet spot” is controlled by the aperture. Lensbaby apertures are physical disks inserted into the front of the lens using a supplied tool. No disk in place corresponds to approximately f/2 and full-stop disks are supplied up to f/22. At f/22 nearly the entire frame looks reasonably sharp.

The placement of the “sweet spot” is controlled by the tilt of the lens. When the lens is straight the sharp area is centered in the frame. When the lens is tilted to the right, the sharp area moves to the right.

The “Composer” model I currently own has a ball-and-socket arrangement to control the tilt and is very easy and intuitive in use. There is a locking ring to hold the lens in position for repeatability. I have also used the older “IIIG” model, very similar to the latest “Control Freak”. The IIIG/Control Freak is like a view-camera bellows-and-lens on an SLR. It is more complicated to use than the Composer but also slightly more versatile.

There are as many reasons to use a Lensbaby as there are photographers. One I know uses his “Muse”, the base-model Lensbaby, as a substitute for a toy camera like a Diana or Holga for street shooting. I have seen excellent portrait and wedding work with Lensbabies from nationally known professional photographers. I love my Lensbabies because they are fun and they produce images that can’t be made using modern lenses or editing software.

When I mount a Lensbaby on my DSLR, I am suddenly using a 100-year-old folding-bed view camera with a hand-ground, uncoated doublet lens. I almost always shoot a Lensbaby at f/4 or f/5.6 to get a distinctive and distorted softness around the edges. Contrast is quite low and highlights are smeared into the shadow areas. I usually shoot in aperture-priority automatic exposure mode and often dial in -1/2 to -1 stops of exposure compensation to tame the highlights.

Occasionally I will want only the tilt function for focusing reasons. Using the f/16 or f/22 apertures nearly eliminates the edge softness and distortion. While certainly not the quality equivalent of a Canon or Nikon tilt/shift lens, a stopped-down Lensbaby can produce surprisingly sharp images. I also use my models on extension tubes for macro work and with a tele-converter for more reach, both with good results.

Available accessories include tele, wide and ultra wide adapter lenses that screw into the front filter threads. Internal optics choices consist of double-glass(sharpest), single-glass, plastic, soft-focus and fish-eye. These accessories provide a lot of versatility and choices of “look” for the final image. This is why Lensbabies have become so popular and lasted so long in a tough photography market.

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