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Lensbaby makes a number of different lenses for digital SLR cameras, most of them built around the concept of creative use of tilt-shift photography. While traditional tilt-shift lenses are designed for precise control and perspective correction for architectural photography, Lensbaby takes the exact opposite approach for their lenses.
You won’t find any detente stops or angle markings on these lenses. They are designed to tickle your creative bone, encouraging experimentation in use. Sharpness is limited to the center of the image, quickly giving way to soft, blurry edges. Because you can tilt the lens so that it is not dead parallel to the sensor plain, this area of sharpness can be moved, creating what is often referred to as “The Lensbaby Effect.”
You can also think of the Lensbaby as a modular Swiss Army knife. Rather than using fixed optics, all current models allow you to swap out between various lenses with ease. Numerous accessories are available, including close-focus kits, creative aperture inserts, wide angle and telephoto add-ons and close-focus diopters for macro use.
When I was lassoed into writing this roundup I was intrigued. I’ve always considered buying a Lensbaby, but found myself moving toward rangefinders and using my DSLR less and less. Thankfully, I held on to the DSLR, and was able to dust it off to test the big box of lenses and optics that arrived in the mail from Lensbaby.
All of Lensbaby’s current products use their Optic Swap system. This allows you to remove the optic that ships with your Lensbaby. You’ll be able to choose from Plastic, Single Glass, Double Glass, Fisheye, Soft Focus, and Pinhole/Zone Plate optics.
The Plastic Optic is similar to those found in Lomography cameras, such as the Holga and Diana. It creates a very soft image, with lots of chromatic aberration. You can lessen the softness a bit by adding a magnetic aperture insert. A tool is included with the optic to swap out aperture discs, and an accessory kit is available with a slew of different discs.
The Single Glass Optic creates results that are similar to those of antique optics. It is a single uncoated piece of glass—a primitive design by today’s standards, but one that lends itself quite well to the style of imagery that one expects from the Lensbaby line. Because the lens is uncoated, it delivers low contrast and is prone to experience flare.
The Double Glass Optic features a more modern optical design and multicoating. It is capable of excellent sharpness in its sweet spot. It’s a great option for creative portraiture, as you can get sharp focus on your subject’s face while the rest of the image is smooth and blurry.
If you want to go wide, the Fisheye Optic features a 12mm focal length and can provide an impressive 160° field of view. It’s best used with the Scout (see below), which doesn’t deliver tilt capability, or with the Composer (also below), as that allows you more control in positioning the image circle and focusing. If you want to use it with the Muse or Control Freak (read more below), you’ll have to purchase an adapter to change its mounting mechanism.
If you want to go for a soft-focus effect, look no further than the Soft Focus Optic. Unlike the Plastic Optic, this features a double-glass design and gives you an even amount of softness. It includes a special aperture disc that creates the effect, and the amount of softness can be adjusted by adding additional aperture discs.
The final optic in the lineup is completely lensless. The Pinhole/Zone Plate allows you to select between an f/177 pinhole opening or an f/19 zone plate. Either mode can create very soft, ethereal images.
The simplest of the product lineup, the Muse is basically a bellows system that holds the optic of your choice. To focus, you squeeze the lens to collapse the bellows, and to select the focal point of your image you simply bend the lens in any direction. Because you can’t lock the lens in position, it is best suited for handheld use.
I found the Muse to be extremely intuitive to use. It took only a few minutes before I got the focusing method down. I liked the freedom afforded by its uninhibited movement, and the concentration required for focusing helped me to better consider the framing of my shots.
The Muse is available as a kit with a Plastic Optic or Double Glass Optic. You can get it for Canon EOS, Nikon F, Sony Alpha A, Minolta Maxxum, Pentax K, Samsung GX, Olympus E1 and Panasonic Lumix DMC cameras.
The Muse with the Double Glass Optic installed
Photographs © 2010 Jim Fisher
The Composer gives you a bit more control than the Muse. Focusing is achieved via a standard ring, rather than a squeezing motion, and it will stay in place when you take your hand away. You also have the option of locking down movement via a tightening ring, perfect for those times when you’re using it tripod mounted.
This was the first of the lenses I attached to my camera, as I felt that it would be the one I was most comfortable using. Although the results you get from the Composer are more controlled, there was definitely something less tactile about using it, when compared to the Muse. I tended to get the results I was going for when shooting with the Composer, where the I was often surprised by how my finished images looked with the Muse.
The Composer ships with the Double Glass Optic. It is available in the same mounts as the Muse: Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax and Four Thirds. It can also be used in conjunction with the Tilt Transformer with Micro Four Thirds cameras.
The Composer with the Plastic Optic (left) and Single Glass Optic (right) installed
Photographs © 2010 Jim Fisher
If you’re doing the type of work that requires precise adjustments, such as macro photography, the Control Freak might be the Lensbaby for you. You can squeeze and tilt it just as you do the Muse, with the added ability to lock it into place. Three posts are present for fine adjustments, and a focusing ring around the lens barrel allows you to focus on exactly what you want.
The Control Freak ships with the Double Glass Optic, and is available in all standard mounts.
The Scout differs from the other Lensbaby lenses in that it does not offer any type of tilt adjustment. It ships with the Fisheye Optic installed, but is compatible with all of the Lensbaby optics. You’ll get a wonderfully wide, circular fisheye effect, and you’ll be able to focus quite close to a subject to fill the frame.
The Scout is a really fun lens to use. Swap in the Plastic Optic and you’ve got a digital "toy" camera. Using it with the Double Glass optic creates images that are sharp in the center and become softer towards the edges. You can focus with precision, thanks to the focusing ring.
The Scout with the Double Glass Optic (left) and Fisheye Optic (right) installed
Photographs © 2010 Jim Fisher
The Lensbaby Tilt Transformer isn’t a lens—it’s an adapter that allows you to add tilt adjustment capability to any Nikon F mount lens—including any Lensbaby lens with a Nikon mount. Available for Sony NEX and Micro Four Thirds cameras, the Tilt Transformer takes advantage of their mirrorless design so that any lens you mount will retain its ability to focus to infinity.
I tested the Tilt Transformer on a Panasonic G2 with a Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 lens. Its close focusing capability, combined with the crop factor of the G2’s sensor, led to some very interesting macro shots. You could alternatively use it with wider lenses to recreate the miniature effect that is in vogue these days, without having to resort to Photoshop effects or investing in a high-end, perspective-control lens.
The Tilt Transformer is available alone, or as a bundle with a Composer with Double Glass Optic.
The Tilt Transformer with the Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 attached
Photographs © 2010 Jim Fisher
The modular design of the Lensbaby system lends itself well to accessories. An accessory starter kit is available that includes a few add-ons that might come in handy.
The Creative Aperture Kit includes f/4 discs, precut in the shape of a star and heart , which turn out-of-focus highlights into fun shapes. It also includes five blank discs, which you can cut into any shape you desire.
The Wide Angle/Telephoto Kit adds adapters for use with any Lensbaby optic. The 0.6x converter changes the field of view of a standard Lensbaby from 50mm to 30mm. If you’re using a Lensbaby on a full-frame camera, this gives you a nice wide-angle option, and if you’re using it on an APS-C camera it gives the lens a normal field of view. It also includes a 1.6x telephoto adapter lens, perfect for those times when you desire a tighter field of view.
The Macro Kit includes +4 and +10 diopters. You can use them independently, or stack them for an enhanced macro effect. When using these diopters, you’ll lose the ability to focus to infinity, but you will be able to focus extremely close. When you stack the two, your focus range is limited to objects between 2” and 3” from the lens!
Tap Your Creativity
If you’re looking for a new way to express your creativity in photographs, a Lensbaby may be a worthy addition to your arsenal of gear. While they certainly aren’t meant to appeal to all types of photographers—you wouldn’t want to go hunting for the elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker with one—Lensbabys do make a good option for wedding and portrait specialists.