Photography / Hands-on Review

The Sweeter the Better with the Lensbaby Sweet 80 Optic

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If you have been around photography for a while, you might remember the center focus filter that left the center of your frame sharp, but blurred and softened everything around it. The center of the filter was clear (or even simply air as it was cut out), and the edge was frosted glass. Some photographers achieved the same effect by smearing petroleum jelly on the edges of their lenses. Today, through the creativity and design of the Lensbaby Composer Pro II and Sweet 80 Optic, you can do this optically. Bending light, instead of just blurring it, has some definite advantages.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

There is a discernible aesthetic difference between artificial blur caused by frosted glass or petroleum jelly and soft focus created by the optical design of a lens and the latter, in this photographer’s opinion, looks much better to the eye.

Sweet 80 Optic

The Sweet 80 Optic features a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and four multi-coated elements in two groups. It is designed with a curved field of focus that allows the photographer, when it’s coupled with the Composer Pro II, to move that sharp area around the frame to provide another advantage over the traditional blurry filter method.

The Sweet 80 has a combination metal and plastic body and a 12-blade aperture. The aperture adjustment ring has a nice, hefty feel to it. I found myself spinning it around often at the office just to enjoy the feel of the clicks at each full aperture stop. Minimal focus distance is 1.8'. Even though the front element is buried pretty deep in the lens body, I did pick up occasional flare from off-axis light sources. However, if you are shooting with a Lensbaby, flare is likely one of your allies in the creation of your art.

Composer Pro II

If you used the original Composer Pro in the past, you might want to step up to Version Two. A friend lent me the first version once, and I wasn’t enamored with it. The new version is much tighter and feels like a better build. The friction ring will lock the lens in position or, if loosened a bit, it will ensure that the lens stays where you put it. Be sure to keep a hand on the front—if you go full loose, the lens will move with gravity.

Down by the River

I took the Composer Pro II and Sweet 80 Optic out to Pier 66 on the Hudson River. Pier 66 is home to Hudson River Community Sailing, New York City’s only not-for-profit sailing school that exists to provide sailing experiences and education to New York City public school students. HRCS also provides sailing lessons for adults and a membership program for those who want to be on the water all the time.

Pier 66 is also the location of the well-known Frying Pan restaurant and bar, as well as a gorgeous paddlewheel art installation piece at the end of the pier.

Not only does the aperture ring control the depth of field on the Sweet 80, it also controls the amount of blur. The center is almost always sharp, even at f/2.8, but stepping the aperture down toward f/11 or f/16 seems to push the blur zone out farther. Even on the APS-C Fujifilm X-T2 (attached with a Novoflex Nikon F to Fujifilm X adapter), the sharp(er) zone never bleeds all the way to the edge of the frame.

The difference between f/2.8 and f/8 is the size of the sharp(er) area at the center of the frame.

Deflecting the light path with the Composer Pro II allows you to shift the sharp area from the center to different areas around the frame. When wide open, the “sharp” area is not so sharp, but you can save some of it by stepping the lens down. Bokeh is unique looking, and you can alter the shape of out-of-focus highlights by moving the Composer Pro II from the dead-center position. I was able to get an OK sun star at smaller apertures, as well.

Stretched bokeh

I knew HRCS and Pier 66 would give me a good variety of vistas and subjects on to try out the Sweet 80, and I am happy to share the results with you all. It would be a disservice to call the Sweet 80, or any other Lensbaby lens for that matter, a novelty or a gimmick. The “Lensbaby effect” is a bit polarizing around the photography community, but one thing is certain: Lensbaby takes pride in its engineering and design and strives be the best at what the company does when its optics deliver these special effects. Even if you are dedicated to the art of the ultra-sharp image, using a Lensbaby is certainly enjoyable, gives you unique results, and frees you from the endless battle to find the sharpest of the sharp. Pixel peepers need not apply.

The Composer Pro II and Sweet 80 Optic is available for Nikon F, Canon EF, Fujifilm X, Micro Four Thirds, Pentax K, Samsung NX, Sony A, and Sony E mounts.

What are your thoughts about Lensbaby products? Love them? Leave them? Curious? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

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