Hands-On Review: Photographing New York’s Community Gardens with the Lensbaby Velvet 56

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As someone who enjoys pushing the envelope photographically, I’ve always had a soft spot for manual focus lenses. Hence my excitement over the invitation to test a Lensbaby Velvet 56 and write a review of its macro capabilities.

Back story

Lensbaby has been at the forefront of creative-effects photography since the company’s founding, in 2004, and the Velvet 56 stands out in the product line for its sturdy metal construction and classic camera look and feel. Another attractive feature is its functionality as a dedicated tool for soft-focus portrait effects, in addition to its macro focusing capabilities. But since I was tasked with reviewing the latter, I decided to test it out in some of my favorite urban hideaways—New York’s much loved community gardens.



 

Community gardening in urban Manhattan dates to the 1970s, when concerned citizens joined forces in response to the abandonment of public and private land resulting from the era’s financial crisis. The Green Guerillas, an aptly named group of gardening activists, began transforming derelict vacant lots into valuable green space, thus improving air quality, biodiversity, and the general well-being of residents. The first community garden was established on the northeast corner of Houston Street and the Bowery in 1973, and was dedicated in 1986 as Liz Christy’s Bowery-Houston Garden, in honor of its founder. It is protected today under a 2002 preservation agreement between the city of New York and the office of the New York State Attorney General.


Lens basics

I arrived at the garden on a sunny afternoon with the spring blooms at their peak. Snapping a classic black model Velvet 56 onto my Nikon APS-C camera (a D7000), I got straight to work. The lens’s 56mm full-frame focal length translates to 84mm with a DX-Format sensor, a focal length that is perfect for attractive portraits, be it of people or flowers.



 

Measuring approximately 90mm long by 72mm in diameter, and weighing 400 g, the Velvet’s internal build features four multi-coated glass elements in three groups, which work in tandem with its internal 9-blade diaphragm in a “unique singlet-doublet-singlet” optical design. When in use, the lens exhibits damped focusing that is pleasingly smooth, and it has a very long throw of nearly 360 degrees. Rack the focus all the way to the left for the macro setting of 1:2 (half life size) and the minimum 5" focal length. Incremental distance markings are clearly notated around the lens barrel from 6" to infinity—a great treat for those who enjoy calculating depth of field using hyperfocal distance. The aperture ring is also clearly marked with f-stops, from f/1.6 to f/16.


The Velvet is at its best when working in manual mode—with you calling the shots—although it can also accommodate aperture priority mode on many camera models. Those unfamiliar with operating a manual lens will find that aperture controls are confined to the lens barrel rather than command dials on the camera, a throwback to analog operation that can take some getting used to. Most important to realize is that in manual mode, the aperture information is not stored in your image metadata, so if you want to keep track of the aperture settings, bring along a notepad. 


After an hour or so at my first destination, I set out to explore some of the other gardens nearby. The East Village is home to a rich assortment of community gardens, most of which are searchable on the NYC Parks Department website, Green Thumb NYC. One of my favorites, the 6BC Botanical Garden is open to the public every day from May to October. Once inside, I quickly lost myself amid the wisteria-strewn tree house and meandering pathways with abundant floral specimens.



 


Hands-on with the Velvet

The late afternoon lighting conditions were perfect for macro work, with overhanging trees creating open shade, and shielding the garden plots from direct sunlight. I gravitated to the tiniest blossoms to run the Velvet 56 through its full range of aperture settings. The real beauty of this lens becomes evident in its varied response to depth of field. At smaller apertures (f/8 – f/16), the subject is revealed in sharp focus surrounded by a rich bokeh, yet as you open up to wider apertures the entire frame exudes a velvety glow. When shooting macro subjects at the maximum aperture of f/1.6, the focus is limited to a tiny sliver of the three-dimensional field of view, with all other detail falling away in a softly colored blur. At this aperture, contrasting colors or shapes outside this pinpoint of focus are effectively eliminated from images, yet they become increasingly visible as the lens is stopped down.

 

In addition to bracketing apertures to demonstrate these varied pictorial effects against different backgrounds and contrast ranges, I also spent time making exposure brackets, discovering that the unique effects of this lens can be tempered or further enhanced by over- or underexposure. This is definitely a lens for which bracketing makes sense.


A few challenges

One aspect of the Velvet 56 that can be tricky in limited light is its manual diaphragm. Most modern cameras and lenses have an automatic diaphragm, which opens the aperture to its widest setting once the lens is mounted on the camera—until the instant the shutter is released. The Velvet does not have an auto diaphragm. At f/1.6, you’ll find that the viewfinder is pleasingly bright, however the lens aperture closes accordingly as you stop down, making what you see through the viewfinder increasingly dark. While this can make it tricky to nail focus, it does alleviate the need for a depth-of-field preview button.

Even though the appeal of this lens is its velvety, soft focus effect, the critical focusing required for macro subjects makes attaining optimal image sharpness into somewhat of a hunt-and-peck exercise. The most effective approach I found for nailing the focus was to combine any fine adjustments I made to the focus ring with moving the camera ever so slightly with my body to focus on a sweet spot.




 

Sharpness issues can also be compounded by the effects of a slight breeze. At the macro level, a momentary occurrence can make tiny flowers resemble shivering organisms. For added stability when faced with such external factors, I brought along my Manfrotto tripod with a Grip Action Ball Head and a Vello Remote Release. The ball head’s ergonomic control was particularly useful for minute compositional adjustments once the breeze died down.



 


Final thoughts

The more I explored the parameters of this lens in a macro setting, the more I enjoyed it. While many photographers fixate on the acuity of a lens as its most important attribute, I’ve always gravitated to the outer limits of such accuracy and control. For me, shooting with the Velvet 56 was like a journey down the rabbit hole, and exploring the myriad ways this lens responded to depth of field, balanced with the effects of light, contrast, color, form, and other pictorial elements, kept me eagerly hopping from one garden plot to the next.



 

The Lensbaby Velvet 56 is available in mounts for Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony Alpha A, Sony E, Pentax K, Micro 4/3, Fujifilm X, and Samsung NX, with Nikon and Canon models being offered in a choice of classic black, or silver metal with a clear anodized finish, or a limited-edition silver lens with copper accents, which includes a wooden box. For further enhancement of images, it also accepts 62mm filters via its front thread mount.


For more on this lens, check out Allan Weitz’s Lensbaby Velvet Quick Look Video and Todd Vorenkamp’s take on the Velvet and the Lomography Petzval 85mm.


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4 Comments

Soft focus is one thing, out of focus quite another.  Very uninteresting photos.

Thanks very much for reading Explora, John. Sorry you find my pictures to lack interest. The Lensbaby Velvet is certainly not for all tastes, but I quite enjoyed using it to test the limits of focus while exploring the world in minute detail.

I found 99% of the above pictures are not in focus at all for the main object/topic of them.

Hi Ben, thanks very much for writing in. As I explained in the text, images shot with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 have a very distinctive, limited or soft-focus look, particularly macro subjects, where the focus is often limited to minute details within the frame. This aesthetic is obviously not for everyone, but it's a look I personally enjoy and therefore extensively explored when shooting. I can assure you that all images selected for this article do contain areas of sharp focus, yet it's also worth noting that the files posted here are 72 dpi jpgs specifically intended for web display. Thanks again for your comment and for reading the Explora blog!

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