I’ve toyed with the idea of picking up a Lensbaby for a while. It’s one of those things that looks fun but is not considered a serious piece of kit by many professionals. I’ve talked before about the tilt shift effect and the Lensbaby range offers an easy way into this style of shooting. The optics feature a curved field of focus which creates a ‘sweet spot’ in the centre and progressive blur towards the outside of the frame. It’s an effect that cannot be replicated easily with software but it comes with it’s own set of challenges.
There are a range of lens housing to suit all budgets. I picked up a Composer, the mid range model which features locking tilt mechanism and separate focus dial with three lenses; the standard double glass 50mm optic, the sweet 35 and the 12mm fisheye.
The system works by having a lens mount and carrier (in this case the composer) which allows the tilting of the lens optics by means of a ball and socket joint. Just install your optic of choice and then tilt and bend the lens with your hand before focusing using the large ring at the front. Once you have your tilt dialed in the socket can be locked with a rotating ring.
There are tons of pages out there detailing the operation and installation of optics. Lensbaby have some very good (if optimistic) videos on their site that are worth watching. I’m not going to be shooting test charts or focusing with live view on a remote release tripod, that’s not what these lenses are about. Instead I just stepped out of my house with the sweet 35 installed and took some pictures, learning as I went.
These shots were taken with a Nikon D800, quickly processed with Lightoom and exported at 1200px jpg, Quality 85%. If you worry about critical sharpness and IQ levels then the Lensbaby is probably not for you. I’m more concerned with the character of the images than the technical abilities of the glass. The Lensbaby philosophy seems to be all about just getting out and shooting, creating effects as you go instead of at a desk so after getting to grips with tilting and locking the lens that’s just what I did.
The sweet spot of focus this lens gives can be used to highlight a specific area of an image. This close up shot of my 16-35 VR is wide open at f2.5 and as close as it will allow. I love the bokeh here turning an otherwise distracting background into a wash of colours. Note how the lower portion of the lens is completely out of focus despite it being on the same plane as the mount. This sweet spot need not stay in the center of the frame. By tilting the composer the area can be repositioned around the frame and maintain the sharpness.
This second shot of the lens, uses an extreme tilt to the right to shift the sweet spot and gives suprisingly good performance at f4 in the small area that is sharp around the VR switch.
My first test shots and in the above, most of the house is very sharp. Shooting at f4 increases the size of the sweet spot and reduces the out of focus area. This radial style of blur gives an impression of movement that works well here and brings your focus to the building without being distracting.
Here the blur is not quite so pleasant. In fact this is very much a nothing shot but it’s a good example of the harsh, sharp edged bokeh patterns that the lens seems to produce when tilted against areas of high contrast. Some might like this but I think it’s a bit harsh. Stopping down to smaller apertures decreased the harshness of the edges.
This shot shows what happens with the lens tilted as far as it can go, a few of things to note here. First is the vignetting to the left of the frame. On a full frame camera such as the D800 the lens cannot cover the entire sensor when tilted to the far left or right and focusing at a distance. This is not the same as light falloff seen in other full frame lenses but rather you are seeing the edge of the image circle. The only thing to do here is to crop your image down to remove it. Second is the amplified characteristic of movement blur. Highlights are now streaks of light on the top and left of the frame. Lastly, the previous shots give the impression that the Sweet 35 has a very shallow depth of field (the area in focus in terms of distance from the camera) when in fact it does not. Like any other 35mm lens it has a huge depth of field in reality. Note how the woman with her dog and the fence on the extreme right are both in focus because they are both in the sweet spot of the lens, despite the huge distance between them.
When tilting the lens the focus must be dead on and it’s easy to miss focus when using larger apertures. Even with the lens straight it’s a hairs breadth between sharp and really not. The D700 and D800 I use are both able to confirm the focus when using manual lenses and even give an indication of how close to focus you are. I found this essential
and quickly learned to frame and focus my shot with the lens wide open before locking the composer’s position and stopping down to the desired aperture for my exposure. I shot these images using aperture priority mode, adjusting the ISO setting and aperture on the fly and letting my camera worry about shutter speed. Sometimes the tilt will fool the sensor, a little trial and error with exposure compensation usually does the trick.
A well know effect of tilt and shift lenses is their ability to makes scenes appear to be in miniature, like toys. The ‘sweet spot’ does not lend itself as well to this effect as does a flat field tilt lens, but it is a lot cheaper. I wasn’t able to get up high enough to test this ability properly. The effect is greater when shooting down onto a subject from a little further away so more investigation is needed. Here you can see the beginnings of the effect but also the extreme curvature of the horizon in the top of the frame caused by the tilting of the lens.
I’m as guilty as the next photographer of being overly critical about lens performances. Every piece of glass must be razor sharp or it’s no good so this little lens has really given me something to think about. I love this shot and virtually none of it is sharp. Almost nothing is in focus and yet I think that’s why I like it.
So what’s my verdict after day one? So far so good. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t two missed shots for every one I got right but after shooting with the sweet 35 I’m thoroughly impressed. Ok it’s not really sharp until f4 and there’s plenty of chromatic aberration to deal with. Shooting in RAW helps if you’re serious or if you care but more importantly it’s just so much fun. I can see it being frustrating to use under pressure but only time will tell and I’ll keep you updated as it happens.
So to finish I’ll leave you with this. My black cat Darwin. Manually focused and shot at in a dark room at 1/160s, wide open at f2.5, ISO 6400 which is about as bad as it gets in terms of lens performance and exposure problems but thanks to the Lensbaby composer and sweet 35 there’s now one more cat on the internet.