Being part of the news and documentary photography business in Israel I usually work with the classic “hard-core” equipment, Canon 5D Mark II camera and the 16-35, 70-200 L type lenses. The equipment is minimal, usually fitting two ‘Newswear’ pouches on my belt. Anything else stays home.
This is why I was excited to get something new, the Lensbaby lenses – a Composer Pro, Sweet 35 Optics, Soft Focus Optics and Fisheye Optics. While I never got to try them, I knew they were small and compact, something I can easily carry with me on my photographic journeys. I’ve read few reviews about those lenses but was always missing the unique angle of someone who took them on a news or documentary mission. I decided this would be the unique angle I will explore.
Unboxing. In one word – Wow!
But lets start in the beginning. The package arrived at my home in one of those standard gloomy-looking thick grey cardboard boxes used for overseas shipment. Opening the thick cardboard box revealed four smaller boxes which had a very contrasting look to the outer box. They all looked very inviting. The bigger box of the four, the Composer Pro lens with Double Glass Optic is decorated with a glittering green stripe, differentiating it from the other three optics units coming in smaller boxes, decorated in golden, silver and while stripes. All boxes of the optics lenses are also imprinted with beautiful inspiring photos showing what can be done with them. To admit the truth, the beautiful packaging almost made me want to leave those cute boxes untouched, stacked on my table as decoration. No doubt that the product designers at Lensbaby did an excellent work with the packaging. Another nice anecdote showed-up after opening the Composer Pro lens box itself. I pulled the lens carefully from the small collar-shaped cardboard holding it and beneath awaited a small folded booklet with a clear print on it saying – “Mama, Congratulations! It’s a Lensbaby!” Sweet.
Understanding what it is all about
My girls are already familiar with the drill. Every time their father gets a new piece of equipment, be it a new camera, flash unit or lens, they are immediately drafted to pose in front of the camera for the camera man to try out his new ‘toys’. This time a new experience awaited them. The initial practice with the Lensbabys is quite amusing. It takes a while to pin exactly what you want. It is usually a three stage routine – focus manually on the subject, recompose by tilting the lens to get the the desired sweet spot and finally, refocus again. Only then you’re good to go with the shoot. Understanding in which direction the lens needs to be tilted is also a bit tricky on the first few times you do it. My girls, not being the patient type started calling – “Dad, why is it taking so long?” After the camera finally clicked, like all kids do nowadays, it took them a split second to run behind the camera to view the results in the rear screen. “What is this?? Why did my face come out so blurry and her face came out right?”, was the reaction of one of them. I had to take few more shots, practicing different focus sweet spots, making sure both girls got their proper focus (literally).
But before I continue, allow me to describe in short the Composer Pro lens mechanics. It has a basic ball-and-socket design that allows it to tilt, thus providing the adjustable sweet spot effect. At the base of the lens, there’s a ring screw that allows tightening or loosening the joint. At first, I used to loosen the joint, adjust the tilt to my desire and tighten it back to avoid movement before I shoot, but then I figured out its easier to carefully find the right amount of tightening of the joint and just leave it that way. Then, there’s the focus ring which is relatively comfortable to grip and turn. Lensbaby manufactures a set of optics that can be replaced in the ComposerPro lens. Each optics comes in a small clear plastic storage case with a black cap that also serves to unscrew the optics out from the ComposerPro.
Mission 1 – Taking the lens and optics for a rough ride
The energized youngsters of Tel-Aviv have a ritual of opening the hot Israeli summer with a huge water fight in one of the city large public squares. Hundreds of people gather near the city hall with buckets, water guns and other bizarre equipment. It’s also an event for the daring photographers. As I was going to shoot this event anyway, I decided to take the Lensbaby with me and give it a try. Obviously, all photographers wish to keep their equipment safe and dry. Some photographers put their camera inside water proof bags, other just practice the art of shoot-and-evade. I use the latter approach so I knew it would not be the best opportunity to practice the Lensbaby focus-tilt-focus skills (it would not leave enough time to flee the water buckets…) I therefore chose to mount the Composer Pro with the Fisheye Optic.
This would at least leave me with ‘just’ the need to manually focus before each shoot. Mounting the ComposerPro lens with the fisheye optics on my full-frame 5D resulted in circular photos surrounded by black filling. If the ComposerPro lens is not perfectly leveled horizontally and vertically on its joint, the circular photo will not appear symmetrically the rectangular frame, requiring the photographer to crop it later in post production (see sample in the next mission). I then came to a conclusion it could be a nice addition to the ComposerPro lens if it had those small dual bubble levels built into it.
Mission 2 – Ultra-Orthodox Jew wedding
Few days later, another photographic opportunity presented itself. One of my documentary projects involves photographing Ultra-Orthodox Jews at their special holiday and family rituals. I was invited to photograph a special wedding which took place in the city of Beit-Shemesh. Having the Lensbaby lenses and optics already in my bag, I decided I would give them another go.
The wedding was very photogenic but very fast paced. I wanted to catch the action with the fisheye optics. The Hassidic men jumped up and down and danced in circles, constantly moving. I found it very hard to practice the workflow of composing, manually focusing and shooting my desired frame. I had to pre-focus on a specific spot and wait for the subject(s) to enter my ‘cross hairs’.
I wanted to try out all the different optics and thought shooting the bride would be a great opportunity to test them all. Not being the formal photographer of the event, I had a very small window of opportunity to get really close to the bride without disturbing the family and guests. As I wanted to give all the different optics a try, I attempted to quickly switch between them.
As opposed to a well-practiced lens-changing workflow I have with my other Canon lenses, switching the Lensbaby optics within the ComposerPro was impossible to do without a third arm to assist. On top of the fact the lenses are small, you need to unscrew the optics, place them in their canister and screw a new optics in, using the canister cap. So it turned out I managed to try only the soft focus optics. I must admit that despite the flower-like effect on the lights, the result was not to my liking (yet I bring it here for your review). Some people find blurry photos artistic and special. I like my photos sharp and accurate.
Mission 3 – sand sculptures @ the Tel-Aviv museum
To try out the ComposerPro with the changing sweet spot ability, I screwed in the Sweet 35 Optic and took it to the Tel-Aviv museum, which hosted an exhibition of sand sculptures. These sand sculptures were surely to stay static during my shoots… The Sweet 35 Optics has a focal length of 35 mm and a 12-blade adjustable aperture. The aperture ranges from f/2.5 to f/22. After some trials, I managed to get some good results. According to the specs, the ComposerPro joint allows the lens to tilt in an angle of 17.5 degrees.
When the lens is mounted on a full-frame camera, the tilt-range used should be narrower or part of the frame would be left black. The thing I liked the most about the control of the focus sweet spot is the ability to create the perception of motion in the photo (when there is actually none).
To Summarize, shooting with the Lensbaby lenses and optics is a cool experience. The lenses and optics feel strong and sturdy and their packaging is great. The lenses can produce inspiring results after some good practice and if used in a ‘sterile’ setup – good lighting and static subjects.
At first, I thought the new equipment could spice-up the results of my hectic documentary missions with something other photographers didn’t have (knowing this genre values only in-camera results and not Photoshop post-production tricks).
True, it is not Lensbaby’s claim-to-fame, but I quickly realized that operating or swapping the lenses in real-time situations was nearly impossible. For now, I put the lenses back in their beautiful boxes on my desk, knowing I will surely find a different, more settle opportunity to use them again. For the amateur photographer, this lens kit can add hours of fun, but the professional photographer will most probably not use it more than once.
- Lenses and optics are well designed and well built. Despite the somewhat gimmick nature of the lenses, once you see the packaging and hold the equipment in your hands, it doesn’t feel like a toy.
- Inspiring and fun to play with. Turn your camera’s “Live View” on, tilt and focus and see immediate results on your camera screen.
- Can spice up your photo portfolio with some new directions. Make sure you do not over do – in my opinion, you cannot have too many fisheye or soft-focus photos in a series.
- For those who do not use post production processing (they don’t know how or it is not acceptable in their line of work), it is a great way to add special effects to their photos.
- It is not a trivial task to nail the focus right. Your subject can easily run out of focus. Patience and practice are essential.
- It’s hard to switch quickly between the optics. It is advised to decide which lens/optics you want to use and stick to it. Don’t attempt switching optics in a dark room… (I lost one of the caps this way).
- It is difficult to control the Lensbaby gear in an ‘unfriendly’ environment. Shooting moving subjects requires pre-focusing.
Lensbaby Composer Pro with Double Glass Optic
Lensbaby Sweet35 Optics w/12-Blade Internal Aperture
Lensbaby Soft Focus Optics, (velvety soft image perfect)
Lensbaby LBOFE Fisheye Optic for Lensbaby Composer Lenses
About the Author
Dror Garti is a photo-journalist based in Israel. He is involved in documenting diverse communities in Israel such as the settlers in Bat-Ayin, the ultra-orthodox Jews in the Hassidic courts, the Samaritans and foreign Chinese workers. Dror works for the Flash90 photo agency.