The LensBaby Composer - A Review by Kirk Tuck
I am probably the last person anyone want to hand an “artsy” device to. I shoot quick, have not tolerance for fiddling around and I hate the canned look for most “alternate” processes that are inherent in a camera’s performance profiles. So maybe the owners of this site did the LensBaby people a big disservice and then again, maybe not.....
Before we go any further let me tell you what a Lensbaby Composer is and what it’s good for. The device is a simple, two element lens with interchangeable apertures that is really two parts. One part is the device the mounts to your camera (in my case an Olympus EPL-1). In the middle is a ball joint that allows you to tilt the lens in any direction around the lens axis. You can tilt up, down, left, right and anywhere in between.
And this articulation is cool because it allows you to shift what will be in focus and what will be out of focus. It’s exactly the same principle upon which the lines of expensive tilt shift lenses from Canon and Nikon are built. The tilts together with lens and film plane shift are the main reasons why high end still life photographers still use monorail view cameras.
The Lensbaby Composer is quite different from the companies initial product, which I assume is just called a Lensbaby. The part of the lens on the camera side of the ball joint has a ring that, when loosened, allows you to move the lens around while you look thru your viewfinder. The advantage over the original Lensbaby is that when you find a focus, tilt and composition you like you can turn the ring and lock all the movements in place. Then you can, at your leisure, recompose or fine focus, if necessary.
The Lensbaby Composer allows you to change aperture by taking the lens apart and pulling out or dropping in new fixed aperture rings. Basically black washers with different diameter holes cut in the front.
And herein lies my primary problem with the product. It’s a pain to stop, disassemble the lens unit, fish out the right aperture, put everything back together again and then move on and take whatever photo you saw that caused you to want to take a photograph in the first place. I experimented for a while and then decided to use the “f4” disk all the time and compensate for bright scenes with high shutter speeds (only 1/2000th available on an Olympus EPL-1). I cheated by bringing along a circular polarizing filter just in case. And I needed it whenever the sun was out.....
The appeal of this whole family of lenses (and Lensbaby makes a bunch of variations) is that the lens isn’t sharp in the way that a regular lens is sharp. It basically turns your state of the art digital SLR into a Holga with a lot more control and, hopefully, none of those “endearing” light leaks. At f2.8 and f4 the center is reasonably sharp while the outer edges, indeed the out third of the frame, is pummeled and softened by the effects of spherical distortion. And if you do “art” it is very likely that it’s an effect that will work for you on a number of levels. If you want a lens with high correction and high resolution then you are barking up the wrong tree.
You can put aperture disks into the lens and stop down to f8 at which setting you will start to sharpen up the edges somewhat. But then you just have what seems to be the defective brother or sister of a modern lens. No. I think you’ll want to limit your experiments to the f2.8 to f5.6 regions.
This lens is great for dreamy portraits and I would imagine a wedding photographer looking for a way to softly flatter the main subject while cutting out on the background clutter by putting it out of focus or out of sharpness would love this as a “once in a while” special effect.
But the real user will be the fine art still life photographer or portrait photographer who will be able to isolate the main subject of their art by not only limited depth of field but also limited the range of the sharpness, which helps the eye focus more on the sharper affect of the subject. And there is a wonderful crispness to the center areas, as well as enhanced saturation that make for an interesting mix of sharpness, softness, crispness and more.
What is this lens not for? Well, to start with it’s fairly long (the focal length, not the physical dimensions) so it’s a great portrait lens or a one item still life lens but not much good for groups or wide landscape shots. It’s not a great street shooting lens because to use it correctly you really need to put it on a tripod and use the tilts in a smart way. That takes time so you either need a compliant and patient portrait subject or you need some nice still life object upon which to practice your craft. If you don’t require the tilt it’s as good a street shooter as anything, manual focus, out there.
But here’s the rub: The center is the sharp part of the lens, ergo all of your compositions will have to have the subject centered for best effect. Which may not be what you’re looking for in your art. By the very natural of being formally constricted to composing in a certain way it’s much quicker for the effect to become stale. In effect, as an artist, that’s your challenge to overcome.
Finally, I find the design and build of the lens to be a bit problematic for quick use. The first thing I’d do if I designed this would be to have some sort of detent at the neutral position. Many times I just want to use the lens center and take advantage of its innate optical idiosyncrasies but I had to spend time fiddling to get it straight and then there was no real assurance I’d achieve my goals other than trusting my “eyeballing”.
The second frustration is the size of the rings in relation to the small camera on which I used the lens. On three of my tripods the locking ring adjacent to the camera fouled on the top of the tripod head which meant I had to loosen the tripod screw to allow a bit of play, then adjust the lens tilts. then lock them in place, then turn the lens locking ring to hold the settings, then tighten up my tripod screw and, finally, shoot. As many of you probably know I love to shoot on the street and I like to shoot portraits and I don’t have the patience to compensate for too many steps.
What’s the final verdict? If I were interested in getting this sort of effect I can’t think of another way to do it cheaper. Sure, you can probably do something LIKE this in PhotoShop but I don’t think it would be exactly the same. There is something to be said for giving up a little control and inviting in happy accidents.
The bottom line for me is that this is a unique look for not a lot of money ($250). As I look at the images I’ve taken with it I find a wonderful look to the sharp core of the image surrounded by a growing fall off of sharp focus. An amazing attribute of the lens, and one I noticed early on is the fact that, being a well implemented two element design the lens seems to have higher contrast and much better saturation that more complex zoom lenses with their numerous (sharpness and contrast robbing) elements. It harkens back to the strong performance of the simpler Leica Elmar lenses from the 1950’s and 1960’s when compared to the other more complex lenses of the times.
We forget that there is always a trade off in lens design. We’ve traded high resolution and flatness of field with our super zoom lenses for the crispness and low flare characteristics of the simpler lenses. The Lensbaby is a prime example of the opposite end of the trade off spectrum.
I’ve pointed out all of the things I would improve but in the final analysis this lens provides a wonderful “look” for all kinds of subjects and combines that with high performance in the center section of the image. I love that it’s got a fairly long (portrait) focal length on my micro 4:3rd’s camera. I love the color saturation. I really do like the subdued outer area focus.
It’s disingenuous to make snap reviews. This lens requires (and deserves) a longer term approach. As I warm up to it I’m thinking I find out if I can keep it a bit longer so I can test it on more subjects. Seems like once it gets under your skin it’s hard to let go. And that’s the mark of a product that makes you think and re-invent the way you work. In the end that’s the Lensbaby Composer’s “secret power.” I think I’ll give this one a thumb’s up.
About The Author
Kirk Tuck is a commercial photographer based in Austin, Texas. Kirk has been taking photographs for international clients for two decades, and is the author and photographer of 4 photo books. His next book about LED Lighting for Photographers will be published this Fall.