A couple months ago, Lensbaby provided DIYP with a new Lensbaby Velvet 85mm Classic Portrait and Art Lens for review.
I happened to be on my way to Europe at the time, so I took the opportunity to try out the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm along the way.
Up until this point, I had never used a Lensbaby lens, so I was pretty excited to see what I could do with the Velvet 85mm – so much so that I left my usual 85mm (the Sigma ART f/1.4) at home in favor of the Lensbaby.
In total I spent six weeks photographing with the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm – in this review I will present my thoughts.
About the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm Lens
The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm Classic Portrait and Art Lens is a full frame manual focus lens available for several mounts including: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Sony A, Fuji X and Pentax K (click here for more information on camera compatibility).
We were provided with a Nikon mount lens, which I primarily used with a Nikon D800 DSLR camera body.
Occasionally, I also used the Nikon mount Lensbaby Velvet 85mm with a Sony a6300 and a Nikon F to Sony E mount adapter.
Since the Sony a6300 is a cropped sensor camera, this effectively turns the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm into a 105mm lens.
All of the images in this article were captured with the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm (except for the photos of the lens) and processed using my normal workflow in Lightroom – which is relatively simple.
(I also didn’t realize how much we use my daughter’s Fuji X100 as a prop until I was selecting images for this article!)
Who Is the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm Lens For?
Before we get too deep into the review, I think we need to clarify who exactly the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm Classic Portrait and Art Lens is for – because depending on your photography philosophy you’re either going to love or hate this lens.
If you’re primarily interested in technical perfection – lens sharpness, contrast, consistency across all apertures…this probably isn’t the lens for you (I’m not going to post any 100% crops or sharpness graphs either – sorry).
If you’re looking for an 85mm prime lens that is specifically designed to embrace imperfection – let’s call it a Baroque lens 😉 – keep reading.
The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm is an absolutely gorgeous lens – one of my all time favorites in terms of aesthetics and build quality.
The lens features all metal construction that just looks and feels great. It even comes with a metal lens cap to top it off.
I am not one to coddle my gear and after six weeks of banging around loose in my shoulder bag on trains, planes and lots of walking it still looked and worked like new.
This is a full manual lens – manual focus and a manual aperture ring. The focus throw is dampened and smooth with a nice texture on the barrel that feels good in your hand.
The front lens element is recessed quite a bit from the front of the lens, so a lens hood is not required.
I had my camera up on a tripod in front of Skógafoss in Iceland with a huge amount of spray blowing everywhere and the front element only got a few small drops of water.
The Lensbaby Velvet Look
I had never used a Lensbaby product before, so I had no prior expectation on how to use this lens or what to expect from it.
Since it’s an 85mm portrait lens, the first thing I did when I got it out of the box was to open it up to f/1.8 to check out the bokeh.
Big mistake – at first I was wondering what I was doing wrong because no matter what I did I could not get a focused image at f/1.8. I thought maybe I needed glasses or maybe I had a defective lens!
I had to look up a review for its little sister, the Lensbaby Velvet 56mm f/1.6 before I realized what the heck was going on!
The Lensbaby Velvet series of lenses are designed to produce a vintage inspired velvety soft look. The intensity of this look is controlled by the aperture you use, so selecting an aperture is a very important artistic choice that goes beyond just bokeh.
It is hard to describe what the look you can achieve with this lens is actually like, however I can describe the typical characteristics you can expect in camera.
Generally speaking the “Lensbaby velvet look” is a combination of bokeh, soft focus glow and spherical aberration – which vary in intensity depending on aperture.
Soft focus glow is often described as the old “vaseline on your lens trick”, while spherical aberration is a focusing imperfection that increases in intensity from the center to the edges of the frame.
Wide open at f/1.8 you get the maximum amount of the Lensbaby velvet look. At maximum aperture (f/1.8) images taken with the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm will be soft with a noticeable glow and increasing softness from the center out.
My favorite apertures to use were between f/2.8 and f/5.6. My impression was that this range produced a reasonably sharp image, but also enhanced the velvet and bokeh qualities of the lens – which is the whole point of using this lens in the first place.
The look you get in this aperture range is more than just glow, soft focus or bokeh and it varies depending on your scene and subject.
Personally, I didn’t see much point in working with an aperture smaller than f/5.6. At f/5.6 and above (f/8, f/11, f/16) the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm just becomes an everyday 85mm lens – although a very well built and very sharp 85mm lens.
At first, I was a little apprehensive about manual focusing (I haven’t manually focused a lens in 20 years!)
If you’re using this lens with a Nikon or Canon DSLR you have to focus entirely by eye. (At least the cameras I was manually focusing 20 years ago had a focus screen – I want it back!)
It took a little practice, but once I was confident in how the images would look it was surprisingly easy to focus. In fact, I actually enjoyed the process of manually focusing quite a bit – I found that I was able to concentrate on composition instead of worrying about getting the right auto focus point on the right body part.
Manually focusing on fast moving subjects wasn’t even a problem – such as the kids playing in the Bundesplatz Fountain in Bern, Switzerland.
If you are using a DSLR, one trick you can use for super accurate manual focusing is to switch over to live view and zoom in to focus. It’s a bit tedious, but works in situations where you want to be sure of your focus.
If you are working with a mirrorless camera body, focus peaking makes manual focus much easier. However, because of the characteristics of the lens, I sometimes found that the focus peaking indications weren’t necessarily as pronounced as I would normally expect – especially at the lower end of the aperture range (f/1.8 to around f/2.8).
The Sweet Spot
With a lens that intentionally displays heavy spherical aberration, the sweet spot (ie. the area of sharpest focus) is the center of the frame.
This can affect your composition because your subject is not necessarily going to be (and probably shouldn’t be) bulls-eyed right in the center.
However, I found that if you are careful, you can achieve sharp focus slightly off center.
If we look at our friend King Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae below (I had some time to kill at the Louvre), we can see that his face is near the center of the frame and is in focus. In the second photo, I carefully focused on the guy at the bottom right, who is in focus while Leonidas is slightly out of focus.
If you look carefully, this actually produces an interesting effect as there is a ring of focus while the centre and extents are blurred.
(By the way, if there are any art history majors reading this, my kids would like to know why the Spartans are naked? I told them something about Greeks and ideal beauty, but really you’re not going to go into battle against Xerxes without some pants.)
With a traditional 85mm f/1.8 one of the key lens characteristics that I would look for is the quality of bokeh from f/1.8 up until around f/2.8.
However, with this lens at apertures between f/1.8 and f/2.8 bokeh is really overshadowed by the Lensbaby velvet look, so it is difficult to tell what is bokeh and what is velvet.
If you want some sharpness in your images, you will be shooting at f/2.8 and up, so this lens isn’t really built for bokeh in the usual sense.
Having said that, I generally found the quality of bokeh to be very nice, which is what would be expected for a lens with intentional spherical aberration – although the edges of the bokeh circles are a little sharper than I would have liked.
As previously mentioned, when it comes to the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm, I’m not so much interested in technical image quality as I am in aesthetic image quality.
Traditionally an 85mm lens is used for portraiture – so that is where I started.
My favorite way to use an 85mm lens is to photograph a head and shoulders portrait in close and then back up to photograph a relatively wide scene, using a big fat aperture to separate the subject from the background.
The Velvet 85mm is a great up close portrait lens, but I liked it even more for isolating a subject in a wide scene. I just really love the way the Lensbaby velvet look adds almost a three-dimensional feel to the frame.
People usually don’t associate an 85mm with landscape or architectural photography, but I really like the way the Lensbaby velvet look adds an interesting character and texture to landscapes and architecture – it almost feels like a radial tilt-shift.
As an added bonus, if you’re used to curved lines and warped perspective with wide angle lens architectural photography, the straight lines and nearly perfect perspective you will get with an 85mm is pretty awesome.
I didn’t realize that this lens had macro capabilities until I had been using it for quite a while. I was trying to focus on a stem of lavender and realized – all the way over here to the left is macro!
This lens has a minimum focus distance of 9.5″ which is pretty amazing for an 85mm!
Use On A Cropped Sensor Camera
To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed with this lens on a cropped sensor camera.
The interesting image characteristics of the Lensbaby velvet look start in the middle of the frame and increase in intensity towards the edges.
So when you put this lens (which was designed for a full frame camera) on a cropped sensor camera, the most interesting parts of the image are cropped out – which really defeats the purpose of using it in the first place.
In the cropped sensor images below, you can hardly see the characteristic Lensbaby velvet look – although it still makes for a nice 105mm equivalent portrait lens.
If you’re interested in technical image quality, you’re obviously not going to purchase a lens that is intentionally imperfect, especially when you can get a fully auto-focus 85mm f/1.8 for the same price.
However, as I tried to describe it’s hard to put your finger on the Lensbaby velvet look – it is more than just soft focus or bokeh, it’s a combination of bokeh, soft focus, glow and spherical aberration that all merge together in the physical properties of this lens to produce its characteristic look.
(If you do love the Lensbaby velvet look, you will also want to check out this comparison of five Lensbaby lenses side by side.)
This probably isn’t a lens that you’ll want to use every day (in which case you’ll still probably want a standard 85mm) but it does produce a unique look in-camera that can add a really interesting layer of complexity to your photography.
If you really like the velvet look you can achieve with this lens, at $500 I think it is a solid investment – it’s going to last longer than your camera body and without any auto-focus electronics, it’s not going to be outdated anytime soon. The fact that it also has pretty awesome macro capabilities is an added bonus.
Manual focus wasn’t really a problem at all either, although, obviously auto-focus would be necessary for certain subjects.
Although this lens is available in mounts for cropped sensor cameras or can be used with an adapter on a cropped sensor camera, I wouldn’t buy it for use exclusively on a cropped frame body. This is a full frame lens and you really have to use it on a full frame camera to achieve its full potential.
What Do You Think?
Do you like the Lensbaby velvet look?
Would you smear some vaseline on your lens and or add diffused glow and Gaussian blur in Photoshop to achieve a similar look?
What do you think is the best use for this lens: portraiture, landscape, architecture, macro…all of the above?
Leave a comment below and let us know!