I first heard about the Lensbaby about a year ago. I was casually surfing photo-related sites on the Internet. Strange, I thought—an accessory that deliberately causes images to be out of focus! With all talk these days about high-speed autofocus lenses with the most refined optics and technology, the Lensbaby represents a technological leap—backwards! And that, my friends, was refreshing.
I recently got a Lensbaby 2.0 in the Nikon mount and I decided to see for myself what it was, how it worked, and what it could do. Lensbaby’s concept is a simple one. It is a manually operated tilt-shift lens with very limited depth of field that produces selective-focus images. When I say the lensbaby is manually operated, I mean it; it has no electrical metering, no aperture ring, no focus ring-- nothing. What it does have, however, is a clever design that enables the user to push, pull, and bend the lens body itself to create interesting images.
The Lensbaby 2.0 is a very compact unit. Its diameter is about the same as your camera’s F-mount, and the body is less than 2” long. There is a single element lens which is optically coated and produced from low-dispersion glass, with a focal length of 50mm. The lens body itself is constructed from a flexible but rigid piece of tubing. I like to think of this lens as an elephant’s trunk; the “Snuffleupagus” of lenses! The Lensbaby has no aperture ring or metering contacts. This feature (or lack thereof) means that you will need to use manual metering unless you have a camera that supports AI lenses, like the Nikon D2X. With a D2X, you can set the maximum aperture of the lens in the camera menu and use Aperture-priority metering. With other SLR’s you will need to rely on an educated exposure guess, a handheld meter or your histogram.
You can, however, change the aperture of the Lensbaby. Via a clever, low-tech design, the Lensbaby comes with a set of magnetic donut-shaped inserts that can be placed over the lens itself. Magnets in the lens body prevent the aperture ring from touching the lens surface. The Lensbaby 2.0 comes with rings that allow the user to choose from f/2.0 (no ring), f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, and f/8. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field and larger the “sweet-spot” of focus.
BASIC USE AND HANDLING TECHNIQUE
Within seconds of using the Lensbaby, all the old rules of optics suddenly started coming back to me. Need to focus closer? Pull the lens away from the body. Push the lens towards the camera body and it focuses further out. No longer could I rely on my camera’s autofocus system, although the focus-indicators in the viewfinder still operated normally. Mastering focus with the Lensbaby definitely takes some getting used to. It is a two-handed process that is made easier by a large “finger ring” on the lens. I would suggest that when starting out with a Lensbaby that you use a tripod. A tripod will keep the camera-to-subject distance constant, support your camera, and allow you to get familiar with the “push-pull” operation of focusing the lens. Another good trick when first using the Lensbaby is to start at f/5.6. The increased depth of field and smaller “sweet spot” of focus as compared to f/2.0 or f/2.8 will really help with focusing as you learn to use this tool.
Once I had gotten used to focusing with the Lensbaby, I started to shift the “sweet-spot” around in the frame of my D2x. By bending the Lensbaby, you can move the area of sharpest focus to your intended subject. Depending on the aperture ring installed, the sweet spot ranges from tiny (f/2.0), to most of the frame (f/8.0). By taking advantage of the selective-focus abilities of this lens, it is possible to produce effects that would be impossible with a standard SLR lens.
Lensbaby 2.0 gives exactly the kind of performance that one would expect with a one-element lens. Focus can be challenging to achieve, depending on the subject. Don’t expect to use the Lensbaby to get razor-sharp images of fast moving subjects. Chromatic aberrations are apparent in the out of focus areas. In any other lens review, this kind of performance would be totally unacceptable, but these distortions are exactly the reason why people find the Lensbaby so refreshing to use! Changing apertures in the field is a fairly simple task. Each Lensbaby includes an accessory kit with a small storage case and a tool for removing the aperture donuts.
The front and rear surfaces of the Lensbaby optic are easily accessible for cleaning, and the lens itself is supplied with a soft pouch for storage.
As I stated earlier, you will need to use manual metering unless you have a body that supports TTL metering with AI lenses. I had no trouble at all getting great exposures with my D2x in Aperture-priority mode. I also was able to use the SB-800 speedlight in iTTL mode with no issues whatsoever.
The Lensbaby is at its strongest when you have a clearly defined subject, but want to add an impressionistic effect to the rest of the frame. Portrait photographers, wedding photographers and landscape photographers will find a wealth of possibilities to explore with this lens. If you shoot action, you will be faced with a challenge to get in-focus shots.
The Lensbaby 2.0 has a 37mm front filter thread, which allows it to accept a range of screw-in accessories, including wide angle and telephoto adapters, and close-up filters. Lensbabies manufactures a set of close-up attachments (+4 and+10 diopters) that enable you to easily focus on objects 12” away. Stacking the diopters permits focus down to 2”. I would definitely recommend a tripod when using the Lensbaby for macro work. At first, I thought that using a selective-focus lens for macro shots would be counterproductive. At close working distances, the plane of focus is very small to begin with.
However, the tilt-shift feature of the Lensbaby gives a completely different level of control over the focus plane, which results in unique images.