Notes on the Original Lensbaby and Lensbaby 2.0 lenses.
Copyright © 2005 NK Guy
This review is actually of two separate products - the Original Lensbaby and the Lensbaby 2.0. Note that I purchased my Original Lensbaby with my own money like any customer, but that the Lensbaby 2.0 was supplied as a review lens by the maker. They contacted me, kindly sent me a review copy, and included a macro lens adapter kit with the 2.0.
So youve just spent piles of money on the latest fancy camera equipment. Maybe a nice digital SLR with top of the line lenses. The cameras spitting out technically superb, high-contrast, ultrasharp images. Yet... somehow... something is missing.
Wouldnt it be nice to get that dreamy otherworldly look that toy cameras often generate? The blurring, the light leaks, the heavy vignetting... To hell with precision engineering and quality optics, and back to the toys! That is sort of the idea behind the Lensbabies lenses, created by American photographer Craig Strong.
How they work
Lensbabies are small, compact lenses mounted inside flexible ridged rubber tubes, much like vacuum cleaner hoses. The tubes have sturdy metal rings at each end, keeping the whole rig secure. The lenses are available in a wide range of different lens mounts to fit different cameras. The supported lens systems are Canon EOS, Nikon F, Pentax K, Olympus OM, Minolta Maxxum/Dynax, Minolta Manual, Canon FD, Contax/Yashica, M42 universal screwmount, Leica R and even Olympus Four Thirds digital. I reviewed the EOS version.
Clockwise from the upper left corner: the Lensbaby 2.0, the Original Lensbaby, the aperture storage case (note the thrifty recycling of the Kodak 35mm film canister lid!) and aperture extractor tool, the LensPen cleaning tool included with the Lensbaby 2.0, three aperture discs and the sturdy threaded metal Lensbaby lens cap.
The Lensbabies are actual SLR lenses. They arent add-on fittings which can attach to existing lenses. So you need a camera with interchangeable lenses to use a Lensbaby - you cant fit one to a point and shoot camera.
The build quality of the Lensbaby lenses is excellent. The metal is thick, precisely machined and nicely finished in black. The lens elements are installed inside a short metal tube which acts as a kind of lens hood or shade. The lens cap is actually a thick metal disc, like a heavy black coin, threaded with a 37mm filter mount. The lenses use a very old-fashioned way of controlling the amount of light which enters - rather than adjustable irises like most lenses they use simple removable aperture rings. (much like the Waterhouse stops used in Victorian times)
The Original Lensbaby.
The first version of the lens has a single lens element made of uncoated optical glass. It uses cardboard discs punched with circular holes, which fit inside the barrel and are held in place by a rubber washer, to adjust the aperture. The discs provide for f/4, f/5.6 and f/8 aperture settings, and you can also go for f/2.8 by just using the washer. The lens ships with a custom-made plastic storage container for the washers, complete with a funny sort of prying tool on the end for removing the rings safely. I bought an Original Lensbaby because they were out of stock of the newly released Lensbaby 2.0 at the time.
The version 2.0 lens has two multicoated lens elements made of high index glass. It uses a slightly different method for aperture control - the aperture rings are held in place by three small magnets. You have a range of aperture sizes available to you: f/2 (no aperture ring), f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, and f/8. It too ships with a plastic container for keeping the rings together, along with a rather nice little LensPen cleaning tool.
What can a Baby do for you?
So thats a summary of the products. Now, what does this all give you?
First, the simple lens construction means you get tons of spherical aberration. In other words, you get a sharpish patch in one area of the image and the image becomes increasingly soft the further you get from there. Old portrait lenses of days of yore frequently had a lot of spherical aberration, which gives the effect of concentrating your attention to the in-focus area (the "sweet spot). This is a form of selective focus, as can be seen by the fairly sharp seeds in the middle of this sunflower. The Lensbabys peripheral blurring also has a sort of streaky motion blur look to it.
The Original Lensbaby is pretty blurry with the stops taken out, and moderately sharp in the sweet spot at f/8. The Lensbaby 2.0 is noticeably sharper at wider apertures and can actually be reasonably crisp over a small area.
Second, the flexible hose means you focus the lens by squeezing the outer ring and pulling it closer to the camera or pushing it away. Theres nothing precise about this - you just fiddle with the lens until things look right (making it useless for rangefinder cameras). But, more interestingly, the hose can be sort of pushed to the side for a shift effect and pushed down on one side or the other for a tilt effect. In theory this allows you to tilt the plane of focus away from the plane of focus of the cameras image sensor or film surface, just like on a view camera with tilt/shift capabilities or a tilt-shift lens on a 35mm camera. In reality you cant really shift the lens all that much, because the rubber tubing doesnt let you shift sideways very far, so the lens is more useful as a tilt lens. Also, if you push the lens too far when using a full-frame camera you will get some cut-off occurring and the interior of the lens barrel will be visible as a dark area on the edge of the photo.
Third, at least in the case of the Original Lensbaby, the uncoated lens gives you a ton of flare. (the Lensbaby 2.0 has coated optics, which lessens the amount of flare) Flare is generally undesirable on precision lenses, but does tend to cause glowing haloes around bright areas of the screen, which can be an interesting effect. It also provides for a soft diffuse look to things.
In short, you basically get the sort of look that you get with a lot of toy cameras. About the only things you dont get are light leaks (since those are usually problems in the camera body) and vignetting. And this look can have an interesting effect.
What is the Lensbaby Look?
Mechanics and using the lens
There can be a less literal view of a subject through a Lensbaby, and perhaps even a sense of timelessness. The picture on the right is of the Grand Union Canal in Londons Little Venice. Aside from the fact that the boats are now houseboats and not working boats, this view hasnt changed much in a century and a half. Original Lensbaby, I think with no aperture ring in place.
(note - these pictures dont look that impressive in thumbnail form like this. Click to view the larger size versions, which get the point across more)
Another useful aspect to the lens is that, since it tends to blur things outside the sweet spot, you can selectively focus attention on the interesting part of a scene and sort of blur out all the boring stuff.
The photo of the traffic lights art installation draws your attention to the walking man and gives a sense of the crowded clutter of the installation. The statue of a boar had a bunch of market stalls behind it, but by using the Lensbaby I was able to blur that background stuff fairly effectively. Both were shot using the Lensbaby 2.0 with an f/4 aperture ring installed.
Brutally sharp lenses honestly reveal; Lensbabies gently suggest. And this is something that I think a lot of wedding photographers, for example, can appreciate.
Take this shot of a group of Edwardian-styled rowboats. Its sort of veering towards cheese, but the gauzy romantic nostalgic thing works here, I think. Taken with an Original Lensbaby. I dont recall which aperture ring was used.
Somewhat moodier is this shot of Salvador Dalís tomb. The light levels in the room were extremely low, making ordinary photography very difficult, and I couldnt set up a tripod. So by using the Lensbaby I sort of masked the problem. The pictures pretty blurry, but with a Lensbaby its going to be a bit blurry anyhow. Original Lensbaby with no aperture ring installed.
A popular thing with Internet photographers right now is faking tilt-shift lens photos. (inspired by photographers such as Olivo Barbieri of Italy and a Japanese photographer on the bitter*girls Web site, who both use real tilt lenses) This involves taking a regular picture and processing it in Photoshop to simulate the narrow plane of focus that can be an effect of a tilt-shift lens. The result is something which almost looks bizarrely like an incredibly detailed toy or model. A shot of a town square from a tall building, for example, can look like a model railway scene. The Lensbaby can emulate this look since it has genuine, if limited, tilt-shift abilities. Take this photo:
A vast building which looks almost like a wedding cake model. Lensbaby 2.0 with the f/4 aperture ring.
Or this fire engine, which looks like a toy. Lensbaby 2.0 with the f/5.6 aperture ring.
Using a Lensbaby is very different from using an ordinary lens. First, you focus the lens by squeezing it. Generally you hold the camera in both hands and use your left index fingertip and right ring finger to press and manipulate the Lensbabys focus ring. Then you press the shutter release with your right index finger. You have to hold the ring in place during the exposure since the rubber hose is made of fairly springy material - the lens reverts to its neutral position when you let go. You can also push the ring outwards slightly away from the camera body to focus on nearer objects, up to a point. The whole thing does look a little amusing in operation, like a bendy snout.
Once you get the hang of it its fairly easy to focus and move the lens reasonably quickly, though its pretty awkward at first.
The Lensbaby also differs from modern lenses in that it doesnt contain any electronics at all. So it cant communicate anything to a modern electronic camera. I use EOS cameras, which luckily work quite well with such manual focus lenses. You just install them, the camera sets the aperture to "00", meaning no electronic lens is installed, you switch to aperture priority mode and off you go.
There are two caveats. First, the Lensbaby seems to require exposure compensation on all the EOS cameras Ive tried it with. In other words, the camera isnt capable of metering correctly with the Lensbaby in place and you have to dial in some exposure compensation.
The amount of compensation required seems to vary. On my 10D, for example, I dont need to apply much exposure compensation. But on my 5D the camera meters completely wrongly in P mode (massively overexposed - over 2 stops), and meters 1 stop over in Av mode. So installing the Lensbaby does involve a few extra fiddly steps - I have to change to Av mode if Im not there already, I have to dial in -1 stop exposure compensation and I generally switch to centre-weighted averaging metering. Then, and most critically, I have to remember to undo all that every time I put a normal lens back on. Ive lost a number of shots because I forgot to set exposure compensation back to normal after changing lenses. Oops. Maybe I should tape a warning onto the Lensbaby cap reading RESET SETTINGS to remind myself.
Second, since the aperture is set by means of a physical ring you cant just set the aperture to whatever you need and go. You have to take the camera, remove the ring and install the one you want. Not difficult, but also not entirely conducive to quick spontaneous shots.
Incidentally, the EOS method of specifying 00 as the aperture setting for an all-manual lens yields a useful trick. If youre using a file organization system such as Aperture, Lightroom, iView Multimedia, etc, you can set up a smart folder which displays all photographs with an aperture setting of 0. This automatically shows you every manual lens photo for you.
Drawbacks and criticisms:
No long exposures
Since the lens has no focusing helicals and has a natural spring to the rubber hose section, you cant use the lens with long exposure or tripod photography. The lens must be held at the correct focus by your fingers alone. This is fine for simple point and shoot impulsive shots, but its obviously a problem for studio or night shots. I thought it might be an interesting approach to use a different type of plastic for the hose, but while I was working on this review, Lensbabies released version 3G of their lens. I havent tried one, but the version 3G product uses a number of threaded bolts that you can rotate to adjust the lens position precisely. Which makes the lens look sort of like a tiny version of those frightening metal cages used as bizarre torture implements in SF movies. In other respects its said to be identical to the Lensbaby 2.0.
The Lensbaby Look
The look doesnt satisfy everybody. Photos taken with the Lensbaby have a very distinctive and easily recognizable look to them, and not everybody likes it. Some dislike the apparent motion to the blurring of the peripheral areas, as can be seen in this shot of a bridge house. The weathervane is perfectly sharp, but the lower section of the photo almost looks like its moving. (theres a lot of coma, which is a lens aberration which causes circles to stretch out into comet-like lines the further you get from the sweet spot)
Others dismiss the Lensbaby look as a gimmick thats time is up. Frankly theres not much to say to this one - either you like the look or you dont. Personally, I generally do. It works better for some subjects and compositions than others, obviously, but used right I think it has a rather fun and dreamy look to it. I can definitely see that the huge amount of coma (the blurring that looks almost like motion blur) can turn some people off.
Whats the point?
Some people dont get it. After all, you could just Photoshop your photos and get something similar, couldnt you? Well, sure. You could in theory build up a whole photo, pixel by pixel, if thats what you wanted. The point isnt that the look cant be more or less Photoshopped (I say more or less because the main effect - spherical aberration - can really only be approximated digitally, not perfectly replicated) but that the Lensbabies are fun to use. Its kind of a nice change to be able to forget about the obsession with sharpness and image quality and whatnot and instead just go for a mood. Lensbabies are a great tool for this.
Focusing isnt super easy
These lenses are sort of fiddly to focus. Ive tried the Lensbaby on two digital and one film EOS camera. The film camera is obviously full-frame, and of the two digitals one was full-frame and one was 1.6x. The 1.6x cropped camera, a 10D, had Haoda Fus split-circle viewfinder screen installed. The full-frame digital, a 5D, had the stock Canon viewfinder screen. And I find it much easier to focus the lens when theres a split-circle manual focus assist aid installed. Admittedly it only helps with compositions that have the sweet spot in the middle of the picture, but its better than nothing. Even the 5D, which has a pretty bright and large viewfinder, and with a screen that has a decent "bite" to its surface, was tricky to focus sometimes. A camera with a small viewfinder, like the EOS Rebel/300 series cameras, can be rather problematic for any manual focusing.
Over the months that I used the product it definitely became easier, so practice has a lot to do with it. But it can still be tricky, particularly if youre trying to set the sweet spot off to the edge of the frame. I find it best to fire off a few shots while adjusting the focus pressure and see which one turned out the sharpest.
As noted earlier, metering requires exposure compensation on most cameras. This makes switching back and forth to and from the Lensbaby somewhat time consuming and prone to error.
Focal length limitations
The focal length is somewhat limited at roughly 50mm. This is okay on a full-frame camera. But it can be a bit frustrating on a cropped digital SLR, when the lens suddenly becomes a roughly 75-85mm lens, and the sweet spot becomes much larger. I wish the field of view could be wider, but of course technically that isnt really possible. SLRs have mirrors which physically prevent the lens from getting too close to the focal plane, and something as inexpensive as a Lensbaby cant be designed with retrofocus optics like an expensive wide-angle lens. You can slap wide-angle adapters on the lens using the standard 37mm thread on the end, and Ive certainly tried this, but I find it a bit fiddly and inconvenient.
Why spend the money?
Finally, theres the criticism that anybody could build their own manual-focus lens like this. Which is of course true. Anybody can take a magnifying glass lens or optical leftover or shaped piece of ice and install it inside a toilet roll tube or rubber plunger or gearshift sleeve and make their own homemade lens. Ive experimented like this and its really fun. But the advantage of the Lensbaby is that the hard work in engineering a reliable and straightforward lens has been done for you. If the process of building and constructing and tinkering it your main interest, then the Lensbaby is obviously not for you.
Original or 2.0?
That is the question. Single uncoated element or double element, multicoated? Well, the main difference between the two is the sharpness of the image in the sweet spot and the resistance to flare. The 2.0 is slightly faster, and thus less in a bit more light when the aperture rings are taken out, but its not a huge difference. And the magnetic rings are a bit less fiddly to deal with.
The main decision making factor, money aside, is whether you prefer the lower contrast and frankly blurrier look of the Original lens or whether you prefer the sharper crisper sweet spot. And to that I can only say - take a look at photos taken with the two lenses and decide which is more likely to suit your needs. Personally I prefer the 2.0 because its a bit more versatile, but I do also appreciate the moodier aspects to the Original lens.
Macro (closeup) kit
One of the optional accessories sold by Lensbabies is a macro diopter kit, and Lensbabies supplied me a set to review. The Lensbabies lenses themselves dont have the greatest close focus distance at around 40 cm (about 20 cm if you push the tube outwards), and so arent at all suitable for macro work. Thus this pair of simple diopters - think add-on magnifiers - that can be screwed onto the lenses 37mm filter mounts. These allow an increase in the close focus distance and, unlike extension tubes, dont really cost much by the way of light.
The two diopters ship in a black vinyl carrying case. And frankly the build quality of the diopters doesnt match the standards of the lenses. Theyre made of inexpensive metal, and the machining on the threads is not particularly accurate. Compared to the Lensbaby lens cap, which threads smoothly and confidently onto the lens, I kind of cringe attaching the diopters. First, theyre difficult to align and get started and its easy to cross-thread them. And second, it just feels like the sharp uneven edges of the diopter are grinding down the lens filter threads. The singlet glass elements are uncoated.
In terms of magnification, the two diopters have values of +4 and +10 respectively, and can be stacked. What does this mean in real life? Well, I attached my Original Lensbaby to my full-frame EOS 5D and peered through the viewfinder at a ruler. This gives a sense of the closest magnification possible. The horizontal width of a frame of 35mm film is 36mm (the frame is 24 by 36mm in size; 35mm refers to the width of the film itself). So if you can take a photo of something 36mm wide with a lens then youve got a true 1:1 macro lens. Most consumer lenses never get that close, and typically have ratios closer to 1:4.
Width Magnification ratio No diopter 120mm 1:3 +4 diopter 90mm 1:2.5 +10 diopter 50mm 1:1.3 Both diopters 35mm 1:1
The Lensbaby 2.0 had fairly similar results, though a tiny bit less close. Of course, these are just approximate results from me eyeballing a ruler, but they should give a rough sense of how close you can get to things using these add-on diopters. Users of subframe DSLRs can multiply these results by the appropriate cropping factor. (ie: they will let you get even closer)
Anyway. That aside, what about optical quality? The answer is theyre okay, but I have sort of mixed feelings about the utility of the diopters. The fun aspects of the Lensbaby are that you can wiggle and bend the lens around and that you get tons of blur around the edges of a picture.
But with macro you normally focus by moving the whole camera closer to and further from the subject. You can focus by squeezing the Lensbaby lens assembly, but its very difficult for macro subjects to get it right. And the blurring isnt such a big deal with macro, since depth of field is usually so narrow anyway.
The macro add-ons work fine, though they do introduce a fair amount of chromatic aberration (colour fringing) since theyre singlet lens elements rather than the doublet variety which usually correct for the chromatic aberration issue. But in short, I personally find it more satisfying to put an extension tube on one of my lenses and use that for in the field macro shoots. Using the Lensbaby macro kit seems to be an odd thing to me, as it ignores two main reasons why youd want to use a Lensbaby in the first place, and the quality isnt that brilliant. (though I am told that Lensbabies have upgraded the quality in the most recent versions of the product) But theyre fun to play with, and theyre certainly cheap.
At some point last year I managed to lose the rubber washer that holds the Original Lensbaby discs in place. I looked into buying plumbing washers, but couldnt find the right size, so I emailed the Lensbaby customer service address. A week or two later, a free washer replacement arrived in the post, courtesy of the Lensbabies "Director of Customer Happiness." Cant argue with that, and that was before theyd offered a Lensbaby 2.0 for review. Quite unexpected, and definitely a satisfying level of customer service.
On the whole, I find the Lensbabies a great complement to my digital cameras. With digitals you dont have to worry about the processing costs, so its great just to slap a Lensbaby on and try a few experimental shots. If they work; great. If they dont, no harm done. And since theyre small and light theyre easy just to toss into your camera bag, ready for impromptu moments.
However, you have to be prepared to invest the time in getting the most out of your Lensbaby. Its an unusual lens and you cant use it like a normal lens. One of the reasons this review took a while to post is because my first few months of using the lenses yielded really boring shots. It took a while before I got a small collection of photos that I was happy to post.
This doesnt always work - this summer I did an extensive shoot in a dusty desert and never actually used my Lensbaby once. Looking back I kind of I wish I had, but changing lenses was such a fraught business with the swirling clouds of corrosive dust that I didnt want to keep swapping lenses. But in ordinary environments I like having the Lensbaby on hand.
The look of the Lensbaby photo, while having its distinctive signature, nonetheless yields interesting effects for a lot of photos. And, the simple fact is that its just a fun lens to use!
I cant say Im quite as positive about the macro adapters, though. Theyre an interesting idea, but the quality of the product is simply not on par with the excellent build quality of the Lensbaby lenses themselves, and the practical limitations of Lensbaby macro are an issue for me.
For larger versions of these photos check out my Lensbaby photo gallery.
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