you can expect large variability, chromatic aberration, vignette, low contrast, and all the other things photographers usually pay good money not to have in a lens
There’s a Lensbaby review on Amazon that ends with words to the effect of ‘this is nowhere near as sharp as my Canon L Lenses, and I think I’ll stick with the L Lens thank you’.
Let me tell you the alternative side of the story. You may or may not like Picasso’s paintings, but look up his earliest works. The guy could really paint! Picasso turned to cubism and other primitive styles because he was at the top of his game technically and had nowhere else to go. So it is with Lensbaby: if you know your camera very well, and want to mix it up a bit, Lensbaby is a direction to take. For some, that may be a step backwards technically, but it can occasionally be a bigger step forward creatively.
This review won’t go into what a Lensbaby is and what it looks like, but instead I’ll go through what it does and doesn’t do, and what I think it is best used for.
First though, a little history
Lensbaby was released in 2004 with modest expectations. It was launched At the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International trade show, Las Vegas. The creators, Craig Strong and Sam Pardue sold out on the first day, and spent the remainder of the show working nights in the hotel room building more Lensbabies, all of which sold out the next day. Lensbabies are now a mass produced, international product.
A modern Lensbaby consists of a primitive optic (such as a single, uncoated lens, a plastic lens, or even just a pinhole). This optic has very little in the way of advanced features, so you can expect large variability, chromatic aberration, vignette, low contrast, and all the other things photographers usually pay good money not to have in a lens.
Tip 1: If you want to try a Lensbaby, buy it second hand on eBay. Tip 2: Don’t buy a Lensbaby unless you understand how to use your camera in either Aperture Priority or Full Manual. Tip 3: Lensbabies love Flash, so make sure you do as well.
The whole point of the Lensbaby system is that you embrace all those aberrations and use them creatively. So, stick with the Canon L Lens (or Nikon ED, or Sony Carl Zeiss) when you want optical quality, but consider Lensbaby when you want to trade sharpness and quality for something more edgy, dreamy or totally leftfield.
I’ll let you look up the different types of Lensbaby and how you physically use them at lensbaby.com, and dive straight into the things you really need to know when considering owning a Lensbaby…
Buy your Lensbaby second hand
Lensbaby starts off fairly cheap, but all the accessories you need before you have a system you can begin to use it creatively add up.
Maybe the Lensbaby is worth the money. Well, there’s a number of ways to work out the true value of a given lens, but for me the best indication is resale value. Look on eBay, and you will see that Lensbabies can easily go on auction for significantly less than retail price. In my opinion, Lensbabies don’t hold their value because lots of people just don’t understand them or didn’t realize what they were buying into (See note 1 below), and the Lensbaby immediately ends up for sale as ‘opened but practically unused’ on eBay.
So that is your first big tip: If you want to try a Lensbaby, buy it second hand on eBay.
I bought a Lensbaby Muse, the Lensbaby tool, the double lens optic, a three optic starter set, a Lensbaby book, and a custom Lensbaby carrying case. All as a single lot, hardly used and fully boxed, for a bit more than the cost of a camera battery. A great deal for me (because it is a good, feature rich set to start exploring with), but I would have been furious if I had been the one selling, because he bought it for the same price as that battery and the entry level camera that comes with it.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that Lensbaby is low quality stuff. It is actually surprisingly high quality (a lot of the bits I assumed would be plastic are machined metal for example). What I am saying is that lots of photographers buy Lensbaby but don’t like it or get bored quickly and dump on eBay, and that’s what pulls the resale price down.
Lensbaby is a baby lens, but looking after baby is not easy
Everything about the Lensbaby is not just simple but downright primitive. You could hand a Lensbaby to a photographer from the 1800’s Wild West and they would totally understand the technology. Simple, uncoated lenses, pinholes, Holga quality toy lenses. You don’t even get aperture blades: you have to swap out metal disks with the aperture holes cut out. And of course, the Lensbaby is completely manual. It doesn’t have any electrical connections at all. Your digital camera won’t even detect a lens is attached, so you have to know how to force the camera to fire even if it doesn’t detect a lens (on my Sony Alpha A77 its Menu Button > Cog 1 >Release w/o Lens set to ENABLE).
Focusing is done with your fingers: you manually change the shape of the lens body, and that takes a lot of practice. It is easy to take a Lensbaby photograph where everything is dreamy and blurry, but difficult to take a technically good Lensbaby photograph (where the main subject is typically in sharp focus).
This difficulty is hidden by the name. You might be thinking ‘Lensbaby: ahhh! Its a cute baby lens so it must be easy to use!’.
The reality is actually ‘Lensbaby: its the most primitive lens you can put on your camera, so you have to know your camera inside-out, because you will be the one sorting out the focus, depth of field, contrast, keeping aberrations at bay, and changing nappies. You will typically be doing most of that not only manually, but directly with your fingers, so you’ve got to be prepared to get your hands dirty’.
So second tip: don’t buy a Lensbaby unless you understand how to use your camera in either Aperture Priority or Full Manual, because those are the default modes you will be using with a Lensbaby.
If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, cheap traditional lenses and some Photoshop filters/blurs may be a better bet.
The images above were all taken using 1980s lenses (the classic Minolta ‘large beercan’ and the Minolta 50mm f1.4, both of which can be had on eBay for cheap, and both of which work perfectly in full automatic on my Sony A77), whilst I was practicing traditional photography skills such as use of traditional lens filters (such as polarizers, old-school on-lens graduated filters), and lights and light modifiers (natural light reflectors, softboxes, etc). The photographs are as seen out of camera.
It is worth considering whether practicing that traditional stuff with inexpensive old-school optics will, for the same money make you a better creative photographer than going off on a tangent with Lensbaby.
Lensbabies love Flash, so make sure you do as well
There is a very good, but also very subtle reason for using Flash with Lensbabies, and it was staring me in the face from the moment I unpacked my Lensbaby Muse. It was the photograph on the product packaging. It looks like this:
That’s a really nice photograph. But if you try getting that same controlled depth of focus, you also end up with low contrast, and that makes the image look bad for tone, and washed out for color. You can fix it in Photoshop, but then your photograph starts to look like the depth of field was done with a Photoshop camera blur.
Look at the face to see how it was done: there’s a big directional fill flash. That’s what is bringing the contrast back into the subject. You can even see its direction if you look at the shadow cast by the goggles.
Third tip: if you are using Lensbaby professionally, you typically need sharpness and contrast in the area of focus, and you use Flash extensively (or natural light with reflectors) to give you the contrast.
This will come as no surprise to wedding and portrait photographers, but may be a surprise to the rest of us. Knowing how to set up a Flash that doesn’t look too obvious is often an important part of taking good Lensbaby photographs. That typically means you know how to put your Flash off-camera and how to use light modifiers, both of which are advanced topics.
Lensbabies love Bokeh and flare
Tip 4: Lensbabies love bokeh and flare, Tip 5: Lensbabies are for you if you hate post processing, Tip 6: Lensbabies are good for telling visual stories because they turn photographs into single-subject story frames
The aperture on a Lensbaby is a perfect circle cutout, so your bokeh will be perfectly circular rather than polygons. Most Lensbaby optics have poor or no coatings and zero flare resistance. If you want bokeh and flare, Lensbaby is where it is at.
Fourth tip: LensBabies allow you to add all sorts of optical aberrations if abstract or transformed graphics are your thing.
Lensbabies are good if you hate post processing
All of my Lensbaby photographs here except the bokeh one are shown as they came out of the camera. That is a big advantage of LensBaby: they take far less of your time in post-processing, and you often don’t need to do much in post.
The flipside to this is that everything a Lensbaby does can be emulated in Photoshop or Lightroom. The plastic lens is just a big surface blur. The glows can be done with guassian blur, and the streak effects are motion zoom blurs.
Emulating Lensbaby in Photoshop certainly gives you more control, but it doesn’t always give you the movement and atmosphere that LensBaby gives.
The above images show how I emulated Lensbaby effect in one of my own shots. The entire process took about 3 minutes to do, and about another 3-5 minutes of tweaking.
Fifth tip: Lensbaby provides graphical effects optically, so you don’t have to do it in post… but if you are good with post, you may not need a Lensbaby.
Lensbabies are great for telling stories
So what exactly do you use Lensbaby for? Lensbabies simplify your subject until you almost end up with a graphic rather than a photograph.
That is why wedding photographers use them so much: Lensbaby shots move the story of the day along with strong graphics that focus on only one thing: here’s the wedding cake on its own, here’s the shoes and dress the day before. In each case, anything extraneous is lifted out of the photograph via the selective focus.
Sometimes you need to tell the story not by a sharp image, but a feeling of something: the blur of the bride’s bouquet being thrown, or zooming into the happy father, lifted out from the clutter of the congregation because he is the only person in focus.
Sixth tip: A Lensbaby is good if you want to tell a story or imply a feeling through photography, because it is a good way of paring the photograph down to the bare story, graphic, or emotional elements.
So, a Lensbaby is certainly not for purists: you may prefer to spend your money on a 50mm f1.4 or cheap 1.7, and shoot wide open. That and a bit of post processing will get you to almost the same place as a Lensbaby. Doing your own post takes up time though, and because it is much more of a controlled process, doesn’t give you the edgy, primitive effects that Lensbaby can give you.
Although Lensbabies are primitive, you need a lot of skill to use them well: manual control and a good understanding of off camera Flash or natural lighting are important if you wan to use a Lensbaby professionally.
There is a very strong ‘Lensbaby effect’ and like most strong effects this may become old quickly if you use often.
A LensBaby is something you will typically take out when you have taken all your money shots, and have time to go a little leftfield. A LensBaby is not a replacement for good standard lenses.
LensBabies don’t hold their value, so you might want to consider buying second hand. eBay is your friend.
- Reasons for people not liking Lensbaby and selling it straight may include
- They didn’t realize the lens was fully manual and required a lot of effort.
- They didn’t realize that moving the area of focus on a full frame camera too far results in a shadow along one edge, or that ‘50mm’ meant ‘50mm full frame’, so you end up with a less useful 75-80mm on crop frame.
- They didn’t realize that most things you can do with a Lensbaby can be emulated in post production by an advanced user using a current version of Photoshop.
- They had serious issues with putting a pinhole on a two thousand dollar DSLR and the unpredictability in final photograph that this implies, preferring instead to stick with a 50mm 1.4 wide open. The latter is more controllable, not as extreme, and can become tack sharp throughout once stopped down… and when you want dreamy, a bit of grease on a skylight filter works wonders.
- They get bored with the effect.
- I took the Lensbaby History from Lensbaby, bending your perspective, Corey Hilz, Focal Press.
- Some cameras are better for Lensbabies than others. Cameras that have live view that allows magnification or has focus peaking are ideal, as are cameras that allow Auto ISO in full manual. A camera that allows Aperture mode for a non-detected lens is a big plus (as it prevents you having to go into full manual).