Photographers and filmmakers of the past used to break out homemade tricks—some innovative and fun—when trying to achieve special effects to make their images stand out from the crowd. Many of us have heard of the technique of smearing petroleum jelly on a lens filter for soft-focus effects. Today, one company—Lensbaby—has brought professional-grade optical tools to the world of creative photography and videography, allowing users to create truly unique visual aesthetics.
Lensbaby has been popular since its birth in 2004, but over the years its tools have made their way from what some may call “the creative fringes of photography”—mostly wedding, portrait, macro, and floral photographers looking to add some bling, uniqueness, and pizzazz to their images—to the mainstream world of enthusiasts and professional creatives. Lensbaby even made our ultimate list as B&H Photography Podcast host Jill Waterman's "Desert Island" lens and our list of pro-caliber portrait lenses. The "Lensbaby effect" has been seen in major video productions on the large and small screen, and if you need visual proof of the power of Lensbaby, we featured photographer Anita Kram's gorgeous images on Explora in this article. For those who love podcasts, check out our interview with Craig Strong, co-founder of Lensbaby, on the B&H Photography Podcast to discuss Lensbaby's present, past, and future.
The Lensbaby tagline is "Shoot Extraordinary." We reached out to some Lensbaby shooters to get their thoughts on the system to share with our readers.
Stephanie DeFranco (@sd_photo) is based in New Mexico and shares that, “Lensbaby has allowed me to step away from what is considered a ‘perfect photo.’ There is a story in imperfections, blur, and movement, and when shooting with Lensbaby, I am able to accept this as beautiful. I want to continue to lean into my creativity without the pressure of perfection and Lensbaby has really set me free to create how and what I want.”
New Zealand's Kelly Gladwin (@chick_inn_maam_photo) says, “Lensbaby gives me a major advantage over any other lens creator and singular lens out there. It lets me get super creative and bring in emotion and tack sharpness exactly where I want it—every single time. The artistic nature of these lenses or optics always draws the client's interest. When I mix Lensbaby images with a couple of normal lens shots for a client's gallery, the Lensbaby images will always be their favorites.”
Seattle-based Shelly Corbett (@shellycorbettphotography) adds, “Lensbaby lenses help me create images that blur the line between photography and painting. When I combine images with big, beautiful bokeh and encaustic painting medium, my audience often doesn't even realize they're looking at a photo. Its these many layers—unexpected subject matter, magical setting, unfamiliar lens effects and encaustic medium—that help me create finished pieces that stand out wherever I show them.”
With those introductions on the page, it is time to put away your petroleum jelly, homemade cardboard bokeh, Waterhouse plates, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil. Lensbaby is here to stay. In this article, we take a deep dive into this professional-grade, creative photographic system.
The Lensbaby System
Lensbaby's product line can be broken down into three basic sections: 1) stand-alone creative lenses, 2) the OMNI filter kit, and 3) the swappable optic system that mounts specialized lenses with unique effects on the tilting Composer Pro, flexible Spark, or fixed mounts.
Lensbaby Stand-Alone Lenses
Along with its funkier and niche products, Lensbaby has several more “traditional” lenses for almost every popular DSLR and mirrorless camera mount and sensor—full frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds. These lenses are old-school pure manual lenses with manual focus and aperture rings. Their first-class mechanicals help bring a warm tactile shooting experience.
The Lensbaby Velvet lens delivers its “Velvet Effect”—an ethereal glow to your images when shot at wide apertures—in the 28mm f/2.5, 56mm f/1.6, and 85mm f/1.8 focal lengths for traditional street, travel, macro, and portraiture work. Stepping a Velvet lens down brings in edge-to-edge sharpness and a drastic reduction of the effect, making each lens nicely versatile—glow when you need it, sharp when you don't.
The Lensbaby Burnside 35mm f/2.8 is available for all popular lens mounts and features a dual-aperture diaphragm designed to produce swirly bokeh effects and controllable vignetting.
B&H also went hands-on with the Burnside 35.
The Lensbaby Sol comes in the 45mm f/3.5 focal length for full-frame and APS-C cameras and the 22mm f/3.5 flavor for Micro Four Thirds. The Sol is designed to give a "sweet spot" effect—an area of sharpness surrounded by beautiful blur—as well as bokeh control with manually operated "bokeh blades" that can help shape out-of-focus highlights.
B&H tested the Sol 45 in this hands-on review.
Another stand-alone lens in the Lensbaby lineup, the Lensbaby Trio, as its name suggests, is three lenses in one. The 28mm f/3.5 lens is available in multiple mirrorless full-frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds mounts and combines three distinctive Lensbaby optics: the Velvet, Twist, and Sweet effects. We discuss the Velvet above and the Twist and Sweet lenses make an appearance below when we discuss the Optic Swap system. Twisting the lens lets you rotate through the trio of effects options, or you can set it between the detents for unique images.
We've gone hands-on with the Trio in this review.
OMNI Filter Kit
The Lensbaby OMNI Filter Kit is one of the more unique offerings from a company that specializes in unique offerings. These very non-standard filters comprise different prisms, plates, reflectors, and more that magnetically mount on a bezel you place around any of your favorite lenses. Moving the accessory into the frame creates interesting (random?) effects for your images. Stephanie DeFranco talks about the OMNI saying, “Shooting downtown with the color crystals provided in this kit is so much fun because of the little extra pop the crystals give to a photo. And because of how the crystals refract light, you'll never have the same photo twice.” The OMNI is fun to use and allows for the creation of effects that were once only available to the most inventive homemade effects wizards.
Optic Swap System Mounts — Composer Pro, Spark, and Fixed Body Mount
Anyone who has shopped for a tilt/shift lens knows that they come with premium prices. Lensbaby's co-founder Craig Strong invented his own low-cost alternative in the form of the Spark and Composer Pro, and that is how Lensbaby came to be.
For those new to Lensbaby, using the Composer Pro or Spark can be a bit tricky—moving parts to which most photographers are accustomed. Shelly Corbett says, “Even though I've had Lensbaby lenses in my kit for nearly eight years, it wasn't until I upgraded to a Sony a7 III with focus peaking that using these lenses became second nature. I feel like it took a while for technology to give us the tools we needed to really help these lenses be the best they can be.”
Once you have the Composer Pro, Composer Pro II, Spark, or fixed body mount, you can change your lens with optics of different focal lengths and creative Lensbaby characteristics: Edge, Sweet, Twist, Soft Focus, Obscura, and Creative Bokeh Optic. Before we discuss the optics, let's have a closer look at the mounting options:
The Lensbaby Composer Pro Optic Swap System is at the heart of the Lensbaby ethos and is a direct descendant to some of its earliest products. The Composer Pro is the middleperson between the camera and interchangeable lens—allowing for easy tilting of the image plane that gives you a wide range of dramatic selective focus effects. (Note: Having used both the Composer Pro and Composer Pro II, I fully endorse the newer version because it is a marked improvement as far as mechanicals are concerned.)
Like the Composer Pro, the Lensbaby Spark is an easy way into the world of tilting your lens(es). Unlike the semi-mechanical Composer Pro, the Spark is a flexible bellows you grab at the front to deflect the lens off-axis easily for tilt, and push-pull for focusing. It is fun to use, if not tricky at first, and does not allow for precision focusing—this mount is purely for messing around and having fun, all while making unique art.
Note: The Spark comes in mirrorless or DSLR versions and, at B&H, is sold exclusively with the Sweet 50 Optic, but will accept other the lenses in the system.
Fixed Body Mount
You will notice that many of the interchangeable Lensbaby optics are available with the fixed body mount—giving a much more traditional photographic experience without the flexibility and tilt of the Composer Pro or Spark. The fixed body mount is not available separately and must be purchased with an Optic Swap System lens.
Again, all the Lensbaby Optic Swap System lenses can be used either with the Composer Pro mounts, with the flexible, non-mechanical tilting Spark 2.0, or with fixed body mounts that do not allow tilting.
Optic Swap System—Lenses
Now that we've looked at the mounts, we can look into the characteristics of the amazing Lensbaby Optic Swap System lenses: the Edge, Sweet, Twist, Soft Focus II, Obscura, and Creative Bokeh. Regarding the Optic Swap System, photographer Shelly Corbett says, “I love experimentation rather than pre-visualization. While I may have a general idea of what story I want to tell, it isn't until I’m on location and experimenting with various lenses that I can bring an idea to life. Being able to quickly swap lenses with the Lensbaby system allows me to easily see the same situation in different styles. The same setup captured with a Sweet 50 will tell a different story than a Soft Focus II optic. I’m actively looking for the ‘happy accidents’ and Lensbaby lenses, with all their beautiful quirks, help me get to this magical place faster and easier than any other lens I've tried.”
The Edge optic is available in 35mm f/3.5, 50mm f/2.5, and 80mm f/2.8 focal lengths that create a sharp slice of focus in an otherwise bokeh-licious scene. Creativity abounds with this easy, tilt-friendly optic. We got hands-on with the Edge in this article and creative shooter Kelly Gladwin adds, “The Edge 80 is magic. Flare, sharpness, color rendering, and perfect tilt blur. And that 80mm f/2.8 focal length... need I say more?”
“The Sweet 80 f/2.8 is a whole different emotive experience. It really sets the soul on fire with creative ideas and images,” says Gladwin. While the Edge optic gives you a slice of focus, the Sweet lens is designed to keep your center sharp and gracefully let the sharpness fall off as you push outwards from center—ideal for stunning portraiture and creative landscapes.”
Like the Edge, the Sweet optic is available in 35mm f/2.5, 50mm f/2.5, and 80mm f/2.8 focal lengths. Check out this review of the Sweet in the field.
The 60mm f/2.8 focal length Twist 60 is designed to give your background bokeh a dramatic swirling effect and tasteful vignetting that harks back to the famous Petzval lenses of yesteryear. Check out our Twist 60 video to see some great results with the lens.
Soft Focus II
The Lensbaby Soft Focus II 50mm f/2.5 optic allows you to sell off your petroleum jelly stock and get truly professional soft-focus effects without the use of filters or other lens hacks. The Soft Focus II is not a one-trick impressionistic pony—step the lens’s 12-bladed aperture diaphragm for fantastic center sharpness while maintaining an ethereal glow friendly to soft pastels around the edges.
Available inside the Optic Swap system, or as a stand-alone mirrorless or DSLR lens, Lensbaby brought modern technology to the ancient art of the pinhole camera with the Lensbaby Obscura. The Optic Swap Lensbaby Obscura 50 Optic is three pinholes in one with a Zone Plate (f/32) with 47 precision drilled holes, the Pinhole Sieve (f/64) with 523 holes, and single Pinhole (f/161) at a 50mm focal length. For mirrorless cameras, or those preferring a wider-angle image, the Obscura 16mm has the same three pinhole options but measures f/22, f/45, and f/90 at 16mm. You can see how the Lensbaby Obscura stacked up against other pinholes in B&H's Great Pinhole “Lens” Photography Shootout.
Reviving the lost art of shaped bokeh, the Lensbaby Creative Bokeh optic is a 50mm f/2.5 lens that is fully compatible with the Optic Swap system. It comes with 11 drop-in magnetic aperture discs with various designs that allow you to give shape (stars, birds, heart, diamond, etc.) to your out-of-focus highlights. Drop the discs in and then remove them with the included disc holder/magnetitic tool.
In the B&H Photography Podcast, Lensbaby's Craig Strong said the company's mission was to “empower artists to move through fear and discover extraordinary creative freedom.”
Kelly Gladwin sums up her Lensbaby experience saying, “Finding that perfect moment to take the shot and wow the client doesn't have to be hard, or overthought, or forced. It can be as easy as attaching a Lensbaby to your camera. A word of warning though: Lensbaby will fill that void and leave you wanting more. They are highly addictive to shoot with.
"You will hear that ‘a proper image should be sharp,’ or that ‘those are just gimmick lenses,’ or that ‘you can’t use them for clients.’ There will always be someone with a negative opinion on them, as people's traditional views on photography don't waver much. But I can promise that with Lensbaby, you will be far too busy creating creative goodness that you won’t even care what the naysayers say!”
Lensbaby brings professional, precision tools to the photographer to inspire creative and unique capture in a way that no other optical company does.
What are your thoughts or questions regarding the Lensbaby system? Let us know in the Comments section, below!