Why do we take pictures? For the majority of us, I’d guess it falls somewhere into the realm of, enjoyment and/or documentation. Regardless of the medium, whether it be digital or film, we like to preserve moments and may enjoy trying to do so with some level of artistry. Isn’t it nice when someone says, “wow, that is cool!” or “how did you get your picture to look like that?” Simply put, many of us enjoy taking pictures because we like to and it’s nice when that is noticed or appreciated. Add in a few cool tools and enjoyment can turn into excitement from behind the lens.
From time to time, I find I become stagnant or hit that creative wall so to speak. Sometimes the best way for me to jar myself from that is to challenge my standard go to’s. I’ll try to use a lens I’ve not used in a while, or shoot with a particular finished, post processing technique in mind, I’ll shoot with my weaker eye which can throw my mind for a loop as it can force me to adjust to something I’m not physically used to. All these tactics can help bump me out of a funk, but recently I’ve been playing around with a Lensbaby Composer and it has forced me to approach my daily photography from a different place, and I like that.
The Lensbaby Composer is a standard 50mm f/2 lens (without an aperture disk inserted) and has the ability to utilize its ball and socket style front element to manipulate the plane that it focuses on similar to that of the tilt portion of a tilt/shift lens. The Composer comes with full stop aperture disks from f/2.8 through f22 as well as the handy magnetic aperture adjustment tool.
For those not familiar with the Lensbaby products, they are relatively affordable lenses with movable front elements enabling you to physically alter your plane and point of focus. If you’re versed in the concept of depth of field where you have an area in focus which is parallel to the sensor, or film, when you manipulate a Lensbaby, you are tilting the angle of that plane from a parallel, to a tangent, coupling a vignette of out of focus area surrounding your point of focus requiring you to think of your DOF in an almost third dimension, or at least tangent axis.
I’ve been playing around with my Canon EF mount Lensbaby Composer which provides a fun and easy shooting experience. You manually control the aperture, and when I say manually, you physically pull out and replace aperture disks via a magnetic doodad that is provided. This is cool from a couple different angles as far as I’m concerned, first, your aperture is perfectly round. For the bokeh fans out there, no matter what your aperture, the out of focus points of light are (or at least start off as) round. No pentagonal, hexagonal, etc bokeh balls (you can buy aperture disks with hearts, stars, etc to provide you with some interesting, custom bokeh). Second, I think it is a great way to truly understand the relationship aperture has to your exposure when you cannot help but see the differences that different sized holes provide when you are responsible for choosing and using your aperture disk for any given situation. (for those wanting a deeper exploration into understanding aperture and its effect on your shots, go here) Of course, when you start to bend or manipulate your plane of focus, those round out of focus points of light start to bend with it.
Of course if the Lensbaby is positioned so that the lens itself is parallel to the sensor (like most all other lenses are) it is capable of providing pretty sharp results from edge to edge (more so when using a smaller aperture), with pretty controlled distortion like so:
Of course this is largely due to the fact that I’d used this on my micro 4/3 Panasonic GF1 which crops into the image circle substantially providing me a 2x crop factor/effective field of view making my standard focal length composer, roughly the equivalent to the angle of view of a 100mm lens by utilizing the center of the lensbaby’s image circle. Part of the draw to the Lensbaby products IS the distortion and out of focus areas though! Don’t worry, the sharpness and lack of distortion is easy to overcome, even on a smaller sensor.
I’ve also been using the .42x Super Wide Angle accessory lens which converts the lens from a 50mm to a 21mm lens which, on a full frame camera, is pretty wide. On my GF1, due to the crop, it is the equivalent of a 42mm field of view which is a respectable focal length to work with when taking into consideration the fun capabilities of a lens like the Composer.
On the full frame 5DII, when using the Super Wide Angle lens, I realized that when manipulating the Composer, I did not have as much room to move before I started to see the edge of the SWA lens come into frame which provided me with an opaque vignette. Easy enough, all I needed to do, is plop in a larger aperture disk and with even little movements, my out of focus area was greatly exaggerated due to the shallower depth of field. Full framers, be aware of this though. I don’t think it is by any means a deal breaker regarding the SWA accessory lens, but it does limit a bit of “movement.” On a cropped sensor though, the wide angle is just the ticket (if using an APS-C sensor camera you’re looking at a 31.5mm or 33.6mm depending on your crop factor). One other subject of note regarding the Super Wide Angle .42x accessory lens, is that when used, it decreases your minimum focusing distance substantially which allows you to move physically closer to your subject further amplifying the effect of a wide angle optic and providing a fun close up lens option. No matter the camera the ability to play with your out of focus area can be an enjoyable experience.
Now, I’ve been both a big advocate for, and critic of the micro 4/3 system because of it’s nearly infinite lens compatibility and compact capabilities all the while voicing my frustration as I feel they are taking too long to offer its users quality, fast, small, reasonably affordable lens options. Because I am not willing to spend a ton of money on slow, bulky zoom lenses in a dedicated micro 4/3 mount, I look to fun, creative and affordable options in lenses to use with my compact GF1 camera. It may come as no surprise that one of my main draws to the Lensbaby was the ability to utilize it on my GF1 via my EF adapter. Currently Lensbaby offers their lenses in a Canon, Nikon, Sony Alpha, Pentax K or 4/3 Standard mount, so no dedicated micro 4/3 mount, yet… Didn’t stop me from using my EF>m4/3 mount converter though. While I did notice pretty severe chromatic aberrations when the Composer was tweaked to it’s limits, I chalked it up to my converter pulling the Composer’s optical elements further away than it would be if there were a dedicated mount, as I didn’t see the same amount of CA when used on my Canon EF mount cameras. While the Composer on my GF1 by way of my EF>m4/3 adapter isn’t a perfect marriage, it is a very fun fling and one that I will certainly continue to play around with (especially seeing as my lens options in a dedicated micro 4/3 mount aside from my beloved Lumix 20mm f/1.7 currently are both expensive, and discouragingly slow which make them uninspiring to me and unjustifiable when I take into consideration what I get for so much money required to buy one of them). The Lensbaby is both reasonably affordable and extremely light weight which means that I can throw it in the bag, or large pocket and not even notice that it’s there until I need it.
Simply put, the Lensbaby Composer is a creative and unique tool on any camera you can get one onto. Add to this, the video capabilities of most new interchangeable lens system cameras, and you have a tool to really spice up those family videos or any situation that benefits from a dreamlike selective focus effect. The learning curve is pretty quick and really just comes down to experimentation. I feel it offers any photographer a tool, and skill that is difficult to attain without using expensive software, or a very expensive tilt/shift lens (the Lensbabies tilt but they don’t shift, so they’re not direct replacements mind you). This is not a lens system that will be compared in optical performance to the high end lenses available in various mounts, but what it may lack in pure optical performance, it more than makes up for in creative capability gaining really high marks in the ‘how?’ and ‘wow!‘ categories. It is more it’s own niche residing in the nicer neighborhoods sharing the same zip code as the Holgas and other novelty type photographic tools. While the Composer is not quite up to the level optically of it’s higher end optical brethren, it’s modest price tag provides an amazing amount of bang for the buck in fun factor, and certainly will get both your photography looking, and you seeing in a new way. If you feel you are looking for a little creative push in your photography, the Lensbabies might just be the perfect thing to shove you. Photography should be enjoyable, and tools like the Lensbaby are perfect for providing just that.
Lensbaby lenses and accessories can be purchased through most photographic retailers, or directly from Lensbaby’s website: www.lensbaby.com