Want a great lens with the look of a $1,000 Rodenstock Imagon for your digital SLR? Look no further than the newest lens addition to the Lensbaby line. Lensbaby, the brain child of photographer and inventor Craig Strong, brought soft focus and skewed focus planes to cameras that normally produce sharp results. The current generation lenses offer interchangeable elements, and that is where this article comes in. I recently obtained a Lensbaby Soft Focus element, and wow, is it cool!
I got my first soft focus lens in the early 1980’s, a Sima Soft Focus 100mm f/2 lens. It came with three aperture disks (f/4, f/5.6 and f/8) that you could install as desired. I played with the idea of creating a Imagon-style aperture disk for the Sima, but I never got around to it. Craig Strong played with the idea, and built the Soft Focus element for the Lensbaby line. No “woulda, shoulda, coulda” for Craig... he just does it.
When I opened the box of the new Lensbaby Soft Focus, I was immediately struck by the weight of the element. That made me take a closer look. The fit and finish of this optic is beautiful, looking far more like its Rodenstock large format predecessor than a lens crafted for an SLR. Smooth black coating on the barrel, the name written clearly on the side of the lens barrel, and as always, a color coded band. The nicely made clear plastic storage case that houses the element looks like a smaller version of the lens storage case from Nikon some 30-40 years ago. The black plastic bottom of the clear plastic storage case acts as a wrench to change optics in the lens housing. You can carry a Lensbaby Composer and three elements in their cases in about the area required for a large zoom lens... not bad for the amazing range of imaging possible.
Technical specs are as follows... the Soft Focus optic is 50mm in focal length (read that as a short telephoto on a 2/3 frame digital SLR, or a “normal” lens on a full-frame DSLR or 35mm film camera). It is multicoated for best performance, and wide open (no aperture) it is a fast f/2. The Soft Focus element comes with a lot of apertures! There are three Imagon-style aperture disks... multiple holes surrounding a central hole. They are not marked, but are detailed in the manual as to their f/stop equivalents. A trick that I use on my Nikon D3 is to make a custom non-cpu lens setting with the aperture number... so that when I see the f/stop is f/4.8 (for example) in the image metadata, I know which aperture disk I was using. The optic also comes with a full set of apertures, allowing shooting at various amounts of softness down to f/22 (minimum aperture disk).
I think the photos speak for themselves. The multiple hole aperture disks produce a silky smooth image with enough detail to be interesting, but not so much as to distract. On a digital SLR, you can make portraits that look as nice as images shot with the Imagon... without lugging a view camera and shooting large format film in the field. To me, this is a no-brainer!