Remember our fun with the Sima? The Lensbaby Composer (and all the Lensbaby line, since they use interchangeable elements) is 50mm in focal length compared with the Sima’s 100mm. That gets into the usable range for many landscape opportunities, and makes a decent average focal length for portraits and details. Need wider? They can do that… it’s that system concept I love so much. Offered as additional accessories are a 0.6x Wide Angle lens adapter and a 1.6x Telephoto lens adapter (in a set). That makes the 50mm equate to a 30mm or a 80mm lens via the front-threaded lenses. Yep, there is a macro kit as well, which would be really handy for those of us who shoot close details of things.
Instead of being happy with f/2, f/4 and f/5.6 with the Sima lens, we can now get down to f/22. Why would you want to shoot a “soft focus” image at f/22? Well, what the Sima didn’t do was skew the plane of focus… the Lensbaby skews the “sweet spot” of focus to the point you choose. Want the whole left side of the image to go completely out of focus? We can do that.
When the folks at Lensbaby shipped me the demo unit, I was very excited to open the box and find (first) a Lensbaby Composer (yes!) and a thoughtfully included set of lens elements. The Composer shipped with the double glass element in it, with the f/4 aperture. That seemed like a good starting point, so for the first several hundred shots I did with it, I left this configuration in place.
As I first handled the Composer, I was satisfied with the obvious build quality… it isn’t heavy, but feels solid. It is made of metal and composite materials, with a metal lens mount. The lens has a locking collar at the rear – if you want to lock the lens in position, simply turn the locking collar to lock it in place… since the lens doesn’t move easily on its own, I would think that most people would use the locking ring when on a tripod. Inside the lens optic, there is a magnetic arrangement that holds the f/stop apertures in place. With a little practice it is easy to drop the f/stop aperture in to the front of the lens, but if you have trouble, you can always use the handy magnetic tool provided for the task.
As previously noted, the Composer does away with the hard but flexible rubber bellows of the Lensbaby and Lensbaby 2.0. A composite ball-and-socket allows the front of the lens to move independently of the rear, creating changes in the plane of focus that the lens throws. This shifting of the plane of focus is what gives the Lensbaby its signature look.
Soon after receiving my first 35mm camera, I found that photography was a little more difficult than it had first looked. Ok, it was a lot more difficult. After mastering the learning curve on how make a sharp, well-exposed photo, I saw some photography by David Hamilton and Robert Farber. I was back to square one. Suddenly, I wanted to shoot soft focus images. But, how to do it?
Shortly after graduating college, I got my first dedicated soft focus lens. I had tried all different ways of getting that beautiful soft focus look… shooting through cigarette package cellophane, smearing petroleum jelly on the filter, shooting through other materials like hose, netting, window screen, almost anything you can think of. Then came the Sima soft focus lens… 100mm at f/2 wide open, a simple single lens plastic element, push and pull focusing, it made beautiful images. It worked great… as long as you had your subject perfectly centered. The lens was sharper in the center than at the edges, so if you put your subject off center it would suffer degradation beyond the intent of soft focus. You could manipulate it slightly with an f/4 and an f/5.6 disk, plus there was a neutral density disk in the box that I never really used. The other limitation I immediately realized was the focal length; it was too long to use for most landscape situations. I moved on and tried other specialty lenses, mostly with less success than the Sima.
Then something wonderful happened… a guy like me who liked soft focus made a lens with an integral hard rubber-ish bellows to focus and bend all over the place to skew the plane of focus. Let me be clear – I experimented but never really built anything. I was content to use what others had made before me. Not so for photographer Craig Strong. He too had been unhappy with the soft focus options available to him, so he decided to do something about it, and the first Lensbaby was born. That was 2004; I found it in 2005 at PhotoExpo in New York City… when I saw the booth I went in and bought a Lensbaby 2.0.
The Lensbaby 2.0 creates beautiful images, but it has limitations for me. First, if I wanted to shoot a bracketed exposure, sometimes I found it difficult to hold the lens exactly on the focus point with the skew for a 3 or 5 shot bracket. I also had some difficulty focusing and bending the lens exactly the right way to throw the focus off a certain way. Using it on a tripod gave similar results. Forget trying to do a perfect long bracket for rendering an HDR scene… the original and version 2.0 Lensbabies were great for quick, on the move photography, but not for more studied compositions.
Jump forward to 2008. Apparently nobody mentioned to Craig Strong that he had created a great product and that he should rest on his laurels. He continued to improve the Lensbaby design, and introduced the new Lensbaby Composer. Instead of a bellows, it has a rotating ball-n-socket joint. Focus is achieved in a much more conventional fashion (to us old-school folks who were already used to focusing the lens themselves) with a rotating collar that moves the element assembly closer or farther from the sensor plane. But lo and behold, this wasn’t just an improvement on a single lens… the Lensbaby Composer had crossed over to… the system side. I remember one of the early literature pieces I saw from Nikon – it was titled the “Nikon System”. Need a right angle viewer that magnifies? Got it. How about a high-point action/sports finder? Ditto. Motor drive with 250-exposure cassette (yeah, film was somewhat precious, but what was really precious was time… like the time spent reloading your camera while the shot gets away). They can do that. Not to mention little things like the Noct Nikkor (look it up if you don’t know).
The Lensbaby and Lensbaby 2.0 had some attachments, but weren’t what I would call a system. The Lensbaby Optic Swap System is the heart of a new system of lenses that cover the spectrum of soft focus possibilities. Start with the sharpest, a double element glass lens. Second, a single glass element, followed by a single plastic element (if you have experience with a Diana or Holga, you’ll know this look). Apertures… we have apertures! Wide open the Composer is pretty soft with any of the lens optics. In the compact storage case/aperture tool housing (Lensbaby calls this the “Magnetic Aperture Set” and is included in with your first Lensbaby), you will find apertures from f/2.8 to f/22. If you are looking for f/4 in there, it is probably already in the lens. Finally, there is a fourth (and fifth?) element that thoughtfully combines a pinhole and zone plate in one housing. But wait… there’s more! All of these lens elements fit neatly into the newly redesigned Lensbaby Muse (replacing the Lensbaby original and 2.0 lenses), Control Freak (if precision soft focus, which seems something of an oxymoron, is your gig, this is the lens for you), and the Composer.
Ok, let’s do our math now. 5 lens types (double glass, single glass, plastic, zone plate and pinhole), 9 possible apertures including those in the creative aperture kit (without making your own), wide angle and telephoto converters, macro close-up kit… Without creating your own apertures from the blanks in the creative kit, there are well over one hundred different possible system configurations. Of course, you can also get there 3 different ways – the Muse, Composer or Control Freak. For those artsy readers that aren’t system oriented, don’t be alarmed… on the Lensbaby website you can preview the effects of many of the combinations… just browse to http://www.Lensbaby.com/optic-comparison.php and use your mouse to create the combinations. This handy preview tool will get you started toward the look you desire.