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Review: Lens Baby Control Freak

Serendipity” is the way to describe a recent interaction between myself and a colleague of mine. It produced several interesting photographic days for me.
You know:

ser·en·dip·i·ty [ser-uhn-dip-i-tee]
n. pl. ser·en·dip·i·ties
the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity | a series of small serendipities.

I had just written to Britt Stokes to comment upon the Lensbaby article that he had written and his response was to inform me that he had just dropped my name to the Marketing Manager of the Lensbaby company to suggest that I might enjoy reviewing one of their specialty lenses. He knew me too well; of course I would enjoy it.

One thing led to another and a few days later a well-packed box arrived with review copies of their Fisheye and Control Freak lenses for me to examine. Lensbaby lens can be had in Nikon or Canon mounts as well as Sony, Pentax and 4/3’s mount mounts, and Britt had already informed the company that I am a Nikon user and so it was a Nikon mount Control Freak that I unpacked.

Britt has already covered other versions of the Lensbaby lens so let’s take a look in the following picture of the Control Freak where I’ve attached it to a D300 Nikon. The most distinctive visual characteristic that first grabs your eye when you look at the Control Freak is the three-point threaded arrangement that allows you to tilt the lens plane angular to the normal lens plane that is usually parallel to the film plane (or in this case the image chip plane) of the camera. Tightening any one or two of these rods allows a precisely controlled tilt‚ which in turn shifts some items in or out of focus even when they should have been controlled by the depth of field of the lens. This is about to make controlling what is in focus very specialized.

This is primarily a close-up or Macro lens and as such will usually be on a tripod or some other type of camera support. This is not a hand-held lens. The lens when fully extended is focused about eighteen inches from the front of the lens itself. Using your fingers to reach forward to the Control Freak lens ring as you look through the camera allows you to pull the lens length backwards or push it forward either of which moves the focus point. It’s tricky the first time you try to decide where the lens is focused and I resorted to using a copy stand with a precise vertical movement to let me “play” with focusing the lens to get the feel of it. Once you’re close to the point you want, pushing a button on the lens ring allows it to snap to a locked position which relieves your fingers of trying to hold the thin depth of field‚Äîthin, I say, because at this stage the lens is an f2 close up lens and you are looking through it with the absolute minimum focal depth available. Once the lens is roughly focused, the lens ring can be rotated to find the “sweet spot” of focus as the lens moves fractionally in depth of field as the element rotates.

If you’ve reached the age of trifocal glasses as I have, I found the use of a focusing rail or the vertical adjustment of a copy stand of great value in getting both the focus area I wanted and the subject position that I wanted. But below is a view of the Control Freak attached, and I about to play with it.

Here’s a side view of the Control Freak where you can more easily see the bellows arrangement that allows the lens element to move both in and out relative to the camera body and to tilt at angles relative to the film plane. The bellows is extremely flexible and the threaded adjustment screws allow precise positioning of the lens element relative to the camera.

You are not limited to f2 because seven aperture disks (f2.8; f4; f5.6, f8; f11, f16, and f22) are supplied with the Control Freak. Each of these thin metal disks is appropriately marked with the aperture number it represents. The disks on arrival are stacked inside the body of a small magentic tool. The tool has a removable tip to allow the magnet full power, and since each disk is metal it is a simple matter of picking up the disk with the magnet and inserting it onto the front element of the Control Freak where three other small magnets hold it in place even if you are pointing the lens straight down. To remove the disk it is a simple matter of using the tool point to “tease” the aperture disk lost on one side, and pick it off with your fingers. The magnets in the Control Freak keep the disk from escaping as you remove it.

As you would expect, putting on the smaller apertures (f8, f11, f16, and f22) limits greatly the amount of light reaching the camera viewfinder as you are essentially using a “stop down” system just as though you had used the stop-down button or lever on your camera body. Focussing first at f2 and then placing on an aperture disk seemed to work best, and as I was playing with what I wanted in and out of focus I set up the camera to shoot tethered so as to immediately see the resuts of shifting the focus plane. Using magnification of the LED screen on the camera was suitable as well but always required me to shift those trifocals a bit and I found tethering to be less bother.

So, what did I photograph with the Control Freak? The short answer is “quite a few fun things, and several serious ones.” It happened that a small commerical job was available where I was photographing for insurance purposes several collections of guns, knives, and silver. For example, in order to extablish each knife’s authenticity it was necessary to photograph the “strike” where the logo or manufacturing mark is imprinted on the hand-made knife (first picture). Other photographs with deep depth of field and crisp focus would show the condition of both the front and alternate sides, as well as full-views of the knife and sheath, but the “strike” was intended to be emphasized in one picture. To do this I used the tilt on the Control Freak to throw the blade and handle out of focus (second picture)

Below you see the out of focus (OOF) of the knife blade, sheath and knife handle. Above you see the close-up in focus view of the maker’s mark.

Before the arrival of the Control Freak I had anticipated using an editing program and producing a blurred vignette to throw the edges of the subject matter out of focus for each picture of the “strike,” but using the Control Freak it was easy to get it in one shot without post-production work being necessary.

Exposure was simple; the instruction booklet suggested that I use manual exposure and suggested that Aperture exposure might also work. In the case of my Nikon D300 I found no difference between using manual exposure and Aperture exposure, and I ended up using Aperture exposure on all my shots.

Check out the complete line of Lensbaby lenses including the Control Freak at The Control Freak has a MSRP of $350.00 and is available from all major photographic retailers such as B&H, Adorama, etc.

By Dr. Michael N. Roach

Dr. Michael N. Roach is a retired Professor of Art from Stephen F. Austin State University. His 33 year teaching career spans the silver to digital age. His images have been shown throughout the American South, Russia, Ireland and France; some of them are in the permanent collection of the Combes Gallery at The American University of Paris in France. An avid Mac Computer advocate he teaches workshops on digital imaging and courses in Adobe Photoshop as well as digital printing for the Fine Arts.

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