“Serendipity” is the way to describe a recent interaction between myself and a colleague of mine. It produced several interesting photographic days for me.
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.
A long time ago, in a world that only used film, a lens was developed to see the whole sky. Cloud studies for meteorological use prompted the invention of the fisheye lens. It wasn’t long until the keen eye of the “art” photographer saw one and decided to use it to make images that could not otherwise be made. Fisheye images aren’t like rectilinear images, where straight lines mostly stay straight… fisheye lenses give you a convex rendering with curved straight lines, and encompass a huge area into a single image. Imagine if you will the end of a dog’s nose about six inches from the front of the lens… yep, you’ve seen photos with fisheye lenses before.
There are two basic types of fisheye lenses, circular and full-frame. The full-frame lens covers the full 35mm or FX sensor size frame with image – no cut-off corners. The circular fisheye is designed to project a circular image slightly smaller than the height of a 35mm or FX sensor, with vignetted corners. The second type is now available for your Lensbaby Composer (or any of the other Lensbaby models that accept the optic swap system with a special adapter).
Another improvement over my Lensbaby 2.0 is the lens cap – the 2.0 shipped with a nice, heavy solid metal lens cap that screwed in place… unfortunately, it was kind of slippery and difficult to get off sometimes. The Composer ships with a new squeeze-type lens cap (the style that lets your fingers get inside a lens hood, hmm, what a handy accessory that would be?). Easy on and easy off, but not so easy that you can lose it. In fact, the lens cap is flush with the front of the lens only when focused at the closest possible distance, so the style of the lens cap has something to do with getting the cap on and off when the lens is focused at a further distance and the front element is recessed into the front of the lens housing. The size is compact, about the same physical length as my Nikkor 50mm lens.
The Composer I received fit nicely on my Nikon, but you can also order Canon EF, Sony Alpha / Minolta Maxxum, Pentax K or Olympus 4/3. That covers most of the current digital SLR’s… of course, you could mount the Nikon version on your trusty Nikon F from 1965, and mount the Canon version on any autofocus Canon body ever made, including those that shoot (shudder), film. Pentax K mount may have had more bodies and lenses manufactured for it than all others combined. On my Nikon D3, I found that the website is essentially correct in that you need to shoot in manual mode and check your exposure via the histogram. I found it easy to get my exposure set for a scene, and then I set the bracketing to 3 shots (first exposure normal, 2nd exposure one stop underexposed, and the 3rd exposure is one stop overexposed). Most of the time, the normal or one stop underexposed produced the best images.
The first weekend I had the Composer, I visited my mother and grandmother. I got my mom interested in photography in the early 1980’s, and she has shot Nikon film bodies for 25 years now. At my gentle prodding, this year she upgraded to a Nikon D200, which she is never without. I showed her the Composer, and let her put it on her body… I almost didn’t get it back. I had to promise to order her one that very night to get it off her camera.
My shooting was sporadic over the time I had the Composer, but I did get to try it on a variety of subjects. Things, landscapes, people. I shot over 1,000 images with the lens… in other words, I barely scratched the creative surface. Having used many of the possible configurations, I have a starting suggestion for you: start with the Composer. It is not a huge investment by the standards of lenses made by camera manufacturers. Please check the Lensbaby website for current pricing at http://www.Lensbaby.com/shop/ — there are some special pricing options there if you buy the Composer and Optic Kit and/or Accessory Kit at the same time. All told, you can get the entire system for the Composer and all the optics and accessories for well under $500.
A new feature I noticed as this article goes to press is the photo gallery on the Lensbaby website. There are many images to view with captions to tell you which lens optic made the image http://www.lensbaby.com/gallery-photo.php . Every time you refresh the page, new images come up.
But Britt, surely there has to be something not perfect with the Lensbaby? Are you selling out? Well, no, I am not selling out. There are a couple of picky little things. When Craig Strong first developed the Lensbaby, my understanding is that he did it to fill a niche for his digital SLR. When he was first doing this, there weren’t too many full-frame digital SLR’s in the world. Certainly, I didn’t have one. So my original Lensbaby 2.0 looked and felt like a 75mm lens on my Nikon D2X (still half the focal length of the Sima, which translated to a 150mm). Now I have the D3… with the Composer (I have not tested the Muse or Control Freak), it is possible to skew the image to the point of cutting off or vignetting the image circle. Once I saw this and realized what was happening, it was no big deal. There is plenty of movement available without vignetting. I didn’t see vignetting with the D200 or D2X, which are both 2/3 frame sensors. Second, I wish the directions for removing and replacing lens elements were a little more detailed. Maybe I’m just not too bright. Are either of my minor gripes deal breakers? Not even close. One accessory I would like to see is a lens hood made to screw into the lens threads, although it would be funny shaped or maybe not possible because of the way the lens optic group moves into the body as you focus to infinity.
So, the bottom-line? Get one. I didn’t test the Muse, but it is essentially the Lensbaby 2.0 upgraded to use the interchangeable optics. In my opinion the Muse is best for fast, on-the-go photography. Or, step up to the Composer (my recommendation). To me this is the most versatile lens in the series. If you shoot little toy soldiers in dioramas or architectural elements and want the ultimate in precision control, go for the Control Freak. Get more detail on all of these lenses and accessories at http://www.Lensbaby.com/ . Any prices noted are current as of the time this article goes to the webmistress, but check the website for current pricing and availability… the Composer is currently in stock and shipping in about 3 weeks. The one that I ordered for my mom arrived in about four weeks, which was early by two weeks of the estimated shipping time on the website at the time it was ordered.
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.