FROM TOY TO TOOL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A LONG STANDING BIT ON THE DAVID LETTERMAN SHOW, rather than claiming to be entertaining, actually poses the question of what entertainment actually is. Entitled “Is This Anything?”, the feature consists of about thirty seconds of acts or feats that might be amazing (like juggling), might be banal (like, um, juggling) or might qualify as merely strange. After the curtain is drawn, Dave and Paul briefly discuss the merits of what ever strangeness just transpired, and ask each other if “that was anything”. Sometimes there is no clear-cut decision. The show has disclaimed responsibility, and entertainment remains in the eye of the beholder.
That’s how you can feel the first time you use a Lensbaby.
Released several years ago to inventor Craig Strong’s great monetary benefit, the Lensbaby comes in a variety of
levels but is essentially an affordable tilt-shift attachment, a way to soften focus over selective areas of the frame while rotating the “sweet spot” of sharper focus wherever the shooter feels it should go. Now, essentially, selective focus is really part of every photo ever taken, since a choice of depth-of-field is made every time the shutter snaps. Lensbaby, however, offers the chance to pre-design the precise level of left-right, high-low focus, in the camera, and before the shot is taken. No post-processing is needed, and each use of the effect is completely under the shooter’s control, and at a fraction of what dedicated DSLR lenses cost.The Lensbaby effect is understandably an attractive gimcrack for the instinctive subculture of lo-fi photography, they of the hipster nonchalance and light-leaking, fixed-focus plastic cameras. Hey, it looks freaky, random, edgy. But, like everything else in your kit bag, it’s either toy or tool. The verdict as to which it is comes out one picture at a time.
So far I am whelmed….not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed. For one thing, Lensbabies are a lot of extra work. The entry-level model, the Spark, is actually a lens within a springy plastic bellows. You have to hold your camera body, delegate fingers from both hands to rotate the axis of the front of the lens, squeeze the bellows to bring part of the frame into focus (the Spark’s “sweet spot” is fixed at f/5.6), allocate another finger for the shutter, and click. At least you can’t carp about not having enough creative control. There’s more than enough of that, especially at first, to O.D. on. Your chosen area of focus can be held in place more easily with upgrade models (which also include additional optics and add-ons), but the Lensbaby is truly best for shoots where you have a lot of time to think, plan, and create….the very opposite of the “shoot from the hip” attitude embraced by the lomography crowd. You will take a lot of pictures that miss by inches, or fractions of inches.
What will move me from whelmed to overwhelmed will be finding those images where the Lensbaby effect actually aids my storytelling, yet does not define it, as in the lucky shot at the top of this post. The camera gadgets I eventually consign to the “toy” pile go there because they call too much attention to what they can do, not to what I can do using them. The”tools” pile contains the gear that is essential to my saying something in a distinctly different voice. Finally, the two piles are divvied up only after taking lots of pictures and asking a ton of questions (a few gimmicks, like fisheye, have spent time in both piles; hey, I’m not above just playing around).
I sympathize with Letterman’s dilemma when he ironically asks, “Is this anything?” Selective focus is a way to install big neon pointers into your pictures, a more emphatic command to look over here. It’s also a way to amplify the drama of certain data or simplify cluttered compositions. I get it.
But it needs to be about much more than that. Or, more correctly, I have to help it.
- My Lensbaby SCOUT, baby! (greyiscolour.wordpress.com)